The pledged investments included $350 million for the Rawabi housing development; a $200 million partnership between a Saudi company and the Palestine Investment Fund to build commercial space near Ramallah; and a $480,000 grant from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to promote the expansion of wireless Internet connectivity. Each opportunity served to underscore the theme of the Bethlehem conference: “You can do business in Palestine.”
In the months following the Bethlehem event, all parties continued to move forward on the path of private sector–led growth. A series of follow-up conferences took place in London, Nablus, and Washington, D.C. — all of which further defined and articulated possible economic achievements in the West Bank.
The funded projects moved forward as well. For example, the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company secured the equity finance for the Rawabi project in full, and in January 2009, the master plan was approved by the Palestinian Authority. Rawabi will not only be the first fully planned community in Palestine, but it will also fill an urgent need for affordable residential housing — allowing young couples to move out of their family homes and establish residences of their own.
Since presenting the concept of a call center in East Jerusalem, Sinokrot Global Group has attracted several U.S. investors and partners. A pilot project with the Bank of Palestine PLC was scheduled to begin in December 2008. The call center will create up to 500 jobs, expanding the number of professional opportunities available to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Another organization featured at Bethlehem, the Ramallah Friends School, has begun making plans to develop commercial real estate property on the school’s campus; this will help secure the school’s financial future and subsidize education for some of the community’s poorest members.
We have come to see this conference as a model for the kinds of measures that are needed to overcome political impasses. At the conference, all the possible stakeholders were explicitly invited into a common storyline. There was too much at stake for them to walk away. Had it been a purely political session, such as peace talks, or a purely business context, such as a deal, it would have been easier to let the opportunities evaporate. But at this conference, as Fayyad said during his opening remarks, “This is different; this is the start of a new way.” The enthusiasm of jaded investors, the hope in the eyes of the Palestinian university students who served as event volunteers, and the bustling of Palestinian entrepreneurs who rushed from one session to another were tangible.
One does not want to come across as unrealistic. This part of the world has little patience for idealistic hopes. The conference may turn out to have been one of many small steps from which the participants ultimately will turn back. But someday, one of those small steps — you never know which in advance — will turn out to be a giant leap.
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- Donald L. Pressley is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. He leads the global development team and is responsible for all international development activities. Previously he was an assistant administrator at the United States Agency for International Development and a career senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, serving in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
- Cheryl S. Steele is an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. She supports the firm’s work in the Middle East and is a leader of its business development efforts for the U.S. Department of State. Formerly a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, she served in the Middle East and domestically in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
- Also contributing to this article were David Cowles and Rosemary Bchara of Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as consulting editor Lawrence Frascella.