Bilateral energy infusion

من معرفة المصادر

Al-Ahram Weekly, 2002-04-24

Bilateral energy infusion

High-level consultations between Egyptian and Cypriot officials have begun to push bilateral relations to new heights. Eman Youssef reports

Nicos Rolandis

Relations between Egypt and Cyprus have long been mundane. The two neighbouring nations have had little to boast about when it comes to bilateral spark. Instead, they seemed to have settled for a dry, if steady, communications flow. In recent weeks, however, a new agenda has begun to emerge. Economic officials and businessmen from the two nations have committed to a series of meetings and seminars to be held in Cairo -- aimed at promoting bilateral trade and investment.

While the agenda-planning Egyptian-Cypriot supreme committee meeting may have been the fourth of its kind, the push for closer relations was new. The renewed vigour of bilateral contacts was apparent in the meeting's extra agreement signings, said Michalis Michael, press counsellor at the Cypriot Embassy in Cairo.

The proceedings included a protocol for cooperation in tourism, energy and trade, signed by Egyptian Minister of Foreign Trade Youssef Boutros-Ghali, and Cypriot Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Nicos Rolandis.

While the signing itself, officials say, is indicative of the changing face of relations between the two countries, the participation of Cypriot business representatives -- from 15 companies in the fields of cosmetics, chemicals, leather goods and spare parts -- in the recent Cairo International Trade Fair was the first sign of change. The committee meeting, Pandelis Charalambous, commercial counsellor at the Cypriot embassy, told the Weekly simply reinforced the trend. "The committee has brought together senior officials and business people in various fields such as construction, fish, food, international services and customs," Phaedon Anastasiou, ambassador of Cyprus in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Rolandis toured the trade fair with a group of business people from the Cypriot Chamber of Commerce and representatives from the Cypriot Federation of Industries. The executives were in Egypt to meet their Egyptian counterparts as part of efforts to boost bilateral trade. The Cypriot delegation also met Prime Minister Atef Ebeid and Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

The projected underwater gas pipeline between Egypt, Syria and Cyprus was also discussed. The pipeline, aimed at bringing natural gas to Syria and Cyprus from Egypt, has long been under negotiation. Sameh Fahmi, minister of petroleum, met Syrian Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister Ibrahim Hadad, and Rolandis, to discuss the issue.

"By 2006, supplying Cyprus with natural gas must begin," said Rolandis. "Most of the past problems regarding the transport of natural gas to Cyprus have been overcome," he added. During the meetings it was agreed that the five interested parties -- Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus -- would meet in Amman in mid- April to discuss the matter further.

Trade and investment between the two countries have never seemed brighter. In 2000, bilateral trade totalled $100 million. Today, it stands at $125 million. In the same year, Egyptian exports to Cyprus -- comprising primarily fish, rice, furniture, tobacco, cotton, wood, textiles and chemicals -- were valued at $85 million. Cypriot exports to Egypt during the same period amounted to $15 million -- predominantly in the areas of cement, plastics, iron and steel work, leather goods, spare parts for machinery and dried fruits.

These activities reflect just a fraction of what has recently blossomed between the two countries. Alongside government-initiated endeavours, the year-old Egyptian-Cypriot Businessmen's Council has been active in promoting commercial relations. One of the fruits of the council's activities will be a $20 million construction project in Borg Al- Arab city.

"Trade between the two countries is growing at a brisk pace," said Anastasiou, adding that numerous cooperation agreements have been signed between the Business Councils, the Chambers of Commerce, and the Capital Market Authorities (CMA), in both countries. The agreements include 16 Cypriot investment projects worth LE110 million for chemicals, engineering tools, hotels and tourist villages in Red Sea resorts and Sharm El-Sheikh.

This seeming sudden change is not rooted in bilateral-trade moves alone, but one which has also come in tandem with reform of the Cypriot economy and a rise in its global status.

"Cyprus's membership of the EU offers promises and opportunities for dynamic entrepreneurs," Rolandis said, adding that the restructuring of the economy and liberalisation undertaken in the process of harmonisation offer new dimensions to both the local, expatriate, and international business community. And despite global economic turbulence, Rolandis said, growth has remained steady: average annual economic growth stands at 4.5 per cent.

"This is evidence of the strong foundations and the adaptability of the Cyprus economy," Rolandis said. Growth has been coupled with an unemployment rate of just three per cent, and inflation in 2001 of only two per cent.

"This satisfactory growth performance has been accompanied by conditions of macro-economic stability," Rolandis said. He commented on the nation's diversifying financial and business realm, with services growing in 2001 to account for 76 per cent of GDP, against a 20 per cent contribution from secondary sectors, and four per cent from the primary sectors.

With a fiscal deficit contained at below three per cent of GDP in 2001, a high level of international reserves, covering 26 months of imports, and a low debt service ratio to GDP of 8.7 per cent, Rolandis argues that Cyprus is the ideal locale for international investment and bilateral trade.

"Our vision is to enhance the role of Cyprus as a high quality service centre, directed primarily at the needs of markets in the neighbouring countries in the Middle East," Rolandis said.

The prospects look promising, and the bilateral push encouraging. But the question is whether the two neighbouring nations can continue to pick their way through the global economic chaos -- and stay standing upright.

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