Bashar Masri is chairman of the board of Massar International, a private development company with offices across the Middle East and Asia. Bashar is also the creator of the first planned Palestinian city, Rawabi. He spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.
TML: When you drive through Ramallah you see lots of construction going on, and business seems to be booming. Are foreign businesses investing in Palestinian areas?
Bashar Masri: Not on a large scale, only on a very limited and focused scale. Ramallah is the exception, of course. However, if you go outside Ramallah you will hardly find any investment. The investment you do find inside Ramallah is also quite focused on small real estate development. So looks are a bit deceiving.
TML: What kind of international trade currently exists and what is coming in?
BM: We do have quite a lot of interest; a lot is relative, of course, in the stock market. We do have quite a good number of international companies and funds, especially regional, that are investing in the Palestinian stock market. And that has occurred over the last eight, nine months basically. This is probably a short-term investment – easy to invest, easy to liquidate, and it does not require that you physically come into the country and establish operations. You can easily trade stocks over the phone or online. So this is the easy way. But it does show the interest of investing in Palestine if the situation improves a little bit more. Of course, we are also seeing some selective investment in some areas; again, real estate is one, a bit in industry but a lot more in services. These are investments that don’t require huge capital and there are also no borders, and moving considerations do not affect them as much as other investments, of course.
TML: Bashar, what countries are coming to invest?
BM: Actually, it’s not countries, it’s individuals. And it’s mostly Palestinians who are living abroad and in the Gulf in particular, in Jordan and some from North America. And also a little from the Bethelem area in Latin America. We are seeing more and more interest from non-Palestinian, mainly Arab, investors. One of these is the recently announced investment by the Qataris. Some investments in Palestinian companies were announced by other Arabs as well.
TML: On one hand, you have a political system somewhere in between stagnant and stillborn, while at the same time you have an economy showing signs of life even if the politicians are showing otherwise. Can the economic growth salvage the political impasse, or will the political impasse suffocate the economic progress that’s being made?
BM: The economy cannot create the peace process, but the economy will definitely help support a process. If you have an ongoing process and you have a better economy, the chance of reaching a conclusion and the chance of compromise is a little bit better, or [even] a lot better. Perhaps I should look at it from the negative point of view. If the economy is miserable, the chance that people will agree to a settlement is a bit more difficult because people have basically nothing to lose. If I have nothing to lose, then why should I compromise? The slight improvement in the economy is interesting, despite no movement in the peace process. But it has a reason – and a good reason. It is the confidence in the new political system in the Palestinian Authority, and in the individuals at the top of the Palestinian Authority. It is certainly a vote of confidence for the president, and certainly for the prime minister, who are seen as very private and friendly.
TML: Unfortunately, in politics you can have the president and prime minister there one day and gone the next. What’s going to be in six months?
BM: That’s a very good question. I would hate to have to answer that. I don’t know and you are correct, and this is why it definitely makes it a high-risk area.
TML: Sources in Ramallah have been telling us that vast amounts of trade money have been pouring into Palestinian areas. At what point do you feel that the Palestinians will be able to wean themselves off donor mentality?
BM: First of all, I really don’t believe that a vast amount of money is coming in. It’s limited. You are probably talking to Palestinians who are comparing it to a year ago, or two years ago and certainly [compared to then] it’s a vast amount of money. But if you compare it to the norm and to what it was seven or eight years ago, before the intifada, hardly any money is pouring in. The donor money is still desperately needed to make up for the gaps that exist right now and I do not believe the donor money is coming in fast enough to create a change. In any economy – [and especially] in an economy that’s in trouble – you need something big to change it and to force it to turn around. That is unfortunately not happening in the Palestinian economy, though we were quite optimistic that after the Paris donor meeting things would change. I do not believe that they have changed to a point that we can say is significant. And I worry that the slow trickling in of the money will make it lose its effect.
TML: We hear so often about separation between Palestinians and Israelis, but others point out both that cooperation is already going on, and the need for symbiosis for both states to succeed. Where do you stand on this argument?
BM: Well, I am personally against the separation, the physical, the mental; it’s just very difficult. From an economic point of view, it’s just impossible and that’s really highlighted by the separation wall. I believe it is a disaster for the Palestinian economy. And we have not yet seen the worst of it. When the wall is completed, we will see a much worse situation. I hope it is not there to stay and I hope like-minded people on the Israeli side will realize it’s not good for Israel either, because you cannot just built a wall and hide behind that wall and not see the other side. Also, the Gaza situation showed us that no wall is too big for separation when it comes to military operations – when people want to get through, to do something, they will get through. They build a tunnel, they go above [the obstacle], and so on. So I don’t think the separation is good. The Palestinian economy is small as it is, so to separate the West Bank and Gaza is further fragmenting it. We’re totally dependent on the Israeli economy – the ports, the airports – so it is unfair to carry out the separation. Unfortunately, it is gradually happening.
TML: Looking at the symbiosis – the water, the electricity – Israel and the P.A. are joined at the hip in many ways. So, how do you feel that anything can play out without having full cooperation?
BM: I believe it is impossible, and I think, logically speaking, that this is a temporary situation that certain politicians have put in place – a place for radicalism – and it certainly has served the radicals. I also hear from the Israeli side voices that say, “Since we built the separation wall, the level of terrorism has dropped drastically.” And I argue that maybe that is true in numbers, but the reality is the level of terrorism has dropped because there is no peace process. If there were a peace process, the radicals would try to spoil it, as has always been the case. But wall or no wall, right now the radicals on both sides have got their way – unfortunately.
TML: Bashar Masri, a mover and a shaker, you were named a global leader at the World Economic Forum. What does leadership mean to you today?
BM: Leadership means the ability to make changes. It is not a matter of being famous, or well-to-do; it is the ability to change the current situation, whether it is physical change or change which is more difficult, the mind of the people – for the better, obviously. That’s a leader. You can also be a leader on the negative side. I hope that if I am [considered to be] a leader that I am described as a leader for the positive, not the negative.
TML: Bashar Masri is the chairman of the board of Massar International, a private development company with holdings across the Middle East and Asia.