GAZA: THE DUBAI OF THE MED ?

To most people around the world, the word ‘Gaza’ conjures up images of rockets and bombs, wars, poverty and invasion, never mind the appalling conditions in which many of its residents live as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade. but, as one international commentator suggested recently, it’s not, actually, too fanciful to see it in the future as the Mediterranean’s “Dubai.” while of course that assumes that peace prevails and that the Israeli siege ends, it also recalls Gaza’s historic role as a prosperous gateway between Africa and Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

In the 19th Century, Gaza’s renowned soap factories, like those in Nablus, produced luxury goods that were exported around the world. It’s premium cotton crop, fruits, vegetables and spices were in great demand. Gaza’s merchants catered to a vast array of travellers – European visitors to the Holy Land, caravans from Egypt and North Africa, pilgrims from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Its bazaars were regarded as even better than those in Jerusalem.

Today, some eight months after the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, which caused damage estimated at around $1.2bn, its construction and tourism sectors are thriving again, even though its agricultural, fishing and industrial sectors are still recovering. most importantly, talks are underway with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and with Israel to begin exploiting the rich reserves of natural gas and possibly oil as well lying just off its shores in the Mediterranean.

Valued at some $7bn, they could help to end Gaza’s critical shortage of fuel and electricity as well providing substantial revenues to build new roads, schools, hospitals, ports and even an airport, as well as vitally needed new water and wastewater facilities. gas exports, either through Egypt or Turkey, could boost the government’s coffers for years to come, helping to reduce Gaza’s huge dependence on international humanitarian aid.

Last October, before the november crisis, the Washington-based International monetary fund estimated that Gaza’s gdp would rise by 7% this year and 6.5% in 2014, figures that any European country would envy. This followed remarkable growth in the first three quarters of 2012, largely due to a huge boom in construction as the underground tunnel trade allowed much needed supplies to be brought in despite the Israeli blockade. The services sector, including tourism, also improved substantially, contributing to an overall rise in gdp to 9%, according to world bank figures, compared to the period from January to October, 2011.

Although Egypt’s recent crackdown on the tunnel trade and its restrictions and security measures in the Sinai Peninsula are likely to pose obstacles to growth for the rest of this year, the international aid that has now been unblocked by the UN refugee relief agency, UNRWA, and the European Union is expected to counter some of the setbacks. Even more importantly, the rising scale of aid and development funds, from both government and private sources in the gulf states – including Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – is already contributing to a new era of hope and confidence in Gaza. Qatar’s building projects, covering everything from schools, roads and hospitals to new housing and infrastructure projects alone are expected to create some 10,000 jobs in the next year or two.

Surprisingly, the growing international awareness and support for Gaza’s people has also led to a boom in tourism in the enclaves’ new hotels, restaurants and shopping malls. International solidarity activists, NGO staff and aid officials are helping boost capacity and business to levels not seen since the war of late 2008. meanwhile, the desire of Gaza’s newly rich
elite to live in up-to-date, spacious accommodation, combined with the eagerness of its private investors to seek out alternatives to the tunnel trade, has helped to fuel a boom in real estate, although this has sometimes been at the cost of rising rents for the majority of the population.

Meanwhile, a host of recent studies, from the World Bank, Israeli activists and the Gaza-based PalThink research centre have pointed out that more concrete measures will also be needed to be introduced by the government if such potential is to be realised, even if the Israeli siege is lifted, or substantially eased. In particular, they cite the need for more institutional support for the private sector, an overhaul of the tax regime, and measures to boost agricultural and industrial productivity and export performance. Special attention, they add, should be given to those sectors, such as manufacturing, construction and tourism, which would provide the most jobs. vocational training projects, as well as a re-vamp of the entire educational system, plus incentives for the ICT and telecoms sector, they say, are urgently needed to help gaza realise its opportunities in a globalised marketplace.

While the bank of Palestine and other financial institutions have continued to provide, often under the most difficult circumstances, access to cash and funds in Gaza, Hamas will also need to ensure that any lifting of the Israeli restrictions, both for business people and cargoes, is accompanied by closer co-ordination of trade and regulations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Gaza’s dependence on the use of the Israeli shekel as its main currency, together with its heavy reliance on money-lenders rather than on banks which can gather deposits and direct them to profitable development projects, could hold up progress in the future as more aid and investment pours in, the reports note.

Arab and Islamic tourism to Gaza, as well as to Jerusalem and the West Bank, could also be greatly increased by agreements with Egypt on developing the Sinai Peninsula and the border areas with Gaza, Oman Shaban, the founder and director of PalThink argues. “Tourism in the Sinai Peninsula represents a golden opportunity for tens of thousands of Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem due to visitor appeal and modest costs,” he said in April.

But for that to happen, international experts maintain, closer, and more effective, co-operation on security measures in the Sinai between Israel and Egypt are needed, along with an Egyptian easing on the checkpoints and crossings at Rafah. And that, many in Gaza and the West Bank are hoping, will be one of the major items on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s talks with Israeli officials in the coming weeks.

Pamela Ann Smith

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