For many ordinary investors, the dream of cashing in on the market revolution sweeping the globe turned sour following last year’s collapse of the Mexican peso. But if you have some capital to spare and are in search of the elusive next big boom, take a chance on Foreign and Colonial Emerging Middle East Fund. It trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol EME. The fund has 60 percent of its total assets working hard in Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Oman. But its savvy, high-rolling managers are gambling the largest sums in Morocco.
Other heads of state may pay lip service to the idea of privatization, which is key to earning those really huge windfalls, but when King Hassan talks people listen. Money started pouring into Rabat in 1993 as the fire sale of public assets began. Even more of the capital flowed to Morocco’s sprawling private holding group, Omnium Nord Africain, the biggest business in the Maghrib and, with the possible exception of South Africa’s mining conglomerates, in all of Africa.
It’s not size alone that impresses Western investors. After all, how much risk is there in an investment when its largest shareholder is the family that rules the country? Fouad Filali, who runs the private empire, is son of the prime minister and son-in-law of the king. The list of his board of directors is a who’s who of Moroccan bankers, ex-ministers and royal “advisers.” Founded in 1919, ONA now controls 89 firms in Morocco’s mining, finance, agroindustry and technology sectors. It owns the country’s biggest supermarkets, operates pay television stations, commercial trawlers and tourist hotels, builds cars and sells insurance, real estate, ice cream, computers and sardines.
Customarily, the fact that it is in effect the royal holding company has made ONA sensitive to publicity — most recently in Paris, where the Moroccan government wanted a recent expose banned, but Filali is reportedly now supporting a new, less autocratic approach to public relations.
The French business press has long been interested in ONA because it operates as the partner in numerous joint ventures with French capital, and has its own capital working hard in France and elsewhere under the name ONA International. For instance, in 1993 the Moroccans took over the French-based multinational Optorg, itself a holding company for a sprawling group of enterprises that trades cars, trucks, radios and other household goods in markets from Senegal to Gabon, and exports fresh foods, fruits and vegetables to Europe. The next time you buy a tin of anchovies for your Caesar salad or pasta putanesca, look for the La Mongegasque label: ONA ships 60 percent of all US anchovy imports!
The signing of the April 1994 GATT accord (the Uruguay round) in Marrakesh was an expensive coming-out party for Morocco’s global marketeers. Spanish firms have been buying into local banks and engineering ventures, and American investors, led by Solomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, have been raising capital for ONA and other groups. Meanwhile, Hassan’s holding company charts new frontiers. In the heady days following the Oslo accords, when Jawad al-Ghusayn, head of the Palestine National Fund and a PLO executive committee member, predicted that “Palestine will be a new Singapore in the region,” he had the prospectus on his desk for his own new “Salam 2000” project with Israel’s Koor Industries, Spain’s Banco Espanol de Credito and ONA Royal.
International investors have shown less enthusiasm for other Middle East markets, but Beirut’s hopes are reportedly high in the wake of a summer-long pop music fest. Lebanon’s jil X-ers have been dancing to the likes of Pato Banton, Alphaville, porn star-turned-diva Samantha Fox, Marc Almond (“Tainted Love”) and gay-and-proud Jimmy Somerville. “Peace” has been a recurring theme on stage, while backstage the concert promoters are earnest about doing their part in healing the wounds of the civil war. As Sheikh Osama Zahran, chairman of Beirut’s Multimedia Distribution Company, mused, “There’s nothing like music to help people forget the bloodshed and feuds of recent years.” This theme reached a climax of sorts late in August, when Greece’s biggest export to the Middle East, Demis Roussos, returned to Beirut for three sold-out nights. His last trip to the country had been by way of a plane-jacking in 1985. Local heavy metal fans are fueling rumors of a future concert by Europe’s Iron Maiden, but American acts are still prevented from rockin’ in certain parts of the free world by the 1990 travel ban. When the ban is lifted, it would be nice to see 1960s star Dick Dale, a kind of sheikh of rock’s heavy metal tribe who is touring again in the wake of the success of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, hit the beaches of Beirut. Long known as King of the Surf Guitar, Dale (aka Richard Mansour) was born in Lebanon but migrated to California where his band the Del Tones regularly blew out their amplifiers on hits like “Surf Beat,” “Surfin’ Drums” and “Let’s Go Trippin’.”