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Free Trade Like Manna From Heaven for Middle East Entrepreneurs

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A colleague staggered into the office a couple of days ago weighed down by a rather large, ornately designed cardboard box.

Inside it were dozens of brightly wrapped candies, each the size of a bantam's egg. They were, she told us, a delicacy from her native Iraq, recently delivered by her mother who had just returned from a brief trip to Baghdad.

The gold-and-purple wrappers peeled away -- eventually, as the heat of the journey had taken its toll -- to reveal a beige mass of toffee studded with pistachios. They were scented with rose water and a hint of saffron.

Al man wa salwa is a heavenly treat for many Iraqis, especially those, it seems, who are far from home. The term translates into English as "manna from heaven" and is borrowed from a sura in the Quran.

With such credentials, and such a following, it is a wonder that the delicacy is not an international marketing success story, with al man wa salwa sold at every street-corner candy store the world over.

Perhaps it could be. Why would an Iraqi manufacturer not use such a household name as the foundation to create the region's own Hershey's or Cadbury? The truth is politics, geography, conflict and red tape conspire to make life tough for entrepreneurs all across this region. But it could be so different.

As expatriates in the UAE, we are surrounded every day by friends and colleagues from every country in the Middle East and North Africa. Each one of them holds a product from their homeland so dear they would go to the ends of the Earth and pay handsomely for a ready supply.

The examples are endless and each one underscores a vast untapped potential for regional and international trade.

A friend from Yemen loves his Yemeni honey -- Sidr honey, to be precise. It is harvested just twice a year in the Hadramaut mountains. A single kilogram of the rare nectar costs Dh3,500 ($952) or more today as supplies are restricted by continuing unrest, making it more expensive than caviar.

Palestinian olive oil is recognized by gourmands the world over as the finest available. (Don't tell the Italians, though.) The fair-trade community has made substantial progress over the past year branding and selling Palestinian olive oil on international markets.

Members of the Canaan collective, for example, were last year paid twice the going rate for their olives and secured contracts with J Sainsbury supermarkets in the United Kingdom and Whole Foods in the United States.

Canaan, the company that markets the oil, says it works with more than 1,500 farmers from 43 villages across the Palestinian Authority, accounting for more than half of all West Bank olive oil exports. Sales are expected to hit $5 million this year, with a profit of at least $600,000 to be shared among the farmers.

Canaan was started by Nasser Abufarh, a young entrepreneur with a relatively small $100,000 of seed capital. Mr. Abufarha's international success is notable, sadly, as it is an exception, despite a recent surge in bilateral free-trade agreements between countries of this region and counterparts all over the world.

The path to such free-trade agreements has long been hindered by familiar obstacles. A lack of transparency, corruption, political instability and unreliable supply chain management are the most common problems cited by organisations such as the U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Coalition.

Not all countries are equal in this regard, however. The UAE has used the free-zone model to encourage international trade, and to facilitate trade from other countries in the region.

Within zones such as Jebel Ali in Dubai and the nascent Kizad free-zone in Abu Dhabi, entrepreneurs from all over the world, large or small, can find a haven for trade.

Campaigns are under way in the U.S., Latin America, Asia and Europe to strike fresh trade agreements with new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and hopefully one day with Syria, Yemen and others.

The free-zone model should be given equal consideration by the new governments as they forge important new ties.

If they succeed, perhaps one day we will all enjoy Iraqi manna from heaven, wherever on Earth we happen to be.

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