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Exactly 25 years after the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) of North African states was formed in Marrakesh, business leaders gathered here Monday lamented its failure to integrate the region.
The five countries that make up the UMA -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania -- have a total population of 90 million and had an estimated GDP of 430 billion dollars in 2012, according to Morocco's central bank chief Abdellatif Jouahri.
But their political divisions, especially the hostile relations between Morocco and Algeria -- whose borders have been closed since 1994 following an attack in Marrakesh which Morocco blamed on Algerian intelligence -- have hampered stronger economic ties.
Analysts say there is little prospect of closer economic or political cooperation among the UMA's members so long as North Africa's arch rivals remain divided -- and that their differences are centred on the frozen Western Sahara conflict.
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, speaking via satellite link, told the business forum that economic integration of the five countries could boost the region's GDP by 2 to 3 percent annually.
Obstacles to such integration, Lagarde said, include complex bureaucratic procedures, punitively high customs tariffs, limited openness to foreign investment, tax reform and the lack of infrastructure.
Jouahri said the region's average growth rate of 4.8 percent was not high enough to reduce the problem of youth unemployment, a driving factor behind the revolution in Tunisia three years ago that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.
The Marrakesh gathering -- of more than 500 North African entrepreneurs -- is only the third time the business forum has met since it was established in 2007.
Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, the president of the Moroccan Business Confederation, which hosted Monday's gathering, deplored "the inertia of the Maghreb," while highlighting a private sector initiative to be adopted this week aimed at boosting regional trade and investment.
Commerce between the UMA countries amounts to just three percent of their total trade, according to the union's current secretary general Habib Ben Yahia.
He said this made the region's internal trade "the weakest in the world," comparing it to more than 60 percent within the European Union, 56 percent in Latin America and 19 percent among Sahel-Saharan countries.
Morocco's state-run Le Matin newspaper on Monday published a picture of the UMA's founding members -- including Morocco's late king Hassan II, now slain Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Tunisia's Ben Ali and Algerian ex-president Chadli Bendjedid -- smiling as they raise their hands together in Marrakesh after their diplomatic triumph 25 years ago.
Above the picture ran the headline: "Maghreb Union struggles to emerge from its lethargy."
"It is the lack of political will that hinders Maghreb integration," Mustapha Filali, the union's first secretary general, was quoted as saying in the Tunisian press on Monday, adding that the countries' leaders hadn't met since 1994.