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Kuwait Envoy Tells of Business Opportunities : Mideast: Hundreds flock to Newport Beach to hear the ambassador outline plans for rebuilding his country.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Mercy Garside sold some door locks to companies in Kuwait. It was not a big sale, but it was enough for Garside, international sales manager for Kwikset Corp. in Anaheim, to consider herself something of a Middle East insider.

The last time Matt Whalen, owner of a cattle slaughterhouse in Ontario, sold anything to Kuwait was in 1983. The owner of California Cattle & Provisions Co. sells special “blessed beef,” which is beef prepared under Islamic guidelines. He hopes Kuwait will bless him with an order for more beef soon.

Garside and Whalen were among hundreds of hopeful and curious business people who gathered Friday in Newport Beach to listen to Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States talk about reconstruction efforts in his country.

The crowd was large and diverse. In fact, the conference--arranged by Rep. Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) and the World Trade Center Assn. of Orange County--proved so popular that the site was changed four times as more and more companies signed up.

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Ambassador Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah said his government intends to award projects to about 10 to 20 large companies that have done major work in Kuwait before. And he said American businesses will get the vast majority of the billions of dollars in contracts to rebuild his country.

He advised small companies to try to link up as subcontractors with major firms with Middle East experience, such as Bechtel Corp. and Irvine-based Fluor Corp.

“We’re not working on an entirely economic priority in the reconstruction effort in Kuwait,” the ambassador said. “Right now, 99.9% of the decisions on the reconstruction projects are made based on political priorities.”

That means more than 70% of the projects will be awarded to U.S. firms and the rest to European, Arab and companies from other nations that joined the coalition force that battled Iraq. He said it will take at least five years to get everything back to normal in Kuwait.

“To all the contractors: Be patient,” he said. “Everything’s going to be considered and awarded according to our needs, our planning.”

While some reports have pegged reconstruction costs at $40 billion to $100 billion, the ambassador laughed when asked about those figures. “I don’t even know how much will be needed to put my country back in shape,” he said.

He added that he won’t know until officials and engineers complete their assessment of damage at the end of this month.

So far, his government has spent more than $600 million to repair damage to utilities and restore electricity and water service in Kuwait.

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One of the first contracts to be awarded is for the refurbishing of 350 schools that were looted by Iraqi forces, Saud said. The government hopes to have the schools up and running in September, he said.

The ambassador said another priority of the Kuwaiti government is to get the nation’s hospitals and health-care system back in order.

While oil wells and water desalination plants were badly damaged, the ambassador said most buildings and roads are relatively undamaged.

Cox said his office in Newport Beach will accept project proposals from Orange County companies and pass them along to U.S. and Kuwaiti officials.

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Although the ambassador said that many of the projects will be awarded to only a handful of contractors, Michael Rafferty, president of Kathryn G. Thompson Development Co. of Aliso Viejo, believes that there’s room for his company, a residential developer. It has not done work abroad before. But it is looking for opportunities in the Middle East, he said.

VTN’s Montano said his firm has already prepared several project proposals that will be presented to Ambassador Saud. The proposals, which weigh about five pounds, include repairs on bridges and harbors and restoration work on Kuwait’s Entertainment City--which it built in the 1970s--plus petroleum and fuel storage facilities.


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