Optimism Survives Difficult Conditions at West Bank Stock Market
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now here's some business news from a place that normally doesn't make us think much of business. There is a functioning stock market in the embattled West Bank town of Nablus. This town has been under a virtual siege by Israeli forces for most of the past four years. Like everything else in the Palestinian economy, the stock market is down since the Islamist Hamas movement took control of the Palestinian government earlier this year, which prompted an international aid boycott.
But investors in Nablus still hope for a turnaround, and they say the stock market is important for the future of the Palestinian economy. Here's NPR's Linda Gradstein.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: About two-dozen men sit on comfortable chairs in a room on the top floor of this seven-story building. Out the window is a stunning view of the terraced hillsides of the northern West Bank. But the attention of those in the room is focused on a large white screen with share prices and a TV in the corner broadcasting news from Al Jazeera.
Every few minutes, one of the men gets up and hands a piece of paper to a trader sitting in a glass-enclosed booth. Housam Abu Azou(ph) comes here every day to trade shares. But he says it's not going too well.
Mr. HOUSAM ABU AZOU (Share Trader): We sell, we buy everyday like this. But it's everything, it's lose - we lose everything. And we need some peace, you know, in over the land.
GRADSTEIN: Abu Azou says he started trading a year ago with $3,000 in savings from his job as a mechanic. Today, he's lost about half his capital, but he says he keeps coming into the office hoping things will turn around.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Mr. MOHAMMED SALAMA(ph) (Owner, Global Securities Brokerage): (Foreign language spoken)
GRADSTEIN: In the corner office, 30-year-old Mohammed Salama takes the bigger orders by phone. He opened the Global Securities Brokerage Firm soon after the Palestinian stock market opened almost 10 years ago. He says 5,000 clients have made at least one trade with his office. Several hundred, he says, trade daily. Salama says there was optimism when the stock market first opened because the Israeli/Palestinian peace process was still alive and there was hope for an independent Palestinian state.
Mr. SALAMA: The peace process was planned to go as on - reaching the Palestinian streets. So everyone was, you know, hoping that this is the beginning of an institution who will serve a state - independant state.
GRADSTEIN: Ten years later, the peace process has collapsed. But Salama believes the Nablus stock market still plays an important role in the Palestinian economy.
Mr. SALAMA: Maybe before a few years, it was strange to say that we have a stock market. It's more than a symbol as now. It's a big institution with many centers.
GRADSTEIN: There are 31 listed companies, with a market capitalization of $2.5 billion. Although share prices are down, most of the companies, like Pal-Tech, the Palestinian phone company, are turning a profit. Last year, when Israel withdrew from Gaza and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas won presidential elections, the market surged up 300 percent.
Investor Farid Mislak(ph) is hoping for a similar jump. A rotund former bank employee who sunk most of his pension into the market after he retired, he says he's lost a lot of money and his wife is very angry at him. But he says he's still hopeful.
Mr. FARID MISLAK (Investor): We hope, we hope, we hope. Anytime, anyhow it will be changed. After one year, after one month, after one - 200 years, (unintelligible).
GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Nablus.
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