U.S. exports to Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa are forecast to grow almost 20 percent this year to a record $75 billion, fueled by big infrastructure projects and resurgent consumer demand, according to a new private sector report.

The Middle East could play a very helpful role in helping the Obama administration double U.S. exports by 2015, said David Hamod, president of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, which compiled the estimate.

Altogether, Arab countries are expected to import $800 billion worth of goods and services this year, a 12 percent increase over 2009 so we're still kind of ahead of the curve if U.S. exports grow by 20 percent, Hamod told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

U.S. exports of goods and services to the Middle East and North Africa fell about 9 percent in 2009 along with the overall slump in global demand.

President Barack Obama has set a goal of doubling overall exports over the next five years to help drive U.S. economic recovery and create 2 million American jobs.

The National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce report estimated some 740,000 direct and indirect U.S. jobs would be supported this year by exports to the Middle East and North Africa.

The United Arab Emirates is expected to be the largest U.S. export market in the region for the fifth year in a row, followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Qatar.

U.S. exports to the UAE, which re-exports many goods to Saudi Arabia and other countries, should rebound to $22.2 billion this year while direct exports to Saudi Arabia bounce back to $17 billion, the report said.

Both are down somewhat from the level reached in 2008 before the full brunt of the global financial crisis took hold on trade. Leading U.S. exports to the two countries include cars, civilian aircraft, drilling equipment and telecommunication products.


A big factor driving U.S. export growth in the region are a number of mega-infrastructure projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars over the long term, Hamod said.

Those include construction of six economic cities in Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom's drive to diversify away from its near total-reliance on hydrocarbons.

Libya and Algeria are also planning big infrastructure projects, although U.S. exports to those countries are forecast to remain relatively small in 2010 at $1.01 billion and $1.32 billion, respectively.

The United States lifted sanctions on Libya in 2004, but has captured only a small share of the country's growth in goods imports, which surged to $28 billion last year from $6 billion in 2006, the report showed.

U.S. exports to Iraq have grown more rapidly, supported by the United States' heavy military presence and the Iraqi government's long-term goal of more than quadrupling oil production to between 10 million and 12 million barrels per day.

U.S. companies such as Halliburton, Schlumberger, Bechtel and others are among the best positioned companies for long-term service contracts worth billions of dollars to rebuild terminals, upgrade and repair pipelines, and to install the modern infrastructure Iraq needs for exploration, transit and delivery, the report said.

Egypt is expected to remains a top Middle East market for U.S. consumer and capital goods, as well as military items.

The Gulf state of Qatar, which controls 14.3 percent of the world's total natural gas reserves and is the forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, is forecast to be the region's fast-growing market for U.S. exporters in 2010.

The report can be seen at http://www.nusacc.org/images/stories/Publications/nusacc2010outlook.pdf

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)