- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

President Bush’s trade envoy, during a swing through the Middle East, is promoting free trade as a way to make the region more secure and prosperous.

Mr. Bush last month laid out his vision for a Middle East Free Trade Area within a decade, an ambitious goal for a region with wide political and economic disparities and divisions.

“The administration is committed to pursuing opportunities that will help advance the development of a Middle East Free Trade Area by 2013,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick before heading to the region. “Trade liberalization and increased economic integration will generate growth, create opportunity and promote security throughout the Middle East.”

Mr. Zoellick started his Mideast trip Thursday in the small Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, considered a likely candidate for a bilateral free-trade agreement.

He is set to swing through Egypt this weekend for an informal World Trade Organization meeting, and Amman, Jordan, Monday to address a World Economic Forum meeting.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in the region to work on the Middle East peace process, also is slated to be at the forum.

The administration hopes to build on existing free-trade agreements with Israel and Jordan as it tries to cobble together a regional pact.

“As one of only four nations with a free-trade agreement with the United States, and the only Arab nation, Jordan is an excellent example of how trade can drive economic reforms and growth, creating jobs, prosperity and hope,” Mr. Zoellick said.

Jordan’s exports to the United States increased dramatically following implementation of the trade pact — almost 80 percent from 2001 to 2002, to $412.2 million, according to the Census Bureau.

But Jordan’s case indicates that trade alone is not an answer to economic ills. The country’s unemployment rate, for example, has not changed since the trade pact was implemented, hovering around 15 percent since the beginning of 2001.

Unemployment throughout the region is close to 20 percent, and about 30 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

The Bush administration plans a series of gradual steps to steer the region toward a free-trade area.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office plans to conclude trade talks with Morocco this year and formally begin talks with Bahrain by next year. The pacts would facilitate greater economic integration and reforms, and lead toward the eventual goal of a Middle East Free Trade Area, Mr. Zoellick said.

“I think it is a reasonable objective, one I hope we can reach in a decade. But it is up to the countries of the region to see the benefits of [economic reform and trade],” said Khalifa Ali Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States.

Bahrain’s agreement would serve as a model for other countries in the region, Mr. Al-Khalifa said.

“I think we can benefit from each others’ experience,” he said.

Egypt is considered another free-trade candidate.

“Unless we get some of the big players into this — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, eventually Syria and Iraq — this is not going to change the region.

They are the ones who will determine if the Middle East is transformed or not,” said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, a nonpartisan group that works to foster dialogue in the region.

But some of the region’s major economies are not integrated into the WTO’s global trade system, often because they have not opened up to trade and are unwilling to make the necessary structural and legal changes.

The U.S. government has offered technical assistance to help Algeria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia join the WTO, but U.S. trade officials have conceded that some governments “blow hot and cold” about making the economic changes necessary to join the global trade body.

“To get reform in any of these countries is very hard to do,” Mr. Cohen said.

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