- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

The World Trade Organization will announce in the next few days that it is moving its early November meeting of trade ministers out of the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, a country now on the front lines of the war against terrorism, a U.S. trade official said yesterday.

At the same time, members of the Geneva-based WTO, the world's main negotiating forum for trade, appear determined to maintain the timing of the meeting and to preserve the agenda of starting a new round of global trade negotiations, the official said.

"We all agreed that the meeting needs to go forward, on the dates that have been established, because all of us believe that one important component of the response to these international events, plus the international economic slowdown, is to try to launch a new global round," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said yesterday after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"We need to go forward with this ministerial, in one location or another," Mr. Zoellick added.

The meeting in Doha, Qatar, is scheduled for Nov. 9-13.

Singapore has offered to host the meeting, and rumors have circulated as well that it could be held in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Mr. Zoellick and his European Union counterpart, Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, quashed public speculation that the meeting might not take place. Observers saw the move as an attempt to preserve the momentum toward a new trade round, a difficult task even before the attacks complicated the diplomatic and security landscape.

In November, Mr. Zoellick is hoping to pick up the pieces after a disastrous 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, where efforts to begin new trade-liberalizing talks fizzled amid violent protests and disagreements between rich and poor countries.

But at an informal weekend meeting in Singapore that Mr. Zoellick attended, some trade ministers questioned whether the November talks should take place in Qatar, which had received universal praise for its preparations for the meeting.

"We also discussed and recognized that there is uncertainty related to the hosting of that meeting, in part simply because of the region," Mr. Zoellick said.

The reluctance of many WTO members to attend a meeting held in Qatar has put the Bush administration in a difficult diplomatic position, observers said.

On the one hand, it wants to avoid the impression that the United States is undercutting a moderate Arab state whose support Washington needs for its anti-terrorism diplomatic coalition and which hosts U.S. military facilities.

The administration has also staked considerable political capital on being able to begin a new round of trade talks, something that will be impossible if countries refuse to attend a meeting held in Qatar.

"It's a front-line area, and there are logistical issues," the U.S. trade official said.

As a result, the administration's strategy is aimed at letting a consensus develop among other WTO members over the next few days that the meeting should be held at another site. At the same time, it is heaping praise on Qatar's preparatory work for the meeting.

The formal decision would be announced by the WTO's General Council sometime in the next few days.

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