- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The Bush administration is trying to signal its support for tolerant Muslim countries through a free-trade agreement with Morocco, the United States' top trade official said yesterday.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Morocco's Foreign Affairs Minister Taib Fassi-Fihri yesterday announced the start of negotiations on a trade pact between the northern African country and the United States.
"This U.S.-Morocco [free-trade agreement] will send a powerful signal to the rest of the Muslim world that President Bush is committed to supporting the development of open, prosperous societies in all regions of the world," Mr. Zoellick said at a press conference.
The two sides hope to complete negotiations this year.
The agreement would be the United States' second with an Arab-Muslim country; Jordan signed a deal in 2001. America's oldest free-trade pact is also in the region, signed with Israel in 1985.
The administration is also pursuing trade deals with Australia, five countries in southern Africa and a five-nation bloc in Central America. The United States is also working with 33 countries in the Western Hemisphere to form a regional trading system, and 143 countries worldwide to update World Trade Organization rules.
Deals were recently finished with Chile and Singapore, though congressional approval is necessary before they become law.
The agreement with Morocco would recognize the country's efforts at political and economic reform, as well as its support of the United States after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Zoellick said.
"We hope that the administration's commitment to free trade with a leading modern Arab state sends a signal throughout a tempestuous region of America's support for tolerant and more prosperous Muslim societies," Mr. Zoellick said.
Mr. Fassi-Fihri said that the agreement would indicate that cooperation between an Arab-Muslim country and the United States is possible.
Morocco, geographically slightly larger than California and with a population about 31 million, initiated gradual political reforms to its constitutional monarchy in the 1990s. A democratically elected legislature was established in 1997, although the king is the ultimate political authority.
The trade agreement will support and accelerate Morocco's "embrace of the modern world economy," Mr. Zoellick said.
Frank DuBois, an associate dean at American University's Kogod School of Business, agreed that the agreement would help lock in Morocco's political and economic reforms.
"But you're going against hundreds of years of inertia and some strong business interests," he said.
Heavy bureaucracy and some official corruption could counter the country's dynamic potential, he said.
Economically, Morocco is closely tied to the 15-nation European Union, where it sends most of its exports. The country sends about one-quarter of its exports to France alone, and less than 5 percent to the United States.
Morocco has a trade agreement with the European Union but both sides plan to start new talks to add agricultural products.
Morocco's economy relies heavily on agricultural production about 20 percent of the economy and 40 percent of the country's employment are based in the sector. The area is likely to be one of the most contentious for U.S.-Moroccan negotiations, a U.S. trade official said.
U.S. exports to Morocco were a little less than $400 million and imports reached $285 million in 2001, the last full year for which figures are available.
The U.S. Trade Representative's Office said that American commodities like wheat and feed grains, and products and services for energy, tourism and environmental industries would benefit under a free-trade agreement as tariffs fell and the investment environment became more secure.
U.S. products face tariffs as high as 40 percent when they reach Morocco, though Moroccan products are only hit with tariffs around 4 percent, the U.S. trade office said. The agreement would seek to eliminate tariffs.


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