- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday announced it would start free-trade negotiations with Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf kingdom, as a step toward creating a Middle East Free Trade Area.

“A U.S.-Bahrain [free-trade agreement] could serve as a regional anchor for the Gulf, facilitating greater economic integration and reforms, and leading toward the eventual goal of a Middle East Free Trade Area,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said in a statement.

President Bush two weeks ago announced a plan to create a Middle East Free Trade Area by 2013. It envisions bringing countries from the region into the international trading system step by step.

Bahrain and Egypt have been considered leading candidates for a free-trade deal, while other nations in the Middle East are economically or politically too isolated to join the World Trade Organization or negotiate a detailed trade pact with the United States.

Mr. Zoellick met yesterday with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to discuss the preparatory steps for the trade negotiations.

Congress must be formally notified before official talks could start next year. Lawmakers would have final say on the agreement but, since Mr. Bush won trade-promotion authority last year, they can only approve or reject the pacts without making changes.

In the Middle East, the United States has free-trade agreements with Israel and Jordan and plans to complete negotiations with Morocco by the end of this year.

Bahrain’s relatively open economy relies on petroleum processing and refining, and international financial services.

The nation’s goods exports to the United States in 2002 totaled $395.1 million, including apparel and clothing accessories, aluminum, fertilizers, organic chemicals, mineral fuels and oils, plastics, and electrical machinery, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said.

U.S. goods exports to Bahrain in 2002 totaled $419.2 million, and included aircraft, machinery, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and toys, games and sports equipment.

U.S. exports of meats, fruits and vegetables, cereals, and dairy products would benefit from an agreement, the office said.

Bahrain, geographically about 2 times the size of the District, is a constitutional monarchy.

The nation of 656,397 is strategically located in the Persian Gulf and since 1999 has undergone some economic and political liberalization.

In local elections held in May 2002, Bahraini women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time, according to the CIA World Factbook.

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