- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

The United States and Bahrain yesterday finished negotiations on a free-trade agreement, adding one small component to a wider plan for the Middle East.

Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, is the fourth Middle Eastern country to negotiate a free-trade pact with the United States, joining Israel, Jordan and Morocco.

“Bahrain’s leaders … are reformers in a region searching for the fresh winds of new ideas, and the U.S.-Bahrain [free-trade agreement] is a pacesetter showing the way to implement the president’s initiative for building prosperity, opportunity and hope in the Middle East,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.

President Bush in May 2003 proposed the U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area as a way to “defeat poverty and promote the habits of liberty.” The endeavor, if successful, would lower trade barriers throughout the region within 10 years and create new business opportunities in countries that currently have growing populations but limited economic prospects.

The United Arab Emirates and Algeria are potential candidates for the next round of free-trade-agreement negotiations, Mr. Zoellick said.

The Bahrain and Morocco agreements still have to be signed by national leaders — a Morocco signing ceremony is scheduled for June 11— and win congressional approval.

Because of technical requirements and the congressional calendar, a vote on Morocco is possible this year but a vote on Bahrain is less likely.

Mr. Zoellick also signed a deal with Australia last week and plans to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua today.

The agreement with Australia has the best chance for congressional approval this summer.

The agreement with the five Central American nations faces strong opposition from Democrats.

Under Trade Promotion Authority won by Mr. Bush in 2002, legislators can vote for or against the trade pacts, but they cannot amend them. A simple majority in each house prevails.

The Middle Eastern pacts have received limited attention and little opposition in Congress.

Under the agreement with Bahrain, a nation of 667,000 people, duties on all goods would disappear immediately, and duties on all agricultural products would be phased out over 10 years.

Bahrain’s exports to the United States last year reached $378.3 million, while U.S. exports to Bahrain reached $508.8 million. By comparison, worldwide U.S. exports were $724 billion.

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