Saturday, November 12, 2005

GENEVA — Saudi Arabia has agreed to end all economic boycotts of Israel, allowing the World Trade Organization (WTO) yesterday to admit the oil-rich kingdom as its 149th member, diplomats said.

Saudi officials did not comment on the Israel boycott, which had been the key obstacle during the kingdom’s 12-year bid to gain entry.

U.S. and Israeli officials said the boycott issue had been resolved.

“I am very satisfied with the fact that Saudi Arabia has complied with all the rules of the WTO,” said Itzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to the global trade body.

“I hope it opens the door to a better future on the horizon in the region,” the Israeli envoy said.

The WTO’s ruling general council, which includes the United States and Israel, endorsed the Saudi entry during a special session yesterday.

The kingdom’s minister for commerce and industry, Hashim Yamani, signed the protocol of accession, which means that Saudi Arabia will become a full member on Dec. 11, just days before a big WTO meeting in Hong Kong.

Mr. Yamani told delegates that the “door has been opened for one of the largest free-market economies to become a member.

To join, Saudi Arabia agreed to scrap all economic boycotts and it pledged not to resort to any future discriminatory trade measures against the Jewish state, diplomats said.

Restrictions on foreign investment in banking, insurance, telecommunications and other service industries had also been an obstacle.

The Saudi protocol will allow foreign ownership of up to 60 percent for banking and insurance, and up to 70 percent for telecommunications.

Pascal Lamy, WTO director-general, said in the accession process Saudi Arabia “undertook important economic reforms, which it is fair to say have touched virtually all sectors of its economy.”

Saad Alfarargi, ambassador of the 22-member Arab League, said that Saudi Arabia’s membership will benefit world trade.

“Saudi Arabia has its own weight, economically, commercially, and WTO membership will allow for more investments and employment,” Mr. Alfarargi told The Washington Times.

John Weekes, a former Canadian chief trade negotiator and WTO ambassador, called Saudi Arabia’s entry a major development for economies in the region.

“It’s clear, more and more — as witnessed with China’s entry in 2001 — that WTO membership and economic reforms go hand in hand,” Mr. Weekes said.

He said that the completion of the Saudi-WTO entry talks “shows that those in the kingdom who want to promote modernization have prevailed.”

WTO entry also signifies a major political victory for King Abdullah, who for years as crown prince championed a reform agenda for his kingdom of 26 million, diplomats said.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, was the world’s 19th- largest exporter in 2004 with trade shipments worth $126.2 billion.

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