Arab World suspicious of US free trade offer
In a region where feelings of mistrust toward the United States run high, the Arab World is responding to US President Bush’s free-trade plan with serious reservations.
Worried that the initiative is no more than a strategy for economic imperialism, Arab officials and entrepreneurs are concerned that local firms will be unable to compete with US products and marketing tactics.
"After US President George (W) Bush drew up the political map for the Middle East by invading Iraq, he has started to map out the economic plan for the region, adding commercial hegemony to military hegemony," wrote Lebanese columnist for An-Nahar, Samih Saab.
President Bush outlined on Friday a plan to create a US-Middle East free trade area within ten years, saying that in an age of global terror and weapons of mass destruction, what happens in the Middle East greatly matters to America.
The United States will use its "influence and idealism to replace old hatreds with new hopes across the Middle East," Bush said in a May 9 commencement address at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Bush's trade initiative for the Middle East envisions building a free trade area gradually, country by country.
The United States already has a free trade agreement (FTA) with Jordan and is negotiating one with Morocco. At some point, when a critical mass of bilateral FTAs in the Middle East and North Africa has been achieved, the United States would try to fashion a single regional FTA, explained a US official.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said that any country now participating in the Arab boycott of Israel would have to lift the boycott in order to negotiate an FTA with the United States. The World Trade Organization (WTO) rules prohibit participation in such a boycott, and WTO membership would have to precede any FTA, he said.
"The danger is that the American invitation is an extension of (former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon) Peres' invitation to establish a Middle Eastern grouping in which Israel can be supreme ... which is in agreement with the American vision," reported Al-Ahram’s Amin Mohamed Amin. A state-run Syrian newspaper on Sunday rejected Bush's proposal for the free trade zone, insisting that it was a bid to divert attention from Israeli occupation.
Seeking to dispel rising anti-American sentiment in the Middle East region, the United States launched a $29 million Middle East Partnership Initiative. The new program aims to encourage democracy and open markets in the Arab nations, through the “sustained” promotion of entrepreneurship, free trade, education and women empowerment, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced this past December — (menareport.com)
© 2003 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)