Arab industry and economy ministers will ask next week's Arab summit to take urgent steps to create an Arab free economic zone ahead of schedule, Jordanian Industry Minister Wassef Azar said early Saturday, March 24.
He was speaking at the end of a meeting that almost broke down over a dispute between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over Baghdad's request for Arab support to approve Iraqi financial aid to the Palestinians rebelling against Israel.
The dispute flared when Iraqi Commerce Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh asked the meeting to urge the Arab summit to obtain UN approval to let Baghdad deliver one billion euros (almost $900 million) to the Palestinians.
Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf protested and said the request was a political decision that should be examined by Arab foreign ministers who were to meet Saturday to finalize the summit's agenda, an Arab delegate said.
Syria later stepped in and saved the day. Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Imadi stressed that "support for the Palestinians is a national Arab duty" thus giving credit to the Iraqi offer to assist the cash-strapped Palestinians, an Arab delegate said. "But he (Imadi) stressed, however, that the Iraqi request is a matter for Arab foreign ministers to pursue," the delegate said.
Saleh later told AFP "this formula is acceptable to us". Several Arab Gulf delegates also endorsed the compromise, which also won the approval of the Arab League.
On Thursday, an Arab diplomat in Amman told AFP that Saudi Arabia decided to downgrade its participation at the summit to protest the importance given to Iraq and would be represented by its defense minister instead of the crown prince.
Meanwhile the ministers produced a list of recommendations, inspired from a Jordanian-Egyptian working paper, calling on Arab leaders meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Amman to step up efforts to merge their economies.
"The ministers will recommend to the summit to reduce the deadline for the creation of a free economic zone" which is expected to be completed by 2007, Azar told reporters. "Some ministers have suggested that steps to be take to complete the zone by 2005," he said.
The scheme was first conceived in the 1950s but hit decades of Arab political and ideological obstacles until the Arab summit of 1996 in Cairo when leaders pledged to complete the zone by 2007. So far 15 members of the 22-strong Arab League have taken steps towards that goal.
Azar said the ministers will also recommend to the Arab leaders "to take immediate action to remove all customs barriers between Arab states, reduce tariffs and merge Arab bourse."
Inter-Arab trade amounts to only eight percent of the total volume of commercial exchanges of the 22 Arab League member nations.
The Jordanian-Egyptian working paper made four major recommendations all aimed at rectifying and developing inter-Arab trade, identifying sectors that need to be developed and set an agenda for implementation.
It specifically called for the promotion of inter-Arab trade, creation of an adequate climate to increase inter-Arab investment, merging Arab capital markets and developing transport, energy and communications.
Sudanese Minister of State for Financial Affairs Zubeir Ahmad Hassan said before the meeting got underway that Arabs should "move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of complimentarity and stay away from rhetoric in order to liberate Arab trade and create a free Arab economic zone."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has meanwhile called from Egypt for an economic summit to convene in Cairo in November as several officials gathered in Amman warned they must close ranks to face the challenges of globalization. — (AFP, Riyadh)
by Hassan Mekki
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)