Arab leaders are expected to make progress on economic issues as they stumble over endemic political differences when they meet next week in Jordan for a summit, officials and analysts said.
"Political issues are set to dominate the summit but, knowing that success is not likely to come because of disagreement over Iraq, the Arab leaders will turn to economic issues," senior Jordanian analyst Fahed Fanek told AFP.
Jordan and Egypt are taking the lead in pushing the 22 members of the Arab League to make tangible progress on the economic front, according to a joint working paper they will submit to the summit.
The draft document, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, spells out four major recommendations all aimed at building stronger and sounder inter-Arab trade relations with the accent on "accounting."
In its broad lines the document calls for "the promotion and expansion of inter-Arab trade" through a series of measures, "creating the right climate to increase inter-Arab investment," merging Arab capital markets and building "proper infrastructure" in the fields of transport, energy and communications to bolster Arab economies.
The underlying long-term goal is to build on a pledge made at the 1996 Arab summit in Cairo to establish an Arab free economic zone by 2007 to meet the challenges of globalization. The scheme was first conceived in the 1950s but it has hit decades of political and ideological differences, which deepened following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Analysts like Fanek and officials such as the director of the Jordanian Investment Board, Reem Badran, believe the Arabs have matured enough to tackle the economic chapter, although they agree much is yet to be done.
Two "must-do" priorities stand out for Badran. "Arab countries should reduce their 'negative lists' by removing customs, technical and administrative barriers that stand in the way of bilateral trade and they should also facilitate the movement of businessmen across their borders," she said.
"In some countries you need two to three weeks to obtain a visa, other countries request visitors to obtain an invitation before entering their territory and that is a major hurdle for trade development," she said. "If we are really serious about a free trade agreement we must be practical and serious about our approach."
Arab leaders will be asked to define the role of businessmen, set criteria and provide solutions to facilitate their jobs, as well as be given target dates by which to accomplish several recommendations. ”We will not only recommend but set a schedule for implementation so that we can report on the progress accomplished at the next meeting," she said.
The Amman summit will be the first annual meeting of Arab leaders. Badran urged the summit to "put aside differences and decide what is best for our countries, for our people and our economies and make that the priority," she said.
"The Arabs are united by a common language, a common culture so they are closer to forming an economic bloc" than African or European countries that have established business entities of their own, Badran added.
Jordanian Trade and Industry Minister Wassef Azar, who will attend a meeting of Arab industry and economy ministers in Amman Friday ahead of the summit, made a similar appeal earlier this week.
"I hope the summit will revive efforts to set up an Arab economic bloc capable of meeting the challenges of global economic liberalization because there is no room in this world for small economies," he told businessmen.
Although inter-Arab trade accounts for only about eight percent of Arab countries' foreign trade, the region has seen a flurry of bilateral agreements. Jordan and Syria last week linked their electricity grids as part of a regional scheme two years after Jordan and Egypt were hooked up and the three countries have finalized plans with Lebanon to implement a one-billion-dollar gas deal.
"There is a political will to move ahead and I think there will be a decision by the summit to implement the recommendations of the working paper," Fanek said.
Fifteen Arab countries — more than half the 22-member Arab League — have already committed themselves to a free economic zone and several are already bound by bilateral free trade agreements. — (AFP, Amman)
by Hala Boncompagni
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)