A senior Gulf Arab official warned Monday, April 23, that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could abandon a planned free-trade agreement with the European Union (EU) if negotiations to broker a deal were not expedited.
"Given the slowness in negotiations, GCC states fear they might have to reconsider their commitment to the project," said Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa, whose country is the current GCC president.
Sheikh Mohammad, addressing the meeting between the two blocs, said the EU "must take into consideration strategic interests" that link the groupings and "help lift obstacles" blocking the signing of an accord.
The Gulf monarchies — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — account for 45 percent of the world's oil reserves and provide around 20 percent of the world's crude.
The six-nation GCC has ever since 1988 pushed for a trade deal with Europe and set a deadline of 2005 for a customs union within the region, a pre-condition for the accord with the EU.
The bloc is critical of high taxes levied by the EU on its refined oil products and Gulf aluminum, as well its massive trade deficit with Europe, which Sheikh Mohammad said hit $11 billion in 1999.
"The EU has already signed similar (free-trade) agreements with countries around the Mediterranean and others whose markets are far less attractive than those of the GCC countries," Sheikh Mohammad said.
Sweden's Deputy Prime Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen, whose nation is the EU's current president, led the European delegation at the Manama meeting.
The meeting between GCC foreign ministers and senior officials from the 15 EU member states, Sheikh Mohammad said, focused on efforts to secure a free trade agreement that would offer "the natural framework for a fair partnership."
The EU is the GCC's biggest trade partner, while the Gulf is the EU's fifth largest exports market, he noted.
According to official statistics released in Manama, trade between the two groups increased to €51.5 billion in 2000 compared to €37 billion the year before.
Gulf investments in the EU are estimated at $122 billion, representing 35 percent of all the region's investments abroad. — (AFP, Manama)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)