US plans step-by-step move to free trade with Middle East

Published June 24th, 2003 - 02:00 GMT

The Bush administration's plan to negotiate a US-Middle East free trade agreement within a decade will employ a variety of strategies to move, step-by-step, toward free US trade with the region and greater commerce within the region itself, US Trade Representative Robert 

Zoellick says. 


In a June 23 address to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Jordan, Zoellick said the plan takes into account the differing levels of countries' development, preparation, capability and interest. 


"One by one, then with groups, working with willing partners to build coalitions for opportunity ... we will work toward full economic partnership," he said. Trade liberalization efforts would be tailored to the circumstances in each country, he indicated. These include supporting World Trade Organization (WTO) membership for peaceful countries in the region that actively seek it. Zoellick cited Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria and Yemen as countries the United States was prepared to assist in that regard. 


The United States is prepared to use its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) to increase trade ties with other countries, Zoellick said. GSP, which was restored by Congress in the Trade Act of 2002, provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for some 3,500 goods from 140 developing economies, including the West Bank and six countries in the Middle East. 


In other trade-opening initiatives for the region, the United States will offer to negotiate new Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFAs), which establish a work program to expand trade and resolve outstanding disputes, and deepen those already in place with Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. It will also offer to negotiate Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs), which establish common rules for investment in each country. 


Moreover, the Bush administration intends to continue negotiating comprehensive free trade agreements (FTAs), with the aim of expanding bilateral pacts into sub-regional groupings, which bring more countries into the "safe harbors of existing free trade agreements," Zoellick said. 


Completing free trade negotiations with Morocco "is at the head of the U.S. bilateral FTA agenda," Zoellick said, adding that the next step is opening FTA talks with Bahrain. "Over the course of the decade, North African countries might be connected to the Morocco FTA as they achieve a critical mass of reforms. Gulf states could join the Bahrain FTA when they are interested and prepared," he said. 


He also underlined the US pledge to provide financial and technical help to countries so they are able to negotiate and implement agreements, as well as to build necessary infrastructure. The administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) will target 

more than $1,000 million from various US government agencies to support development, increase educational opportunities, strengthen civil society and the rule of law, and support small businesses, Zoellick said. — ( 

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