"The Arab world has a great cultural tradition, but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time," said President George W. Bush. To help remedy the situation, Mr. Bush proposed in 2003 "the establishment of a U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area within a decade, to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region."
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has begun negotiations with a number of Arab countries to develop bilateral free trade agreements, with the goal of creating a Middle East Free Trade Area by 2013. The U.S. already has such an agreement with Jordan, and one with Morocco is scheduled to take effect in July. An agreement with Bahrain is awaiting U.S. Congressional approval. And negotiations are underway with Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Expanded free trade could help create economic opportunity -- something desperately needed in Arab countries. According to the United Nations Arab Human Development Report, the lack of freedom in Arab countries is deterring development both social and economic. One-third of Arab men and half of Arab women cannot read, and Arab women continue to suffer from inequality with men. The overwhelming majority of the population is young and in need of employment. Economic opportunity will give young people in Arab countries a stake in the future, making them less likely to be influenced by those who preach extremist ideologies.
In addition to promoting such opportunity, free trade can also encourage political reform. President Bush says, "Across the globe, free markets and trade have helped defeat poverty, and taught men and women the habits of liberty." And ultimately, he says, democracy is the only reliable path to peace:
"If the Middle East continues to simmer in anger and resentment and hopelessness, caught in a cycle or repression and radicalism, it will produce terrorism of even greater audacity and destructive power. But if the peoples of that region gain the right of self-government, and find hopes to replace their hatreds, then the security of all nations will be strengthened."
A Middle East Free Trade Area can contribute significantly to that security.
The preceeding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States government.