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6/30/03 - MIDEAST NEEDS FREE TRADE - 2003-06-30

Free trade and open markets have a long history in the Middle East. The Koran urges Muslims to “Let there be trading by mutual consent.” For centuries, the Middle East was the world’s preeminent bazaar, at the center of the “silk road” stretching from Western Europe to China.

But ruinous military conflicts, misguided economic policies, and the brutal suppression of liberties in many Arab countries have cut off the Middle East from today’s global economy. The region’s share of international trade and foreign investment is one of the lowest in the world. According to the United Nations, the Middle East attracted less than one percent of global foreign investment throughout the 1990s.

Reversing the economic fortunes of Arab countries will take time. But the United States is committed to helping establish free markets in the region. In fact, President George W. Bush has proposed creating a U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Zone within the next ten years. Under the initiative, the free-trade agreements signed between the U.S. and individual Arab countries would be the basis for a regional free-trade accord.

The U.S. will also support membership in the World Trade Organization for those peaceful Arab countries that seek it. At the same time, the U.S. will expand the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides duty-free entry to the U.S. market for some three-thousand five-hundred products from one-hundred forty countries. To qualify, Arab states will have to improve their infrastructure and legal frameworks.

The reconstruction and reopening of Iraq also present an opportunity, said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick:

“We recognized that it was important to not only have a [secure] environment in military terms, but also to use that as a foundation for building opportunity and hope and empowerment in the region.”

People of Arab countries ask why their region, once a center of trade, has been largely excluded from the gains of modern globalization. As Mr. Zoellick said, “The United States extends a hand of partnership to those in the Middle East who desire freedom, who are willing to tear down walls of poverty and protectionism that have isolated their region for too long.”