Gulf Daily News | 27th February 2008
New US push for Mideast free trade deal
By MANDEEP SINGH
MANAMA: US officials are engaged in "informal" talks with several GCC countries on possibly concluding a Middle East Free Trade Agreement (Mefta) by 2014, it was revealed yesterday.
"President George W Bush had proposed this free trade initiative that offers a vision of openness, trade integration, and economic development for the Middle East," said US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Kent Patton.
"The US is committed to a step-by-step strategy for progress, which will help nations build free, dynamic economies and will raise standards of living," he said during an open discussion with representatives of the Bahrain media, at the residence of the US deputy chief of mission in Bahrain Christopher Henzel in Janussan.
Mr Patton, on a week-long visit to the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, said the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Bahrain has been working very well ever since it came into existence.
"We would want similar agreements with other nations in the region but are also keen on Mefta. There is a 2014 deadline for this but we hope it could be achieved sooner. There are no official discussions on but the process is very much in place. We are talking."
He said the US would want to lend the Bahrain private sector its technical expertise in developing the sector further.
"There is also a lot of effort needed to develop the education sector in Bahrain, something which, along with political development, is very essential."
He said it is not what the US wants to do in Bahrain but what the Bahrain people and the government want the US to do.
"We have had extremely meaningful discussions with the members of the Shura Council and Parliament and they have expressed their willingness to co-operate in the best possible way." He said civic education, though a must for developing any society, is a little slow in coming.
"The slow pace is frustrating for all concerned but, with time, the progress will become dynamic. We wish to contribute towards that - start a process and then build a momentum."
He would not comment on a US political organisation, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), that was ordered out of Bahrain after being accused of trying to undermine the country’s laws, being allowed to return.
"They are working out of neighbouring countries and are allowed to come into Bahrain regularly. I do not know if they will be allowed to return to set up a base here."
The NDI operates in more than 60 countries around the world to encourage the spread of democracy. But its links with Bahrain were temporarily terminated in May 2006, after it allegedly violated the country’s political society laws, including rules about the funding of organisations.
The NDI was later allowed to continue operating after signing a memorandum of co-operation with the Bahrain Political Development Institute, but has not had an office here since.
During his visit, Mr Patton also met with representatives of several non governmental organisations and societies.
l Parliament first deputy chairman Ghanim Al Buainain received a delegation led by Mr Patton and promised backing for regional partnership.