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‘We will discuss FTA with our neighbors’

Arab News, Saudi Arabia

‘We Will Discuss FTA With Our Neighbors’

Shereen Bushehri

MANAMA, 22 December 2004 - Bahrain once again defended its free trade agreement with the United States.

“The Bahrain-US FTA discussion was adjourned by the leaders... (It will) be discussed thoroughly by the six Gulf Cooperation Council states,” said Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad ibn Mubarak Al-Khalifa.

“The GCC states have agreed to postpone the discussion,” he said without stating a specific timeframe.

The Bahraini minister, however, confirmed that the country will go ahead with the FTA.

“We will implement the agreement. Our discussions with the US will not end due to a difference of opinion between Gulf states,” he told a press conference after GCC leaders ended a two-day summit.

“Many nations are currently in discussion with the US on the free trade agreement. And they are in different stages of negotiations,” he said in a joint press conference with GCC General Secretary Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah.

“We will sit down with our neighbors to discuss not only the FTA with the US but other bilateral nations as well,” he said.

Sheikh Muhammad hoped that Saudi Arabia will not impose a customs tariff barrier on Gulf nations. “This shouldn’t happen. We hope Saudis will not take that step,” he said.

Analysts said earlier that the issues was expected to top the agenda at the summit. The Bahraini-Saudi differences over the trade pact, signed in September, does not bring any harm to any GCC country, said the minister.

The US market is estimated at around 250 million consumers.

“The negotiations have taken many years before reaching the agreement and this was not a secret to our brothers in the GCC,” Sheikh Muhammad said.

Saudi Arabia, the only Gulf country with a land link to Bahrain, has the biggest Gulf economy. Experts say it fears US goods imported tariff-free into Bahrain will be resold in Saudi Arabia.

The United States is seeking similar free trade deals with Oman and the UAE as part of its efforts to create a Middle East and North African free trade zone by 2013.

“We will continue to develop the Gulf market. The region needs to develop as a bloc and that will become a reality once the unified market and currency come to life,” he said.

Sheikh Muhammad said the railroad project will be discussed in detail and a plan will be finalized. “The project will boost the economic status of the region.”

The region has for over 15 years attempted to broker a bigger alliance with the European Union.

“There will be a meeting in Manama between the European and GCC foreign ministers to discuss this much-awaited alliance,” he said.

Sheikh Muhammad said that terrorism was not only affecting the region but the whole world. “We (in the region) are cooperating fully to combat this menace. A center to combat terrorism was launched in October in Bahrain... that is a step in the right direction.”

Regarding the problem of reliance on expatriate workers, the minister said that GCC labor ministers were asked to come up with practical solutions.

“There will be a unified plan that all GCC states will implement. In the past, there were independent attempts to solve the issue, but now we are joining hands,” he said.

Gulf ministers of education will also set up a panel with a view to developing education in the region.

“We need leaders for the future and they can come only through proper education,” he said.

On Yemen and Iraq’s possible membership to the council, Dr. Attiyah said Yemen is already taking part in the GCC’s four committees. “I will be heading to Yemen soon to discuss this issues,” he said,

“On Iraq, we will have to wait and see what the Iraqis want. However, we will fully cooperate with Iraq and support its decisions. We call upon all Iraqis to take part in the election. We want to see a stable Iraq,” he added.