Nations call for equal access to WTO and China pledges more support

Least-developed nations, including some in Arab world, are unable to reap trade benefits due to 'complex' process, Abu Dhabi summit told

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi
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Member states of the World Trade Organisation are calling for an end to what they call discriminatory practices, which impede economic progress at both national and global levels.

Countries also called for greater inclusion in the global body, at the 12th China Round Table on WTO Accessions in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

The event is a prelude to the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference, which begins on Monday in the UAE capital.

Several representatives said the membership process was too long, preventing countries – particularly those that are least-developed – from availing the 164-member global trade body's benefits.

China pledged to boost its support for aspiring members.

The Geneva-based WTO oversees the global rules of trade between nations, with benefits ranging from promoting fair trade and economic growth to settling disputes and encouraging good governance.

Arab acceding governments can look to the example of their fellow acceding governments when navigating their own accessions
Mena Hassan, WTO

However, time taken between application and actual accession, and associated aspects such as politics, have become hindrances to speedier accession, countries say.

It takes anything between mere months and decades to become a member, the latest WTO data shows.

Iraq has spent nearly 20 years in its process, having started negotiations in May 2004.

Algeria, Comoros, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Timor-Leste are also in the process of accession, with Comoros and East Timor expected to be formally accepted as members at the Abu Dhabi conference.

"Passing through the accession process is a very complex task and they require extensive work," said Gebremeskel Challa, Ethiopia's Minister of Trade and Regional Integration.

"Some of these issues may not be simple and easy to understand when you add constraints. Assessed with limitations of development, human, institutional and infrastructural capacities worsens the challenges of the accession process of least developed countries."

13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi - in pictures

There is, however, "room for improvement" for the WTO's rules, falling under the responsibility of its members, said Dmitry Lyakishev, ambassador of the Russian Federation.

"The requests to the acceding countries should not be extended beyond the existing scope of the WTO agreement and the level of mutual commitment between the members. The accession process should not be used as a testing ground for disciplines that are not agreed," he said.

"The WTO rules are about foreign trade and its regulation and not about soaring states political and economic models ... accessions should not be suspended if the political stances of the acceding countries do not match some members' aspirations."

Arab world challenges

The WTO acknowledges that the Arab region is one of its most under-represented areas.

Of the 22 members of the Arab League, only 13 are WTO members, while nine are observers.

Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade, said gaining membership is "complex and challenging", and although a one-size-fits-all approach may not be practical, the criteria for accession could be improved.

This challenge is particularly felt by developing nations, he said, but if WTO members close ranks, it will "help strengthen the institutional capacity of aspiring members, enhance their understanding of WTO rules and process, and build the necessary expertise to navigate the accession process".

"By doing so, we'll empower more nations to engage more fully in global trade and unlock their potential economic excellence," Dr Al Zeyoudi added.

"Building the technical skills necessary to integrate the complexity of trade policy and negotiation remains challenging."

Mena Hassan, a senior economic affairs officer at the WTO, said the Arab world, for instance, faces "unique challenges which further complicate the accession process" .

"The way we provide technical assistance should be tailored to the political and economic realities of each acceding government to ensure it can have the most impact possible," she said.

"While many of the challenges that acceding governments face are unique, Arab acceding governments can look to the example of their fellow acceding governments when navigating their own accessions."

China support

China has pledged to expand its role in helping least-developed countries join the WTO

Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said China will work more closely with the body's leadership and devote greater resources to helping developing countries .

The world's second-largest economy has helped eight less developed countries gain WTO membership, he added.

"Less developed countries will bolster the international community's confidence in the multilateral trading system. Accession is but an important step on the way to becoming part of a globalised economy," Mr Wang said.

"China stands ready to work with all members to see that the [ministerial conference] delivers in terms of least-developed countries, successions and development."

The accession process begins when WTO members accept an application and establish a working party and concludes when the membership and the acceding government both accept a negotiated accession package.

Geopolitical events can also be sticking points that lead to disagreements between the organisation's members, making consensus on major issues difficult.

“At a time when the world economy faces growing headwinds, including climate change, growing economic nationalism and disruption to supply chains it is more important that nations come together to reinforce commitments to free trade, the rules-based trading system, and extending opportunity to all communities," Marco Forgione, director general of the UK-based Institute of Export and International Trade, told The National.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 3:41 PM