Why a changing world needs global forums

Abu Dhabi's hosting of a major WTO summit reflects a hunger for consensus amid a worldwide economy that is reorganising itself

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO's director general, said the biennial meeting involving more than 160 countries resulted in 'very good decisions'. Pawan Singh / The National
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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dialogue variously as “a conversation between two or more persons”; “an exchange of ideas and opinions”, or “a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution”. Contained in all three definitions is the idea of movement towards an end, rather than an end in itself.

The World Trade Organisation’s 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi, which ended on Friday, is an example of this kinetic process. Although delegates from more than 160 member countries did not reach agreement on some core issues, such as reforming the WTO’s dispute mechanisms or reducing subsidies on fisheries and agriculture, bringing together such a diverse group of countries to manage global change in an increasingly fragmented world is vital for building momentum and future consensus.

A lot of attention was focused on the Abu Dhabi-hosted meetings, with observers watching closely to see if the WTO is a forum still capable of delivering important reforms and guidance. No doubt there has been plenty of criticism of the organisation over the years, with complaints that its processes can be cumbersome, and claims that it is developed countries that often benefit more from free-trade agreements. There have also been questions asked of the WTO’s limited enforcement powers over its own rulings.

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

The vital talks of the past few days were an opportunity to answer some of these concerns, and progress was made in a number of areas. The extension of a WTO moratorium on e-commerce for two more years may help to maintain a freer environment for international online trade by removing potential tax barriers. It could also lower prices for e-commerce goods and services, increase access to global markets and boost trade flow. Delegates also agreed to speed up discussions on dispute settlement reforms at the trade body, according to a WTO document released late on Friday.

Regardless of the outcome of the WTO talks, however, the global economy is changing – and will continue to change. Worldwide trade has been severely disrupted during the past two years amid high inflation and interest rates, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars, and, most recently, the Houthi attacks on shipping vessels in the vital Red Sea trading route. The world will have to act more harmoniously to navigate this era.

It is time to focus on the positives and move away from the binary assumption of such summits being successes or failures

In addition, we are witnessing an increasing number of bilateral and regional trade deals, rather than global agreements. According to the International Monetary Fund, at the start of the 2000s there were 71 regional trade deals in place – now there are more than 360. The UAE has been a significant player in this regard, with Juma Mohamed Al Kait, the Emirates’ assistant undersecretary for international trade affairs at the Ministry of Economy, telling The National last week that the country aims to conclude more Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements, or Cepas, with African states as the Arab world’s second-largest economy continues to boost its trade ties globally.

As this diversification of trade and challenges to the global economy gather pace, the need for an effective WTO – and comparable transnational organisations that aim to find common ground on diplomacy, energy or health – grows in significance, especially for stability and setting some global rules. Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the WTO meeting also emphasises the UAE’s increasing reputation as a country that values consensus and dialogue; it also builds on the successful hosting of the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai last year.

Critics may focus on those WTO files that were not closed this time around. Similar criticisms could have been made of the 27 Cop summits, beginning in Berlin in 1995, that preceded the ground-breaking climate commitments reached in Dubai last year. Just because a summit does not sign off on all the items on its agenda, that does not invalidate the valuable progress generated by each encounter – bringing together countries representing 98 per cent of global trade can only be a good thing.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO's director general, told state news agency Wam that the biennial meeting resulted in “very good decisions” amid the UAE's successful organisation of the event. She also praised conference chairman Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade. “We worked hard. It was tough, but we delivered thanks to his chairmanship,” she said. It is now up to the WTO members involved to build on the progress made in Abu Dhabi and refocus attention on reaching consensus in 2026. That’s what dialogue is all about.

Published: March 03, 2024, 11:00 AM