Will the next head of the WTO be an Arab?

International trade has suffered in recent years, and Saudi Arabia thinks it has the right person to fix that

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 18, 2020 shows the five candidates still in the running to take the helm of the World Trade Organization during press conferences between July 15 and 17, 2020 in Geneva, (From L) South Korean Yoo Myung-hee, Britain's Liam Fox, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Saudi Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, and Kenya's Amina Mohamed.  / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI

For the first time in the quarter-century since its creation, the World Trade Organisation, the global trade regulator, may see an Arab at its helm. Mohammad Al Tuwaijri, Saudi Arabia’s candidate for WTO Director General, has moved on to the second round of the organisation’s selection process. He is one of four other candidates competing for the coveted position. The nomination coincides with severe disruption to international trade from the Covid-19 pandemic, an ensuing economic recession and an ongoing trade dispute between the US and China.

The second phase of consultations between member states will take place from this Thursday until October 6, at which time two candidates will be selected for the final round. The WTO is set to pick its new leader by November 7. Whoever lands the job will have the difficult task of promoting trade during a recession and empowering the body to resolve disputes at a time of increased polarisation.

Mr Al Tuwaijri’s impressive career renders him well qualified, while his knowledge of the region can help integrate the Arab world better into the global trade system. The former fighter pilot was HSBC’s deputy chairman and CEO for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey before moving on to a career in politics. He was Saudi Arabia’s minister of economy and planning and currently holds a position as advisor to the Royal Court on international and national economic policy. The Kingdom is undergoing financial reforms aimed at deeper integration with world markets. Mr Al Tuwaijri also worked on Vision 2030, the  high-profile plan spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and open up the kingdom to the world.

The WTO rarely makes headlines, yet the organisation plays a key role in the global economy. Most countries are members of the WTO, which was formed with the end goal of lifting trade barriers as a means to promoting economic wellbeing. This includes negotiating new trade deals and adjudication disputes peacefully. First created as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the Cold War era, in 1947, GATT gave way to the WTO in 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The WTO remains an essential pillar of free trade, multilateralism, and a major proponent of resolving trade disputes through negotiation, not escalation. Its role must be preserved and enhanced. As the world goes through a major recession, some countries may resort to protectionist policies that hinder trade. The WTO has also come under fire from US President Donald Trump, after a tariff war between Washington and Beijing.

The WTO is an important voice of reason and a neutral broker when it comes to settling trade disputes

For the WTO to remain effective, its leadership must be equipped to face these challenges. If it fails to do so, nations may be tempted to circumvent the WTO and favour tit-for-tat trade wars to resolve their differences. Such policies, which have already dominated US-China trade relations, must not be normalised. Mr Al Tuwaijri has spoken out against the dangers of such a scenario, and the threat it represents to the world order.

The WTO is an important voice of reason and a neutral broker when it comes to settling trade disputes. Its next leader must rise to the difficult challenge of ensuring that multilateralism prevails.