Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Bush administration is piecing together a Middle East Free Trade Area, using closer commercial ties with a series of smaller nations to encourage others to follow suit.
President Bush in May proposed the U.S.-Middle East zone as a way to "defeat poverty and promote the habits of liberty." The endeavor, if successful, within a decade would lower trade barriers throughout the region and create new business opportunities in countries that currently have growing populations but limited economic prospects.
So far this year, the U.S. Trade Representative's Office has started free-trade negotiations with Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, and hopes to finish talks with Morocco, located just across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain. Last week Persian Gulf nations Yemen and Kuwait signed trade and investment framework agreements, relatively simple documents with few commitments, but a step toward closer ties.
The United States already has free-trade agreements with Israel and Jordan.
Trade officials see the Jordan pact, negotiated by the Clinton administration but ushered into law by Mr. Bush, and the latest free-trade negotiations as setting examples for other nations to follow.
"You can create models of, not just reform, but results that come from reform. I think that that is extremely important, because I think it's the results that then [produce the incentive for] the other neighbors to change," said Catherine A. Novelli, assistant U.S. trade representative for Europe and the Mediterranean, and chief negotiator for the Middle East agreements.
Jordan's trade with the United States increased more than 60 percent to almost $705 million from 2002 to 2003, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures, establishing one clear benefit - the potential for more exports.
Ms. Novelli said the announcement that negotiations would start with Bahrain, for example, helped spur Yemen and Kuwait to pursue their pacts and encouraged Saudi Arabia to resume talks on joining the World Trade Organization.
"I really believe that little Bahrain has been a catalyst for so much else," Ms. Novelli said in an interview.
Countries in the region recently also have given more priority to economic reform as systems that create few new jobs are strained by the growth of a young population. …