Policy Watch: US Missed Opportunity on WTO


By Logan Barclift, Analyst IGA

Washington DC – In an ironic twist, two days before the fourth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 the Bush administration signed a trade agreement with Saudi Arabia, home of the majority of the hijackers that killed 3000 Americans.
The agreement allows Saudi Arabia to enter the World Trade Originations WTO.  The Bush Administration has made fighting terrorism and the advancement of freedom, especially in the Middle East, the top priorities of its foreign policy. Unfortunately, it is missing an opportunity to further both of these noble goals with the accession of Saudi Arabia to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Administration has not gone near far enough in demanding the improvements in human rights and rule of law as it should. Other countries, such as China, were examined and criticized for their human rights record and the United States should hold Saudi Arabia to the same standards that it has with other countries. 
In a relationship where the Saudis have had the leverage for years due to the American need for oil, it was the chance for the United States to achieve some of its goals.  In the past the United States has guaranteed the security of Saudi Arabia while at the same time paying for its oil, making the ruling family extraordinarily wealthy.   The benefits of the WTO deal will be similarly one sided in the favor of Saudi Arabia because they already import almost everything from the United States and export only oil to the United States.  The development and export of other products by Saudi Arabia will only increase the American trade deficit with Saudi Arabia which is already at around $15 billion.  
If the United States is to agree to a deal that will reduce its terms of trade then it should have required that some measures be taken by Saudi Arabia to make progress on the very important matters of fighting terrorism and spreading freedom.  Changes such as improved rule of law are not only desired from a foreign policy perspective but also from an economic one also.  The ruling family is not subject to any real checks by the laws of the country.

The country will not be a safe place for an American business if some prince can affect its operations without any recourse for the company.  There is very little transparency of the government decision-making process which makes predicting future actions uncertain.  The royal family will not change these circumstances unless they are forced to in order to get something they want, such as WTO membership.  The Saudi government is not responsive to its people and will only make changes when pressured.  This is one of the few opportunities to apply the needed pressure to the House of Saud.  
As a matter of economics, both sides will benefit some from a free trade agreement and the fact that one country’s gain will be much greater than the others is by itself no reason to stop the agreement.  However, if placed in the perspective of the overall picture of American foreign policy it is clear to see how this agreement can be used to increase American national security.  The issues in that part of the world are too important for economics to be the sole consideration for any decision affecting the area.  The Administration should have used the Saudi desire for the worldwide affirmation that accession to the WTO would give.  They should be forced to make real changes to improve their aid in the War on Terrorism and to give their people more rights.
The Saudi government should have been forced to help keep terrorists for crossing over into Iraq prior to signing the deal.  Along those lines there should be action taken to stop senior government clerics from encouraging the insurgency in Iraq.  Currently the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudis.  The government of Saudi Arabia should be held accountable for their failure to aid in the stabilization of Iraq.

These are actions that can be taken in the short-term to show that the Saudi are willing to aid American policy in the region. Why should the United States enter into a trade agreement with a country that is hostile to a goal of American foreign policy that is as fundamental as ending the Iraqi insurgency?

There should be a firm commitment from the highest levels of the ruling family that women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the next municipal elections. Women should also be given greater freedom of movement and independence from their male relatives.  Minorities such as Shia Arabs, who are the majority in the oil region, should receive the same protections under what rule of law there is as Sunni Muslims majority.  They should be allowed the freedom to worship and carry out the traditions of their faith without interference from the religious police.
Until these actions are taken the Saudi government should not have been given the benefit of “most favored nation” trade status.  Now that the agreement has been signed, the American government should not be afraid to criticize the Kingdom on human rights and the rule of law.  The situation on human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia is just as bad as any other country the Administration rightfully criticizes.

The House of Saud should not get away with light admonishments just because they happen to be the world’s largest exporter of petroleum. Let us remember that they are the largest exporter of suicide bombers too.  President Bush is right to call for greater freedom in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s accession to the WTO and the opportunity it provides should not be overlooked.



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