|GCC allows members to sign bilateral deals with U.S.
|Washington excluded from collective trade accord
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have agreed to exclude the United States from collective trade agreements, allowing members to strike bilateral free-trade deals with Washington, the Kuwaiti foreign minister said.
"The GCC states have excluded the United States from the collective [trade] agreements," Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah told reporters after attending a seminar on future talks with Washington for a Free-Trade Agreement (FTA).
"We in the GCC will hold collective [trade] agreements with all countries except the United States," he added.
The GCC groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Richard LeBaron, said the Gulf state needs to address intellectual property rights and labor laws to move toward a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Washington and Kuwait signed a trade and investment framework agreement in 2004. LeBaron said the pace of negotiations for the free-trade pact will depend in part on progress in addressing key issues.
"The first is better protection of intellectual property rights, which should be achieved through passage, implementation and enforcement of appropriate laws to protect copyright, patents and trademarks, and to criminalise piracy," he said.
The envoy told a conference that Kuwait's penalties were not "harsh enough" to deter future offenders and that laws should be amended to conform with World Trade Organisation agreements.
The OPEC oil producer should also eliminate an import testing and inspection program that Washington sees as a technical barrier to trade, he added.
A software industry body earlier this month said Kuwait's piracy rate was at 68 percent last year. Piracy and violation of copyright continues to plague the Middle East because of weak enforcement of intellectual property right laws.
LeBaron said Kuwait also needed to make its labour laws more consistent with International Labor Organisation principles, to allow freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Washington has also urged fellow Gulf Arab states Oman and the United Arab Emirates, with which it is conducting free -trade agreement negotiations, to amend their labor laws.
Kuwaiti Trade Minister Abdullah al-Tawil told the conference his country was amending its copyright laws. He said Kuwait had also passed several laws aimed at "economic openness," including opening its banking and insurance sectors to foreign firms as well as liberalising its telecommunications sector.
The United States has signed an FTA with Bahrain, is negotiating for similar agreements with U.A.E. and Oman and plans to begin talks with Qatar and Kuwait in the near future.
Last week, GCC Secretary General Abdel-Rahman al-Attiya told AFP that "the issue of free trade [agreements] with the United States is no longer a bone of contention between the GCC states." He added that the issue was resolved "more than two weeks ago" during a meeting of the GCC finance and economy ministers held in Bahrain in the first week of May.
Saudi Arabia initially strongly opposed bilateral deals, arguing that bilateral free-trade deals derail GCC economic integration plans. But it appears to have softened its position following a visit by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz to the United States in April.
Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai al-Aam, quoting informed diplomatic sources, reported Saturday that Riyadh had insisted on restoring customs barriers once the FTAs with Washington were applied.
GCC states launched their unified customs union on January 1, 2003, and the oil-rich region was due to become a single customs zone by end 2005.
The GCC states have also planned to establish a monetary union by the end of this year, a common market by 2007 and a single currency by the beginning of 2007.
The bloc's annual summit, held in Manama last December, ended without making any reference to those plans, apparently over a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain over the latter's FTA with Washington.
The summit also failed to state an intention on the part of member states to clear obstacles impeding smooth implementation of a Gulf customs union launched in January 2003.
The Daily Star