Global trade is at a critical juncture–and we can’t take it for granted, WTO meeting chair warns

Connie Queline

Global trade is at a critical juncture–and we can’t take it for granted, WTO meeting chair warns

The greatest disruption in business occurs when cracks emerge in the systems that we otherwise take for granted. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the treaties that make up the bedrock of international commerce fall firmly into this category. For decades, these international agreements have provided a baseline level of certainty to businesses, investors, and consumers. Today, that system is being buffeted by geopolitical headwinds, powerful political forces, and a trade landscape being redefined by new technologies. That makes certainty more important than ever.

This week, delegations from over 150 WTO Members will gather in Abu Dhabi for the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization alongside a host of private sector representatives, civil society voices, and many others. As chair of the WTO conference, I know the business community craves certainty and predictability. Even business leaders who express disappointment with the pace of liberalization delivered by WTO members over the last two decades are quick to add that they benefit tremendously from global trading rules and a predictable process for resolving trade disagreements.

Looking ahead to the conference, I see four key priorities–and private sector engagement is key to all of them. First, there are immediate deliverables on which consensus among the membership is difficult but achievable. To name just one example, the moratorium precluding customs duties on electronic transmissions is up for renewal. In the past, members have always found consensus to extend it, and I know the business community is watching this issue closely. I would encourage business leaders and investors to be vocal with their views on this and the other issues on the table.

Second, it is important the ministerial conference provides a roadmap for the WTO’s future work. Climate change, geopolitical tensions, and a new wave of industrial subsidies are disrupting the status quo. Digitalization is reshaping both how trade is done and what is traded. In Abu Dhabi, ministers will have an opportunity to determine how these issues will be folded into discussions in Geneva about dispute adjudication reform and to set targets for negotiators on the creation of new rules, processes, and accords to manage any inevitable frictions. The voice of the private sector is critical in ensuring that the agenda reflects the realities on the ground.

On the subject of friction, the third goal of the ministerial conference is facilitating dialogue. As a trade minister, I can attest to the rarity of opportunities to meet with our counterparts for in-depth discussions about the most pressing trade issues. I do not expect every major disagreement between governments to be resolved within four days in the UAE’s capital, but sitting together is a first step for which there is no substitute. The private sector must encourage ministers toward constructive engagement and raise the most salient issues to their attention.

Our country firmly believes in the power of international commerce to support inclusive, sustainable development. Throughout the Conference and beyond, I will be working hand in glove with the private sector to champion the potential of trade tech to improve transparency and accessibility and lower prices, including in the least developed countries.

Working alongside my vice-chairs and the WTO director-general, I will strive to support consensus outcomes. Where such outcomes prove elusive, I will encourage members to chart a future course for the organization toward the next conference. Perhaps most importantly, in Abu Dhabi, we will provide a welcoming space for vital conversations and frank exchanges.

The challenges are great, but there has never been a more important time for all of us to demonstrate leadership, creativity, and flexibility in reinforcing the system on which so much of our shared prosperity rests.

Thani Al Zeyoudi, Ph.D., is the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign trade and the chair of the upcoming 13th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi.

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