MUSCAT // The Speaker of the Federal National Council appealed to Arab parliamentarians yesterday to get serious about regional economic integration, urging them to draft specific proposals that could be considered by next year.
Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, the FNC Speaker, said in a speech to the 15th Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Muscat: "We are in dire need of turning the slogan of Arab solidarity into practical programmes and policies. For two decades our Inter-Parliamentary Union has put solidarity on its agenda, but this never leads to any real development or tangible steps." He called on participants to prepare suggestions for moving ahead with economic integration that could be presented at their next conference, in 2010.
Politicians from across the Arab world used the Muscat forum to call for solidarity on issues ranging from the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza to the indictment of President Omar al Bashir of Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC). They also discussed the regional impact of the global economic downturn and of ongoing conflicts. Mr Ghurair said the "absence of solidarity made our Arab world an easy prey for regional and international ambitions". Alluding to the political and strategic differences among Arabs in respect to the Israeli attacks in Gaza, he said: "It's important to separate politics from economics, so that political differences will not obstruct Arab solidarity."
An Arab Common Market was founded in August 1964 with a long-term goal of integrating the economies of Arab states similar to the way the European Union has developed, with the abolishment of trade restrictions and the unobstructed movement of labour among member nations. A pan-Arab market never materialised, mainly because of political differences and recurrent security issues. But in 2005, a number of Arab countries reached bilateral free-trade agreements in an attempt to create free-trade zone.
There are a number of examples of successful regional economic integration, including the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Association of South-east Asian Nations. Mr al Ghurair urged Arabs to stop repeating slogans and start drawing up plans for action. Inter-Arab trade represents less than 12 per cent of the region's total trade, clear evidence of a poorly integrated region. In the Arab world, which includes 22 states, only the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council succeeded in reaching a degree of economic integration with a customs union formed in 2003. In December, the head of the GCC approved a blueprint that would pave the way for a establishing a monetary union.
However, Oman announced in 2006 that it would not join a common monetary regime. And a year later, Kuwait dropped the dollar peg and linked its dinar to basket of currencies, further complicating any process of establishing a unified Gulf currency. Against this backdrop, analysts say, the chances for establishing an EU-style integration in the Arab world seem remote. Still, Mr al Ghurair pointed to initiatives raised in January at the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait as a way to get things going. Calling them "a pioneering step in bringing Arab solidarity", he said: "The approved projects and economic and social co-operation programmes only speak of real Arab interest in bringing about this solidarity."
During the summit, the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora said governments must eliminate the legal obstacles to integration, build energy networks and hold Arab summits twice a year. Amr Musa, the Arab League's secretary general, said that integration was needed to combat the poverty and illiteracy that plagues most of the Arab countries. He said that 100 million people in the Arab world suffered from illiteracy and that one third lived on less than US$2 (Dh7.30) a day.
Mr al Ghurair suggested that a committee be named to advance the decisions reached at the Kuwait summit. The FNC Speaker also touched on a number of other national and regional issues: On the Palestinian question, he said Israeli activities designed to turn Jerusalem into a fully Jewish city by demolishing Palestinians' homes were in clear violation of international laws. He called on the pan-Arab union to send a letter to parliaments worldwide condemning these practices and urging them to work on stopping the Israeli activities.
On the civil war in Sudan, he reiterated the UAE's "deep concern" over the warrant for the arrest of Mr al Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC), saying it would affect the security and stability of Sudan and the future of peace talks aimed at ending the conflict in Darfur. On Iran's occupation of three UAE islands Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tubs he urged the Arab deputies to include "a strong and unequivocal" condemnation of statements by Iranian officials that appear to undermine the UAE's sovereignty. "If Iran wants to prove its good will towards Arab countries, it can do that by ending its occupation the three islands," he said.