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GCC, EU in new bid to forge free trade agreement

Riyadh, 4th September 2001

Senior officials from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union will meet here today in a renewed move to reach a free trade agreement in near future. The talks will be held within the framework of a new mandate given to the visiting European officials by the European Commission following the meeting of the EUís 15-member General Affairs Council (GAU) on July 16 in Brussels.

This was disclosed here yesterday by Olivier Quinaux, deputy head of the Belgian mission, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. Quinaux said that a senior official of the EC Allen Waddans will lead the European delegation at the meeting, which seeks to pave the way to the development of a free GCC-EU trade area and bolster cooperation in all other areas.

He said the talks will focus on how to remove the obstacles on the way of signing the free trade agreement.

The two major economic blocs have forged closer cooperation in different sectors. Europe, currently, is the largest trading partner of the GCC and the Gulf states have emerged to be the fifth largest trading partner for Europe.

The GCC, which groups Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, has long pushed for a free trade agreement with the EU, which has also been keen to endorse the accord.

The Gulf states have been critical of high taxes levied by the EU on its refined oil products and aluminum as well as its massive trade deficit with the EU, which hit $18 billion annually, according to a report published recently.

The GCC-EU trade exceeded $35 billion last year, said the report. Saudi Arabia is the largest trading partner of Europe with two-way trade totaling $17.6 billion annually. The EUís annual imports of oil from the Gulf countries account for 47 percent of its total oil imports. Besides, the EU has been ranked as the second largest investor bloc in the Gulf region.

Asked whether the current Belgian presidency will succeed in finalizing the free trade agreement, Quinaux said that even if an agreement can be reached in the near future, it will not be implemented before the GCC launches the Gulf-wide customs union. ďBut the two major economic blocs are definitely going to make some substantial progress during the tenure of the Belgian presidency,Ē he noted.

The optimism to reach a free trade agreement is based on the progress made by the two sides following the decision of the GCC leaders to unify customs tariffs by 2005.

The Kingdom recently slashed custom tariffs as a major step toward forming a GCC Customs Union.

Source: SPA

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04 September, 2001 03:28:11 PM