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Qatar to host next WTO ministerial conference

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 19 Jan 2001 -- The Gulf State of Qatar is now expected to be chosen as the site of the next ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. The site and dates are to be formally set by the WTO General Council when it meets in February.

And given the way that the last ministerial collapsed at Seattle, the host-country minister will also have to be named as the Chair of the next conference.

Chile, which in December had said that it was considering making an offer to host, has now indicated that it would not be able to do so, giving among other reasons, its election calendar (elections to the lower house of Parliament has to be held in December).

Qatar is the only member that has issued an invitation to host and is likely to be confirmed at an informal General Council meeting Tuesday.  At informal consultations Friday, Qatar’s offer to host got the support of key delegations, with the US indicating that it would have no problems.

There were some reports in October-November last (when Qatar’s was the only invitation) that the US had some problems about a Qatar locale - though it was not clear whether it was related to the incidents off Yemen where a US naval vessel was blown up, or it related to the state of relations of the Arab states with Israel in the wake of the Palestinian crisis.

The Emirate of Qatar, a member of the Gulf Council,  has one of the smallest delegations in Geneva, and is listed as having a 2-member (diplomatic) delegation to the UN Offices in Geneva and the WTO. Many trade diplomats say that it has not been active at the WTO, and that they have rarely seen Qatari participation in the several daily informal and formal subordinate body meetings of the WTO.

But at Seattle, Qatar said that it wanted to host the next conference. A formal offer was put in at the General Council in January 2000. In October last, at the General Council, Qatar repeated the offer, but said that there was one problem, namely that it could provide 2,000 hotel beds/rooms, but that the secretariat had said that up to 6,000 rooms would be required. Qatar left the decision to the General Council.

After several light-hearted comments, including some about cutting down the size of delegations and sharing of rooms, the General Council chair had said in October that a decision could be taken in December, and that in the meanwhile any other delegation wishing to host the meeting should put in their requests/offers.

Without a country offering to host, the once-in-two-years Ministerial meeting would have had to be held in Geneva - and while probably it would be most convenient and least costly for the delegations who are active at the WTO - the secretariat and the host country are not very enthusiastic.

Later, in November, the WTO Director-General Mike Moore travelled to Santiago, where he appears to have pressed the President of Chile to host the conference. There were reports that Chile would do so but that it was weighing the costs involved.

At the December General Council meeting, the conference officials of the WTO secretariat reported that they had visited both Qatar and Santiago and that both sites had facilities to hold the conference.

Qatar at that time repeated its offer, and said that it would be able to provide the rooms - in hotels and other accommodations, but that the WTO should take a decision soon, since the meeting would have to be held in late October.

(The muslim holy month of Ramadan, when there is fasting during the day, begins this year in mid-November and ends around mid-December, and no meetings can be held during that period).

Chile said that it was still considering on an invitation, and that its finance minister was looking into the costs, while Canada said that it had been under the impression that Qatar had withdrawn the offer and hence Chile had come in. But Qatar repeated its offer, while Chile indicated that it would not come in the way of Qatar hosting the next conference.

One consequence of Qatar hosting the meeting would be to enhance the role of the WTO secretariat and the Director-General in running the Conference - with the host country and its minister playing a ceremonial, rather than an active substantive role, given that the Qatar delegation has not been very active in the day-to-day work of the organization.

The secretariat and its leadership, which is seen in developing countries as biased and has yet to demonstrate that it is a servant of all the members, in effect would be leading the various consultations and negotiations, and this would suit the majors, particularly the US and the EU. –SUNS4819

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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