‘Over the next two weeks we hope to sign agreements with 14 countries,’ Fawaz al-Alamy, Deputy Minister for Technical Affairs at the Ministry of Commerce, told MEED on 6 December. ‘Many of those negotiations to be completed are far advanced and we are hoping to conclude 14 agreements before the end of this year.’

A total of 31 bilateral trade agreements will need to be concluded by the kingdom for accession to the WTO. Sixteen accords have already been negotiated successfully, including deals with major trading partners such as the EU, Australia and Japan. Of the remaining 15 agreements, the greatest challenge will be striking a deal with the US, a key trading partner for the kingdom. Among the main issues to be tackled are three key points: protection of industries, services – including financial services – and copyright laws.

Al-Alamy said that talks with the US are proceeding well. ‘Negotiations with the US are well advanced and are progressively achieving results, which are conducive to our accession.’

The trade agreements are part of the accession procedure, which requires applicant governments to engage in bilateral negotiations with interested WTO working party members on concessions and commitments on market access for goods and services.

The results of these bilateral negotiations are consolidated into a document, which is part of the final accession package. All remaining issues will have to be resolved before 2005, when the kingdom’s WTO-set grace period ends.

In parallel to negotiating the trade agreements, the government is pressing ahead with efforts to bring the kingdom’s legal system in line with international standards. Al-Alamy said: ‘Thirteen laws, codes and guidelines are in the process of being enacted,’ adding that 27 – including the capital markets and insurance laws – have already been enacted.

Local and international observers and business people see the government’s efforts to join the WTO as essential to increase Saudi Arabia’s competitiveness and boost the local economy. Saudi Arabia is the largest economy outside the WTO.