Finance Minister Abdullah Saif and US trade representative Robert Zoellick signed the US-Bahrain free trade agreement (FTA) in Washington on 14 September. The formal signing follows the successful conclusion of negotiations – after only six months – in late May (MEED 4:6:04).

Under the FTA, all customs duties on consumer and industrial products will be abolished, with a handful of exceptions. On agricultural products, 98 per cent of trade will be duty-free, with the remainder of tariffs – on the Bahraini side – phased out over the next decade. Market access will also be liberalised in the service sectors, particularly in the financial services, telecoms, healthcare and construction industries.

Final approval of the FTA is necessary from the US Congress. This was originally thought unlikely to occur before presidential elections in November, but the US-Morocco FTA gained congressional approval unexpectedly quickly in July.

Jordan is the other regional country to have signed a FTA, but President Bush announced in 2003 a plan to sign FTAs across the region. Muscat is eager to be among the next wave, and Oman’s Minister of Commerce & Industry Maqbool bin Ali bin Sultan is visiting Washington on 20-21 September for the first meeting of the Oman-American Council for Commerce & Investment. In mid-July, Muscat signed a trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA) with the US. A TIFA forms a prelude to deeper negotiations on a fully-fledged FTA (MEED 16:7:04).