ESCWA’s Dardari sees customs union as ‘realistic objective’
Tunis - The creation of an Arab customs union is inching closer to reality, says Abdallah al-Dardari, deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
“Implementation of the customs union is supposed to start by 2021,” Dardari said in a recent Arab Weekly interview. “It is a very realistic objective.”
Announced in 2009 during the Arab Summit for Economic and Social Development in Kuwait, the Arab customs union was slated to start operations this year.
“That was not realistic,” admitted Dardari. “We talked to the League of Arab States, and we proposed another date by which we should finish all the studies, simulations and scenarios, as well as the impact of each scenario on growth, poverty and sectorial competitiveness.”
The goals of an Arab common market; the elimination of trade restrictions and quotas, as well as restrictions on residence, employment, labour and transportation, seem improbable to realise when considering that current intra-Arab trade rarely exceeds 10% of Arab countries’ total volume of foreign trade.
Dardari’s belief in the project is unshaken. He says he is encouraged by the experience of the Greater Arab Free Trade Area, which he says has seen “some positive results and not so positive results”.
Dardari explained that “positive results came to countries who fulfilled the conditions of the free trade agreement”, warning that “countries that did not, countries that imposed NTBs (non-tariff barriers) and long lists of products exempted from free trade, suffered most and did not benefit”.
The ESCWA official sees the Arab customs union as “the logical next step in the liberalisation of trade” and that the political will exists. “There was a political decision by the Arab summit to move ahead with this,” noted Dardari.
He and his organisation are seeing that this vision is brought to completion. “We at ESCWA are supporting the Arab states in implementing the technical aspects of the Arab customs union,” Dardari said.
He said the economic forum he attended in Tunis in June, a high-level conference gathering public officials and representatives of the Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan private sectors, was a step towards integration.
“I am so happy today to see three regional countries, despite all the security problems, talking about and solving their problems together,” he said.
The North African region’s security concerns might have been a blessing in disguise for the three Maghrebi neighbours, forcing them to cooperate. “The region, in light of the security situation, has realised that cross-border cooperation is a must and that integration is a must.” Dardari said. “They have learnt the lesson in a hard way.”
However, he warned that “security is a short-term thing, and it can only be sustained by economic and social integration”.
Dardari is unequivocal, “We believe the next phase or the paradigm shift of Arab development in the future will only be based on integration.” When asked whether other aspects, other than the Maghrebi Tunis-Algerian-Libyan alliance, could emerge and take the lead, Dardari said: “Any subregion in the Arab world could become a pole. You have regional poles like the Machreq, Maghreb or the Gulf, but we also have sectorial poles, which are regional value chains: pharmaceutical, petrochemical industries, electronics and such industries that can be cross-border and cross-regional poles.
“I believe that ‘business as usual’ can no longer work.”