U.S., Oman Pact Nixes Israel Boycott

Inter Press Service

U.S., Oman Pact Nixes Israel Boycott

By Emad Mekay

28 June 2006

WASHINGTON, Jun 28 (IPS) - The U.S. Congress is likely to approve a free trade agreement that includes strong foreign policy components with Oman, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, despite protests over the Arab country’s record on labour standards, human rights and the environment.

While it will have economic benefits to the United States by further opening markets in the small oil-rich nation, it is viewed as heavily political after the Oman government committed to dropping an Arab League boycott of Israeli products, which came into force after Israel occupied Arab land in 1967.

Washington has used its economic and political clout to make the integration of Israel in the Arab world a cornerstone of its trade agenda in the region. The U.S. Congress has insisted that those Arab nations that want expanded trade with the United States must first bow to opening up for Israeli goods.

So far, Washington has established free trade deals in the region with Jordan, Israel, Morocco and Bahrain. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates could be next in line.

Last year, as part of a deal with Saudi Arabia that helped Riyadh join the World Trade Organisation, Washington pressured the Saudi royal family to drop parts of its boycott of Israel, and the government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to further commit to industrialised zones with the neighbouring Jewish state.

Signing trade deals with the region took on an added dimension after the Sep. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States, with the George W. Bush administration insisting that such agreements would boost U.S. national security.

In 2003, President Bush proposed an ambitious plan, called the Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA), to stitch together all 22 Arab nations with Israel and the U.S. by 2013.

Several other U.S. officials routinely cite recommendations by the 9-11 Commission that investigated the attacks that Washington should promote economic ties, trade and security relations with countries in the Middle East as a rationale for inking new free trade deals.

U.S. businesses have also set their sights on the economic benefits of such deals.

Under the latest pact, Oman, which occupies the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, agreed to open its market of three million people for U.S goods and services, to be accountable for intellectual property rights violations, to sell state-owned companies and to pass legal reforms that promote foreign investment.

In his letter sending the legislation to Congress on Tuesday, President Bush said the pact will demonstrate "for other developing countries the advantages of open markets and increased trade", as well as strengthen links with "a moderate Muslim nation".

Yet despite its relatively small size, the Oman deal has met stiff resistance from labour groups, environmentalists and social justice activists who, along with a number of Congressional Democrats, fault the deal on labour and human rights grounds.

Some 416 U.S. and international organisations released a letter to Congress on Tuesday decrying the trade deal because it is modeled after the 12-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that binds Mexico, Canada and the United States.

The groups, including the trade union confederation AFL-CIO, the Citizens Trade Campaign, the National Farmers Union, and the Sierra Club, complained that the Oman deal has no credible enforcement of labour and environmental protections, and warned that it could turn Oman into "a sweatshop apparel export platform".

Ruled by the autocratic regime of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, Oman has had exceptionally substandard labour laws similar to those in Jordan, another country with a free trade agreement with Washington, whose abuses came to light in a recent report by the New York-based National Labour Committee.

Oman, and many of the other countries in the region that Washington is eyeing for expanded trade ties, also lack legislation to comply with international environmental commitments. For example, under the deal, Oman is not required to adhere to key treaties on biodiversity and species protection. The agreement only requires that country enforce it own environmental laws.

Some Democrats in Congress have banded with the groups and said they were also concerned about the deal’s impact on jobs and the economy here in the United States.

"Oman’s laws remain in serious violation of the International Labor Organisation’s most important and fundamental rights — the freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively," said Congressman Michael H. Michaud, who joined representatives Linda Sanchez, Jan Schakowsky, Dale Kildee and Hilda Solis in announcing their opposition to the deal in a press conference on Tuesday.

The Arab nation allows no independent trade unions and so-called "worker’s committees" are state-affiliated. Even when they exist, those organisations cannot discuss wages, hours, or conditions of employment.

Like other oil-rich countries in the Gulf, it relies on foreign workers from neighbouring India, Bangladesh and Egypt, who comprise about 80 percent of the workforce in the private sector, where abuse is rife and slave-like conditions have been widely reported.

"It is deeply disappointing that President Bush has decided to allow goods made with slave labour, forced labour, or labour from human trafficking to benefit from U.S. free-trade agreements,’’ said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in a statement.

"I don’t think the American public believes that foreign producers using outrageous labour practices should be able to get special access to the U.S. market."

Some Democrats have also criticised the deal because of its potentially negative impact on the U.S. trade deficit, which hit a record-shattering 726 billion dollars last year. They note that the United States has lost more than three million manufacturing jobs since 1998, partly because of free trade agreements and similar deals.

"Like CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement), the Oman FTA will accelerate job loss and lower living standards in the United States, while increasing poverty in the nations we trade with," Michaud said.

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