|Muslim world must focus on economic development|
|New preferential trading system hailed as kick-start to integration of Islamic nations' economies
Organisation of the islamic conference forum
Muslim nations must unleash their potential by focusing on economic development and building trade links with each other, Malaysia's premier told attendees of an international Islamic trade forum.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi hailed a new preferential trading system to be signed by 14 of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members this year as an initiative to kick-start the process.
"This is an important first step toward the larger goal of greater economic integration among OIC countries," he said in an opening address to the forum.
"It is economic strength which can give the OIC greater clout and secure for itself a more influential voice in international affairs," he said.
Abdullah said it was up to member countries to ensure that the preferential trading system was successfully implemented.
"I hope the system can be adapted or another system put in place to promote greater involvement of the less-developed members in economic development as a whole," he said, adding that this was the best way to create wealth.
Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz said on the sidelines that the balance of the 43 countries will be brought into the preferential trading system once it is in place, probably by year's end.
The countries that have already signed and ratified the framework agreement are Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Cameroon, Indonesia, Guinea, Jordan, Uganda, she said.
Under the system, countries will reduce tariffs in a gradual three-stage process, while there will also be fast track mechanisms, said Rafidah.
"Increasingly we'll be offering market access and duty free [access] to each other in the longer term," she said.
Current negotiations, expected to conclude by September, are tackling tariff reductions and the implementation period for the agreement, said Rafidah, adding that the protocol will be finalized in November.
She said the preferential trading system will complement a parallel system for eight OIC countries, including Malaysia, Egypt and Pakistan, talks for which commenced last year.
"In other words within the OIC itself there are already two parallel market-opening mechanisms being established, which is good," she said.
In addition to the trading system, Abdullah said that governments and business communities must develop existing institutions like Islamic banking and chambers of commerce in order to promote economic integration.
"Let us look at ways in which we can leverage our strength. Clearly these must be areas where we not only have a natural advantage but also the critical mass to make our initiatives successful." The Malaysian leader said that one of the biggest challenges confronting the OIC is the deep economic imbalances between members, which "should be viewed as an imperative for cooperation rather than as an obstacle." Abdullah called for education in OIC countries to be improved, pointing out that Islamic scientists had made immense contributions in the past but was now lagging badly.
"Out of the total population of 1.3 billion in OIC member states, less than 300,000 qualify as scientists. In comparison, the United States of America has 1.1 million scientists; Japan has 700,000," he said.
The Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is playing host to a range of meetings on the Islamic finance and information technology sectors this week.
Malaysia, the current chair of the OIC, has been pushing for closer economic integration in the grouping and for nations to develop their Islamic finance sectors as a way of strengthening their economies. Rafidah told the OIC trade forum that member nations must address their very low participation in global commerce, which accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total in 2003.
Beirut,06 27 2005
The Daily Star