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Sunday, June 25, 2006

US trade official under fire for covering for Saudis

US Congressman Robert Wexler (D- Fla.) has written a letter demanding an explanation from United States Trade Representative (USTR) Susan Schwab of Schwab's defense of the Saudis' trade record during her May nomination hearing before the US Senate Finance Committee. At that hearing, Schwab told Senators that reports that the Saudis were violating their pledge to dismantle the anti-Israel boycott were "incorrect". She also insisted that her office had received "assurances" from the Saudis that they were no longer enforcing the anti-Israel boycott.

Speaking at a June 19 policy lunch at the Brookings Institution, Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki al-Faisal acknowledged that his country continued to bar Israeli-made goods from entering the kingdom, saying that it was "an issue of national sovereignty," according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by the Jerusalem Post.

The Bush administration conditioned Saudi Arabia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on its removal of the boycott, and the Saudis were allowed to join the WTO in December only after they pledged to do so. The WTO, which aims to promote free trade, prohibits members from engaging in discriminatory practices such as boycotts or embargoes. Israel is also a member of the WTO.

In the letter to Schwab, Representative Wexler wrote, "Ambassador Al-Faisal's assertion that Saudi Arabia continues to enforce the primary boycott of Israel stands in stark violation of its commitments under the WTO."

"Ambassador Schwab," he wrote, "it is clear that either the Saudi government is acting duplicitously or there is a misunderstanding between Congress and the USTR. At this juncture, I respectfully request that you explain to what extent - if at all - USTR was made aware of Saudi Arabia's ongoing enforcement of the Arab League boycott of Israel, and please explain the response of USTR to the aforementioned Saudi claims."

In March of this year, the Saudis hosted a major event to promote the Arab boycott of Israel, and in May, a report issued by the Saudi Samba Financial Group entitled "Saudi Arabia and the WTO" claimed (the link is to a summary - the full report is here) that its admission to the WTO did not require Saudi Arabia to change its trade policy regarding Israel, a week after Ambassador Schwab's testimony.

It sounds to me like Ambassador Schwab deserves to be under fire.

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