WTO meeting takes place in Abu Dhabi

The world’s trade ministers could put the final touches to a historic fisheries deal when they meet in Abu Dhabi later this month, but other landmark agreements will likely prove more elusive.


Two years ago at its Geneva headquarters, the WTO’s last major gathering struck deals on fisheries, on COVID vaccine patents, and on the need to reform the global trade body itself.

But ahead of the WTO’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13), set for Feb. 26-29, trade diplomats admit they are unlikely to break out the champagne.

“It’s going to be a bit of a battle,” said one Western diplomat.

Rashid Kaukab, a professor at the International Institute in Geneva (IIG) business school, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that some deals could be accomplished.

But “no big bang, no solution to everything”, the former Pakistani diplomat told AFP.

Adding to the challenges for those gathering in the United Arab Emirates is the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea.

Even without such difficulties, reaching agreement on anything is a feat at the WTO, where full consensus is needed to conclude a deal.

Most hope rests on finalising a historic agreement banning harmful fisheries subsidies, which was reached in 2022 after more than two decades of negotiations.

But no other major text is on the table.

Food security is once again on the agenda.

India and its WTO allies, including China, are demanding that a temporary measure agreed in 2013, allowing countries to hold public stockpiles of food, be made permanent.

But there is deep disagreement over the measure, amid concerns that such public stocks, if released beyond a country’s borders, could disrupt global food markets.

Washington made clear last month that this measure was “impossible.”

The meeting in Abu Dhabi is meanwhile seen by many as “the last chance” to reform the organisation before the possible re-election in November of former U.S. president Donald Trump.

During his four years in office, Trump threatened to pull the United States out of the WTO.

“Everybody is very well aware of this dynamic going on and how the U.S. election may affect potential outcomes,” Pablo Bentes, a WTO specialist with the Baker McKenzie international law firm, told AFP.

But despite the air of urgency to complete the reform agenda, there are few signs of progress.

Washington and others are calling for an end to a practice allowing countries themselves to declare if they should be considered a developing nation.