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Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 18:08 GMT
WTO heads for Qatar
Riot police in Seattle during the WTO meeting in 1999
Critics say Qatar was chosen to avoid protests
World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states have formally agreed to hold their next ministerial meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar.

It will be the organisation's first meeting at this level since its disastrous gathering in Seattle in 1999, and the joint World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague last year.

Both were heavily disrupted by protesters.

Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani
Sheikh Hamad: Not afraid of controversy
The decision to go to Qatar has been condemned by some anti-globalisation groups.

They say the WTO is attempting to head off protests by holding its meeting in an inaccessible country, with tough rules on issuing visas and what they call an authoritarian regime.

"This outrageous decision sends the clear message that it is OK to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in pursuit of free trade," said Barry Coates of the UK-based World Development Movement.

"The WTO has retreated to this inaccessible, repressive state where it won't be able hear the calls for much needed reform."

A number of human rights, labour and environmental organisations have also expressed their disapproval of the move.

Only offer

The decision was taken at a meeting in Geneva of the WTO's general council which groups the organisation's 140 member states.

The EU said it fully supported the choice of Qatar.

Spokesman Anthony Gooch said authorities there had given assurances that there would be "transparency for civil society and the news media."

Most developing countries strongly supported Qatar's offer to host the summit.

It was the only firm offer the WTO had.

Qatar says it will allow peaceful demonstrations during the meeting.

"We will not prevent anybody from entering (the country) to demonstrate on condition that the demonstrations are peaceful," Finance, Economy & Trade Minister Yousef Hussein Kamal said.

"We will allow them to express their views in total freedom."

Higher profile

Qatar has adopted a higher international profile since its emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, toppled his father in a 1995 coup.

The country has hosted a number of sizeable international gatherings including the Organisation of the Islamic Conference leaders summit last year and the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) economic summit in 1997.

It holds several international sports tournaments and says it is keen to encourage tourism.

Its economy is also expanding fast, thanks to development of huge natural gas reserves.

In foreign affairs, Qatar has not been afraid of controversy, being among the first Gulf Arab countries to establish trade links with Israel and deepen relations with Iran.

Although this has been accompanied by some modest political reforms at home - including municipal elections and greater press freedom - human rights groups are severely critical of a ban on free assembly.

They say this makes Qatar an inappropriate choice to host the WTO meeting.

Unions letter

US trade unions have also come out in opposition, with United Steelworkers of America president George Becker describing the WTO as "cynical" and "arrogant".

His union was among 20 that signed a letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Trade Representative-designate Robert Zoellick, calling for the US to oppose a WTO meeting in Qatar.

Qatar might also face practical problems. A shortage of hotel accommodation in Doha, the capital, meant it could only host the Mena summit by anchoring floating hotels offshore.

In testimony prepared for delivery to the Senate Finance Committe, Mr Zoellick said he would work hard to promote free trade as part of a new bipartisan policy.

"We must build a new consensus to promote open markets and trade in the decades to come," he said.

"I want to... mobilise broad support for freer trade."

The WTO meeting in Qatar is pencilled in for 5-9 November.

Dates are due to be confirmed by the general council on 8 February.

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See also:

27 Jan 01 | Business
WTO on the defensive
23 Jan 01 | Business
World trade dilemmas
09 Nov 00 | Middle East
Qatar cuts links with Israel
12 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
2006 Asian Games awarded to Doha
19 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Qatar
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