By Siham Ali and Jemal Oumar
Maghreb foreign ministers met in Rabat on Saturday (February 18th) to lay the groundwork for greater economic and political co-operation as part of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA).
The event came as the UMA celebrated its 23rd birthday on Friday. However, what the union has achieved so far falls short of people’s aspirations, the Maghreb officials said.
“We need to adopt a roadmap based on four key concepts,” said UMA Secretary-General Habib Ben Yahya. “Firstly, we need to sign an agreement to create a free trade area, getting ministers to meet in Tripoli as soon as possible.”
Ben Yahya added that countries needed to unify legislation, particularly with regards to investment. He said it was “equally urgent” to convene the assembly of the Maghreb investment and foreign trade bank, planned for Tunis.
Furthermore, the secretary-general urged member states to adopt “a Maghreb-wide youth strategy”. According to Ben Yahya, a study of the issue should be completed by June 2012.
Libyan Foreign Minister Ashour Ben Khayal thought it necessary to pay particular attention to young people, saying that the strategy should be far-reaching: protecting young people and guaranteeing access to the job market.
On top of the economic and social challenges, there are the additional problems of security.
“Terrorism and cross-border crime place a heavy burden on the region, and it is therefore important to increase co-operation on the matter,” said Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, who called for a meeting on the issue in Algiers.
The climate is right to move forward, according to Moroccan Foreign Minister Saadeddine El Othmani.
“The wind of democracy which has blown through the region will certainly breathe new life into the future of Maghreb co-operation. There now exists the will to build a real Maghreb union,” he said.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem indicated that the time had come to overcome differences, explaining that it was necessary to activate all of the UMA’s structures. The ministers also discussed plans for the 7th UMA summit, slated to take place this year in Tunisia, which Abdessalem said will be an opportunity to lay the foundations of real co-operation.
Maghreb heads of state have backed up the calls for increased collaboration. In a letter to heads of state on the UMA’s 23rd anniversary, King Mohammed VI said, “The profound changes experienced by the Maghreb and Arab region, as well as the ambitions of the brother peoples of the Maghreb, who aspire to greater liberty, democracy, dignity, integrated development, shared progress and social justice, are all factors which encourage us to reaffirm our commitment to building the new Maghreb, which is an essential strategic prospect.”
Meanwhile, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pointed out that Maghreb unity was an urgent need in an age when nations are coming together at the regional and international level.
“This is undoubtedly a favourable opportunity to turn our thoughts into action, building a new Maghreb structure, founded on economic complementarity underpinned by shared policies across all fields,” Bouteflika said.
Mauritanians discuss UMA future
As Maghreb foreign ministers prepared to meet in Rabat, Mauritania played host to a seminar on the future of the UMA.
The Arab-African Centre for Information and Development in Nouakchott last Wednesday (February 16th) organised a discussion on the union, inviting former UMA ministers, as well as a number of ambassadors, intellectuals, researchers and journalists.
Dr Mohamed Lamine Ould al-Ketab, a former ambassador and the first president of Nouakchott University, said that it was feasible to attain the goals of the union and unite the region’s 90 million people. He added that the recent revolutions have created a strong dynamic that will change the political scene in the region.
Ould al-Ketab said that the current economic crisis in neighbouring states necessitated greater co-operation. “The first step that can be taken is to intensify economic exchanges, facilitate the movement of individuals and cancel visas until we build a vertical political institutional integration,” he said.
In his turn, Bismiallah Alih Ould Ahmed, a former Mauritanian secretary of state for Maghreb affairs, noted that “the current disintegration costs Maghreb countries a lot of money while the union will reduce the size of expenditure because inter-Maghreb trade today accounts for just 3% as compared to more than 20% with other countries.”