22 February 2021


A recent PhD thesis investigates why Arab countries participate less than other developing countries in the WTO’s core functions of treaty implementation, negotiations and dispute settlement. Since 2017, this participation is slightly increasing following dispute cases involving the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) and North Arab-African countries. Said El Hachimi coins this as a “shock therapy” moment and provides suggestions for strengthening Arab countries’ engagement with the WTO.

How did you come to choose the participation of Arab countries in the WTO as your PhD topic?

I come from Morocco and worked as a trade diplomat for my country before becoming a WTO official. During these years I was privileged to observe trade policies of fellow Arab countries, including their membership of the WTO. I was struck by the weak impact these countries have in the WTO despite their geopolitical weight (G20 membership, top 20 world exporters, etc.). In comparison, many developing countries, from Asia and Latin America in particular, were reasserting their role in the multilateral trading system and influencing the work of the WTO. I wanted to know the reasons behind these low levels of participation and hopefully offer some suggestions going forward.

Can you describe your research questions?

The primary question is whether the participation of Arab countries in the WTO's core functions – treaty implementation, negotiations and dispute settlement – is commensurate with their relative geopolitical and economic importance. Related issues are the extent to which their membership of the WTO has resulted in the outcomes anticipated and whether their engagement is commensurate with the expectations, objectives, or strategies that frame their participation in the system. Finally, this thesis explores the extent to which such strategies or game plans do exist.

Thirteen Arab countries joined the GATT and subsequently the WTO. These 13 countries represent approximately 8% of total WTO membership and 5% of world trade. The benefits they have obtained from the system have to be assessed to determine whether the efforts and reforms that their accession process entailed are matched by optimal participation and benefits from the multilateral trading system that they have embraced. Equally important is knowing whether their participation in the core functions of the system is on a par with the levels of participation of other developing countries, particularly from East Asia and Latin America.

As capacity is not enough to fully explain the low levels of participation by Arab countries, it is also important to explore if Arab countries show more preference for other trade regimes. Of particular interest is whether their engagement is greater in regional integration and/or with free trade agreements (FTAs) than it is with the WTO.

There are probably no definitive answers as to what would be the optimal level of participation, nor to the issue of whether participation in the WTO is a necessity or a desirable outcome in the first place, but it is a matter worth exploring. What is certain is that measuring levels of participation in a legal regime is not a panacea. However, it is an indicator of the value attached to international law in municipal regimes.

What was your methodology?

Methodologically, a range of specific analytical tools were applied. These included statistical and substantive content analysis, comparative analysis with members in other regions such as Latin America, Turkey and China for example. An important effort was devoted to collecting data from various WTO committees and working groups and other relevant bodies. The data collection encompassed looking at minutes, reports and statements from relevant bodies overseeing WTO “regular” and “negotiations” work. Equally, participation to the dispute settlement mechanism was analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. In addition, a survey and semi-structured interviews/informal conversations were led, supplemented with the participant/observer role of the author.

Can you sum up your major findings?

The main finding is that Arab countries’ levels of participation to the WTO are extremely low in comparison to other developing countries from Asia and Latin America, in terms both of their chairpersonships of WTO regular and negotiating committees as well as of their substantive inputs into these proceedings. 

There has been only one Arab chairperson of the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) since 1995. With 15 panellists overall, the Arab region has the same number as a single country from the Latin American region – Colombia alone has 15 panellists. Dispute cases at the WTO are examined by panels of three members. Turkey has been observing dispute cases (as a so-called third party) more than all 13 Arab countries taken together.

However, 2017 marked a turning point in the participation of Arab countries in the DSB. Many Arab countries became claimants and respondents for the first time in disputes, some of which involved Qatar and its sister GCC countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). Clearly, the fact that countries from the Arab region are enhancing their participation and gaining experience either as parties or third parties is having an impact in convincing reluctant capital-based authorities of the value of engaging further in the DSB. Views based on the comparable experiences of developing countries, particularly from Latin America, suggest that Arab countries are at the beginning of their DSB learning curve and are at the stage that Latin American countries found themselves two decades ago.

As to the preference of Arab countries for other trade regimes, it was found that their commitments vary but overall their commitments to the WTO are in an intermediary position between what can be considered “strong” commitments made through the strategic FTAs with the US and EU, and the other, weaker, commitments made through regional FTAs such as the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA) or the Agadir Agreement.  

Arab countries are probably in a “shock therapy moment”. The dissertation suggests that they should seize this momentum and consolidate the nascent institutional arrangements and the consultations with the private sector. The dissertation ends with some suggestions going forward.

What would you say are the issues on which your thesis help shed a new light?

A considerable amount of research has looked at developing countries’ participation in the multilateral trading system. This literature, however, has two main shortcomings. Firstly, it takes little account of the Arab group as separate from its natural, but wider, constituency of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A granular analysis of the Arab group sheds a light on the difference with Turkey, Pakistan and Israel, countries included in MENA but who enjoy extremely higher levels of participation. Secondly, current available research focuses on the main functions of the WTO individually, concentrating on either the negotiating function or the litigation function. There is no holistic approach to analysing the participation of Arab countries in the multilateral trading system.

The analysis contained in this thesis combines assessment of the three functions of the WTO and should prove to be a positive addition to current literature. Analysing the participation across the three functions gives a much clearer picture of the depth of the problems but also offers the opportunity to investigate why it is worthwhile for Arab countries to have a harmonised trade policy across all three fronts in the WTO.

What could be the political implications of your thesis?

If this dissertation is allowed into being prescriptive, humbly suggesting a few actions going forward, it is imperative to consider the unprecedented events that occurred during the last stages of drafting the dissertation in 2020. Firstly, the WTO Appellate Body (AB) came to a halt in December 2019 as the number of AB members was down to one member only; secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic of unprecedented scale has paralysed even further all areas of work of the WTO.

It is against this background that the dissertation takes stock of the situation of Arab countries’ participation and briefly makes a few proposals aiming to strengthen the “shock therapy moment” measures; these proposals include considering the WTO as a complement to other trade regimes for Arab countries; learning from the experience of other developing countries; tapping into the “Geneva ecosystem of legal expertise”; and widening the circle of knowledge about the WTO in Arab countries vis-à-vis academics, the private sector and the public at large.

How do you think the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director General will impact the participation of Arab countries in the WTO?

Let me first say that as a WTO Official and as a Moroccan, I am very proud to see a fellow African lead the WTO. Dr Ngozi is also the first woman to lead the WTO in history. With such credentials she is certainly good news for us at the WTO. I personally think that she understands extremely well the constraints of developing countries’ participation in the WTO and will certainly work with Arab member countries to enhance their impact on WTO processes. Given their potential, these countries could impact all three functions of the WTO: they can be consensus builders on many negotiating issues; they can be decisive in terms of capacity building in their own countries as well in other developing and least-developed countries (LDCs).

What are you doing now?

I am continuing my duties as a WTO official facing challenges posed to many among us coping with the COVID-19 constraints. However, ideas to follow up on the thesis are diverse. One of them is to be a bit more explicit about the “shock therapy moment” and how to translate this dynamic into further engagement by Arab countries in the WTO. I am also considering publishing in Arabic some of the content of the thesis along the lines of a potential “Arab Multilateral Trade Diplomacy Guide”.

*  *  *

Said El Hachimi defended his PhD thesis in International Law in October 2020. Assistant Professor Anne Saab presided the committee, which included Professor Joost Pauwelyn, supervisor, and Georges Abi-Saab, Honorary Professor of International Law.

Full citation of the PhD thesis
El Hachimi, Said. “Legal and Institutional Aspects of Arab Countries Participation to the World Trade Organization.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository. 

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Dana.S/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.