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Source: Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)
9 May 2005

Senior Officials Attend Opening of UN-ESCWA 23rd Ministerial Session, Sign Memorandum of Understanding on Maritime Transport

Damascus, 9 May 2005  (United Nations Information Service)-- Under the auspices of President Bashar Al-Assad, the 23rd UN-ESCWA Ministerial Session opened today at the Ebla Cham Palace Hotel, Damascus. It was attended by major political, social, economic, and media figures led by Lebanese Minister of Transport and Public Works Adel Hamiyyeh representing the President of the Republic of Lebanon, MP Ghazi Zeaiter representing the Speaker of Parliament, and Minister of Agriculture and Labour Trad Hamade representing the Lebanese Prime Minister.

The President of the 22nd Session, Egyptian Transport Minister Issam Sharaf, gave an opening speech that was followed by that of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as delivered by UN-ESCWA Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy, who then delivered the speech of UN-ESCWA. This was followed by the speech of Syrian President Al-Assad represented by Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Hussein.

In his speech, Sharaf expressed Egypt's pride in the work of UN-ESCWA and the achievements it has accomplished, be it in transport, wherein it launched the Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq in the 22nd Session that is due to come into effect on 23 May 2005, or in raising the capacity of member countries to deal with globalization and increasing their negotiating skills, and in the Regional Commission's intensive programs for training and technical support to member countries. Sharaf stressed the correlation between the need of member countries for the economic and social services UN-ESCWA provides and the Commission's need for the support of these countries, saying this may take the shape of financial and moral support in Arab and international forums, particularly the United Nations General Assembly.

Sharaf said Egypt was confident in the ability of UN-ESCWA to serve its member countries, praising the efforts of the Executive Secretary and her relentless work and dedication to carrying out her mission, as well as the perseverance of the staff of UN-ESCWA. He concluded by saying, "Egypt commends the major, dedicated efforts of member countries in various spheres of cooperation and regional integration. We are pleased to hand over the presidency of the session to the Syrian Arab Republic and have total confidence in its ability to take over these responsibilities to the fullest extent. I hope this Session answers the expectations of the member countries towards realizing a fruitful and constructive cooperation."

Before speaking on behalf of UN-ESCWA, Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy delivered a speech on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said: "You meet at a time of ongoing political tension and instability in the region, which have clear implications for socio-economic and political development. Yet conflict and turmoil have not deterred your people’s thirst for progress, freedom and reform. Your challenge is to respond to that yearning, so as to realize the great potential of Western Asia’s rich human and natural resources.

Your meeting also takes place as the Member States of the United Nations are looking ahead to the Summit meeting they will hold at the United Nations in September, and are engaging in lively discussions on the Millennium Declaration, the Millennium Development Goals and the proposals put forward in my report, “In larger freedom”.

The basic thrust of my proposals is that we cannot have security without development, we cannot have development without security, and we cannot have either without respect for human rights and the rule of law. Action on each of these fronts reinforces progress on the others. Inaction on any one of them threatens progress on the others. These challenges are truly interconnected. And to succeed in addressing them, we also need to revitalize the institutions of the United Nations itself.

Collective action is essential. People and states may differ as to whether our priorities should be terrorism, human rights or development. We must advance on all of these issues together. Everyone must see that their important concerns are addressed, while at the same time be ready to address the concerns of others. It is encouraging to know that such cooperation already figures so prominently in your plans for the region’s future. I urge you to do your part – for your people through engaging actively in UN-ESCWA, and for all people through your support for bold decisions this coming September. I look forward to working with you in making this year a turning point for the world and for the United Nations."

Tallawy then delivered the following speech on behalf of UN-ESCWA: "This session is being held in the historic Arab capital, Damascus. We greatly appreciate the generosity of the Syrian Arab Republic in hosting the session and of President Bashar Al-Assad in extending to it his patronage, and offer to the Government and people our heartfelt thanks for their warm and generous hospitality.

This well-attended gathering demonstrates the confidence and trust placed by the Syrian Arab Republic in international legitimacy and the role of the United Nations, notwithstanding the major challenges that it is facing, in protecting international law and providing a forum in which countries and, in particular, developing countries, may express their views and make their voices heard. That confidence in the United Nations is natural in the Syrian Arab Republic, a founder member of the organization.

We meet today in the shadow of difficult circumstances facing most of the countries of the region. The wars and conflicts that dominated the Arab region for most of the twentieth century continue to rage unabated, thereby retarding the economy and development and having a negative impact on most of the peoples of the region, depriving them of the opportunity to successfully pursue the same path towards sustainable development as the other regions of the world.

Notwithstanding those difficulties and the challenges that remain, the ESCWA region has been able to make progress in certain fields. If you permit, I will briefly review some regional economic and social developments:

- In 2003 and 2004, economic performance generally improved in the region: average gross domestic product (GDP) growth reached 4.5%, amounting to $598 billion;

- Oil revenues increased to $213 billion in 2004, representing an increase of 29% over 2003. Those revenues represent 40% of GDP for UN-ESCWA member countries and 55% of GDP for Gulf Cooperation Council States;

- Exchange rates have remained relatively stable in most countries of the region;

- Inflation has remained low, ranging between 3 and 5%;

- The foreign trade sector has improved in the countries of the region.

At the social level, enrolment in primary education has risen to 90%. Enrolment in all other levels of education has also risen and drop-out rates have fallen. Interest in issues relating to those with special needs, the ageing, women and the environment has grown.

Nevertheless, despite those positive developments, many challenges continue to face the countries of the region in the economic and social fields, the most important of which is the rise in unemployment to 15%. Youth unemployment is a major concern, having reached 23%, and is one of the most serious problems that threaten the stability of many Arab societies.

It is important that there should be a practical link between the graduates of the education system and the needs of the labour market if the problem of unemployment is not to deteriorate further. Unemployment is linked to the activation of the role of the economy, which must be able to provide employment opportunities for the steady increase in the numbers of entrants to the labour market. If the combined GDP of all UN-ESCWA member countries or, indeed, all the Arab countries, is compared with that of European countries, it will be found to equal the GDP of a medium-range country such as Spain or the Netherlands.

Other challenges facing the countries of the region include the following:

- Low levels of domestic and foreign investment;
- Low numbers of tourists;
- Low levels of interregional trade;
- Albeit rates of illiteracy have fallen, they remain high because of population growth;
- Social policies are not integrated. That does not refer to the provision of such basic social services as education and health, but to the fact that social policies should link the rights and responsibilities of the individual and establish his relationship with the State;
- Population issues require complete overhaul. At stake is not simply population increase and the threat it poses to the development process, but the movement of population from rural to urban areas and, in particular, large cities, the brain-drain and the increased import of unskilled labour from outside the region. The situation is exacerbated by emigration and displacement caused by wars and disputes, which increase the risks to security and stability, thereby weakening development in the region.

In the light of the foregoing, it is debatable whether the countries of the region will be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to which they committed themselves in 2000.

Studies show that the countries of the region will be able to achieve some of those Goals. However, with respect to achieving by 2015 the Goal of reducing by half the number of those living in poverty, some countries will have difficulty, especially Iraq, Palestine and Yemen. Gender equality also seems a remote prospect, given that the representation of women in economic activity remains low, at 20% of the work force outside the agricultural sector. Women’s political participation also remains low: women represent 5% of all members of parliament. Women’s political participation in the UN-ESCWA region is highest in the Syrian Arab Republic (12%) and, in the Arab region, in Tunisia (22%). With regard to health and education goals, particularly with respect to reducing maternal and infant mortality, the region has made progress as the result of health policies and vaccination campaigns.

It is clear from the foregoing that the countries of the region continue to stand in need of many procedures and policies if they are to achieve MDGs and confront the challenges of globalization and international competitiveness. Strenuous efforts must be made to achieve regional integration; increase cooperation between the countries of the region; increase joint undertakings by Arab country private sector and civil society institutions aimed at activating the economic role and directing greater investment towards productive activity; and facilitating the movement of goods and persons between the countries of the region. Why are there no Arab multinational corporations to compete with the large international corporations?

Increased cooperation between countries, effective integration in economic fields and diversifying areas of investment would ensure the internal stability of societies and increase Arab negotiating power with international parties. UN-ESCWA is therefore taking all possible action to strengthen regional cooperation and, in particular, sectoral integration, between its member countries. Activities in that sphere include the following:

- The conclusion of agreements on roads, railways and marine corridors to link the countries of the region. You have already adopted the agreements relating to roads and railways and are invited to sign that relating to maritime transport;

- Concern with water-related issues and the formulation of policies for the integrated management of water;

- Promotion of projects for regional integration in the field of energy and the regional integration of electricity grids, and the taking of steps to establish regional natural gas networks;

- Interest in technology, its regional adaptation and its use to increase production and progress in general. A regional plan of action for building the information society was developed at a meeting held here in Damascus in November 2004;

- Raising awareness of developments relating to globalization and World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements and assisting Arab countries in their efforts to confront those developments. UN-ESCWA will convene a preparatory meeting in order to harmonize the positions of the Arab countries before the WTO meeting that is scheduled to be held in Hong Kong in late 2005;

- Concern for social policies and their integration, given that most challenges and international criticism of Arab societies relate to the social field. For the past three years, UN-ESCWA has been preparing the studies that are necessary in order to assist member countries in ordering their social priorities;

- Response to emergency problems and challenges that arise as the result of lack of political stability, armed conflict, occupation and war. In that regard, UN-ESCWA held the Arab-International Forum on Rehabilitation and Development in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Towards an Independent State. It also provided assistance in building human capacities and training in Iraq, and has established a special unit for such emergency issues.

UN-ESCWA is endeavouring to monitor and analyse erroneous views of and positions taken by foreign countries with respect to the Arab region, in order to provide guidance for the future and provide decision makers with options, solutions to and ways of dealing with those views.

It should be noted that those activities were funded from extrabudgetary resources, thanks to the participation of companies, businessmen and individuals who have faith in the development of the region. In that regard, allow me to express my thanks and gratitude to all those who have contributed to the work of UN-ESCWA and its additional activities, particularly in view of the fact that the United Nations regular budget has remained unchanged for several years, a situation that has obliged UN-ESCWA and the other United Nations regional commissions to seek assistance and contributions from countries and official institutions. The figures show that the value of the Government contributions to the five United Nations regional commissions vary. Set forth below are the contributions received by the Commissions in 2004:

- Economic Commission for Europe: $7,850 million;
- Economic Commission for Africa: $16,400 million;
- Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean: $8,600 million;
- Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific: $9,500 million;
- Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia: $2,400 million.

These figures demonstrate that UN-ESCWA receives the smallest amount of contributions from Western donor Governments, on the grounds that UN-ESCWA member countries are rich oil-producing countries. Member countries only once made a contribution to UN-ESCWA, on the occasion of the commission's removal from Amman to Beirut in 1997.

Notwithstanding the above, UN-ESCWA, thanks to the efforts exerted by its staff, has raised slightly more than $6 million in the past two years of which $4,948,137 has been received, while pledges amounting to $1,374,498 remain outstanding. I therefore hope that member countries will reconsider their policies towards supporting the organization in its projects, that are important for the region, thereby enabling it to achieve its goals, namely, to increase regional cooperation and integration between the member countries.

Joint endeavours and greater cooperation between the UN-ESCWA member countries and Arab countries in general is the only way forward in a world overshadowed by globalization, stiff competition, new trading laws and high-speed technological development. All those challenges require wider markets and greater guarantees. The experience of the European Union shows that it is the joint action that helps each member country to reach the standards required which assists them in achieving the requisite level of performance. Joint support methods include stabilization funds, which are the sole means of encouraging investment, particularly in productive fields, and achieving economic growth, social progress and the advancement of peoples."

The last speech was delivered by Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Hussein on behalf of President Bashar Al-Assad, under whose auspices the Session is being held. He said, "Hosting your conference in Damascus, a city of civilizations and history, underlines Syria's belief in the course of balanced and sustainable economic and social development on the one hand and the role of the United Nations in its sponsorship of international cooperation, development, and bringing peace to all corners of the world, particularly in our Arab region, on the other hand. It was on this basis that the decision was made for Syria to host the 23rd Ministerial Session of UN-ESCWA."

"Over the course of decades past," added Al-Hussein, "the Syrian leadership has stressed the need to provide and insure well-being for citizens as a principle orienting many government policies. This resulted in major progress towards achieving the goals of human development, particularly in health, education, the empowerment of women, environment, and bridging the divide between urban and rural areas.

Hussein pointed out that: "The development process in Syria is taking place in the shadow of a democratic system that safeguards freedom, equality, justice, and human rights. A system that is based on political and economic diversity . In the long term, this in turn sets the stage for continuous improvement in the process of social and economic development, with each supporting the other and augmenting it within the framework of constructive and continuing mutual relations."

Al-Hussein said, "Reading the plans and the experiments of Syria in social and economic development reveals how major axes in the Millennium Declaration have gained a prominent place among the strategic interests and the development experience. This is in the context of balanced development strategies on various levels and in various sectors, such as the balance between the economic and social facets of development, geographic balance between the administrative areas and between the city and the rural areas. This is in addition to gender equity through the empowerment of women and the promotion and development of their capabilities."

The minister concluded by saying, "As we speak of social and economic development in Western Asia, we must stress that the primary needs of this area are peace, stability, and security for its peoples. Unfortunately, our area is one of the most tense in the world because of the situations in Palestine and Iraq. Hence, the key to development and growth in the countries of our region lies in a just and comprehensive peace. That is what Syria and all the countries of the region have been calling for, with the exception of Israel, which is seeking to elude the requirements of peace as per international resolutions."

Office of the Session

Following the opening ceremony, the heads of delegations elected the Office of the Session, with the following results: Mr. Abdallah Dardari, Director of the State Planning Commission in Syria, as Chairperson; Mr. Saadeddine Kharma, Palestinian Minister of Transport, and Mr. Jebara Al Sureiseri, Saudi Minister of Transport, as Deputy Chairpersons; and Mr. Abdellatif bin Hamad, Director-General of the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Economy and Trade, as Rapporteur.

Maritime Transport in the Arab Mashreq

After the election of officers to the Bureau of the Session, an official ceremony was held to sign the "Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Maritime Transport in the Arab Mashreq." A documentary film produced by the United Nations Information Service in collaboration with the Globalization and Regional Integration Division at UN-ESCWA was shown before the signing ceremony. It spotlights the goals of the Memorandum of Understanding and its benefit to the region. Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy then delivered a speech in which she said, "Coming in the wake of the Agreement on International Roads in the Arab Mashreq, which came into effect 19 October 2003, and the Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq, which will come into effect 23 May 2005, the Agreement being presented to you today is a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Maritime Transport in the Arab Mashreq. It is considered the first of its kind in the Arab region and represents the integration of transport networks in the UN-ESCWA region.

This Memorandum aims to identify and implement consistent navigation policies capable of achieving sustainable development for the commercial maritime fleets of member countries; bolstering regional, sub-regional, and intra-regional cooperation with all other areas and regions; holding regular consultations between them aimed at achieving a unified position on the regional and international levels concerning maritime transport policies; adopting solutions to whatever obstacles might come up in the area of maritime transport; promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the maritime transport departments in the member countries; preparing studies that enhance coperation in the field of maritime transport and port operations between the countries of this and other regions; and working to promote the role of national maritime transport institutions."

Tallawy stressed that completing the three-part integrated system of transport in the Arab Mashreq is a first step in the new phase of work at UN-ESCWA as it seeks seriously to achieve regional integration in Western Asia. It is a notable indicator of the determination of member countries to translate their political will into studied practical and scientific steps organized in such a way as to provide various different elements of regional integration to build integrated economic entities that can insure the sustainability of the economic development process and avoid the pitfalls of marginalization in a world ruled by huge multinational entities.

The Memorandum of Understanding was signed by representatives of Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Qatar, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.

Participants are due to attend a roundtable Tuesday morning on "Peace and Security and their Impact on Economic and Social Development in the Arab Region".

A press briefing will be held at 2pm during which the Syrian delegation will be speaking and wherein two flagship studies published by UN-ESCWA will be launched, namely: "Annual Review of Developments in Globalization and Regional Integration in UN-ESCWA Member Countries, 2004" and a "Summary of a Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the UN-ESCWA Region, 2005."

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