Trade and Investment

10 things we learned at the WTO's trade meeting in Abu Dhabi

Trade ministers from across the world met at the WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi.

Trade ministers from across the world met at the WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Simon Lacey
Head, Digital Trade and Geopolitics, World Economic Forum
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Trade and Investment

  • Trade ministers from across the world met in Abu Dhabi at the World Trade Organization's (WTO) 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13).
  • The meeting concluded with WTO members adopting a Ministerial Declaration setting out a reform agenda for the organization.
  • Here's what we learned about the future of trade at this year's meeting.

Trade ministers from across the world met in Abu Dhabi last week to discuss and review the functioning of the world trade system and the future work of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) concluded with members adopting a Ministerial Declaration, but with limited scope.

Here’s what we learned at MC-13 in Abu Dhabi.

1. WTO membership reached 166

Before negotiations on some of the more intractable issues got started, some low-hanging fruit was harvested in the form of decisions accepting the terms of accession of two least developed countries (LDCs) Comoros and Timor-Leste – the first countries to join the WTO since Liberia and Afghanistan joined in July 2016. This now brings the total WTO membership to 166.

2. Services trade got a boost, as did investment facilitation

Another early outcome was the announcement of the entry into force of a joint initiative by 72 WTO members, on services domestic regulation, intended to improve transparency and procedural fairness around how governments regulate traded services, and which is estimated to potentially lower trade costs by some $125 billion worldwide.

An arguably positive outcome was a decision by 123 WTO members to adopt the final text of the Investment Facilitation for Development Agreement, an area where the World Economic Forum is deeply vested in supporting countries to adopt, ratify and implement, as well as to benefit from the many changes that will be ushered in by this new agreement. However, members failed to formally integrate this agreement into the WTO legal text, leaving open questions on what comes next.

3. It’s time to cut least developed countries a break

One significant outcome was the agreement among members on steps to facilitate the transition for countries graduating from LDC status, as defined by the United Nations. This transition can be challenging, as it often results in the loss of preferential market access and other benefits.

The declaration adopted in Abu Dhabi aims to ease this process by allowing these countries to retain certain benefits for up to three years. This includes extended provisions under the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding and eligibility for LDC-specific trade-related assistance and capacity building.

4. Harmful fisheries subsidies, agriculture kicked down the road

The failure to make progress on a broad agriculture agenda and a targeted deal on harmful fisheries subsidies was a disappointment, particularly on the latter as agreement was seen to be close.

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Members essentially agreed to return to Geneva and keep talking on multiple issues. By the close of the meeting, WTO members recognised the progress that had been made on issues, and reaffirmed the importance of achieving outcomes at some point in the near future – in fact in 2024 in the case of dispute settlement.

5. Many topics are stuck multilaterally

On many other topics, however, ministers could not all agree on their incorporation into the outcome text. That includes, for example, the important topic of industrial policy and the many trade distortions it can potentially create, as well as trade’s evolving and complex relationship with the environment.

6. E-commerce duties on hold, for now – again

Ahead of MC13, there was a great deal of anxiety about whether WTO members would fail to extend a moratorium on customs duties on cross-border electronic transmissions, which could potentially result in tariffs on emails or streamed content. The moratorium was extended in the closing play of the conference for another two years or until MC14.

7. WTO members take up environment in thematic sub-groups

A group of 78 WTO members released a ministerial statement on trade actions to tackle plastics pollution and a plan for next steps in their talks, while another group of 76 WTO members unveiled a package of outcomes from their talks on trade and the environment and a roadmap for further results by MC14.

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A further 48 WTO members presented a plan to work towards cutting harmful fossil fuel subsidies. Finally, the Coalition of Trade Ministers on Climate – a group of 61 ministers – met alongside MC13 and issued a set of voluntary actions as best practices to align trade with climate action.

8. Tradetech grabs attention

The World Economic Forum’s trade and investment community was active in Abu Dhabi at several side events. The 2024 TradeTech Forum, organised in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Economy, and the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, brought more than 400 diverse stakeholders together.

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Participants debated how to lower trade costs through new technologies, while technology startups and innovators showcased their ideas in a dedicated space.

9. Stakeholders want to debate

Community representatives joined panels on investment facilitation, trade and climate change, as well as critical minerals and geopolitical competition at a Trade and Sustainability Hub organised by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The World Economic Forum also organised a breakfast discussion together with the United States National Foreign Trade Council on the way forward from MC13.

10. Trade is a marathon, not a sprint

Although some will undoubtedly claim that MC13 was a disappointment, those with a more nuanced understanding of the organization know that this is a marathon not a sprint, so that outcomes only result from long, hard and technically complex negotiations that rely on cooperation and compromise.

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The World Economic Forum looks forward to working with WTO members, Geneva and capital-based delegates, and its partners in the global business community to support the important work that goes on at the WTO, both at and between meetings of the Ministerial Conference.

We see this work as pivotal to rebuilding trust, upholding the rules-based order, promoting international cooperation and constructively managing tensions in an increasingly fragmented global economy so that the benefits of continued economic growth and prosperity can be enjoyed by all.

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