KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 1 (AFP): The 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference Saturday urged Muslim nations and business leaders to support an Islamic free trade area, saying it was the way forward for economic progress.
The initiative would "enable us to overcome the obstacles and bottlenecks that hinder the development of trade and investment between our countries," OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said.
A number of Muslim nations are to sign a protocol on a preferential trading system in November, but that only represents "very modest progress", Ekmeleddin told the World Islamic Economic Forum in a speech read out by another official.
While the share of intra-OIC trade in Muslim countries' overall trade had improved in the last few years from 10 percent in 2000 to 13.5 percent in 2003, it remained low, he said.
"Such a situation is the result of a large number of major obstacles, which impeded the wide expansion of trade and investment, namely tariff, non-tariff and administrative obstacles and lack of communication and transport means and inappropriate financing schemes," he said.
Ekmeleddin warned that Muslim nations would be disadvantaged if they failed to forge multilateral trading alliances.
"The current world conjecture is marked by the increasing emergence of regional groupings where isolated countries cannot survive," he said.
"We therefore should pool our resources together and undertake common, global and sensible action to handle efficiently our economic situations and set up our economic infrastructures in a bid to alleviate poverty."
More than 500 government officials and business leaders from 44 countries are attending the three-day forum, which is aimed at boosting economic links between Muslim communities.
Organisers include Malaysia's foreign affairs ministry, Pakistan's Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Morocco's Islamic Centre for Development and Trade and Malaysian think tank the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz Saturday outlined a "roadmap" to economic progress for Muslim countries, including overcoming crippling conflicts and promoting better governance.
Aziz said Muslim nations had so far failed to realise their economic potential despite holding vast resources of 70 per cent of the world's hydrocarbons and exporting 40 per cent of raw materials globally.
Aziz, who is also Pakistan's finance minister, outlined what he called a "roadmap" to make the most of the potential of Muslim nations.
He said countries' economies had to be restructured through deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation to promote growth, while ensuring good governance to attract investment.
He also called for a strengthened role for the Islamic Development Bank, the lending and investment arm of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and more emphasis on good governance in funding initiatives.
Other components of his roadmap include greater unity and cooperation among Muslim nations, better social services such as health and education, more resources for education, and a more prominent role for the 57-nation OIC.
Aziz also said that the conflicts dogging some Muslim nations had to be overcome because they had distracted leaders from pursuing economic progress.
Aziz said negative perceptions of Islam, including links made between terrorism and the religion, were the biggest problem facing Muslims, and that it could only be overcome by better economic progress.
The World Islamic Economic Forum, supported by the OIC, has gathered more than 500 delegates from 44 countries including government officials, business leaders and non-government organisations to discuss greater economic and business cooperation.