Despite a promise made to Washington last November to drop its economic boycott of Israel, Saudi Arabia plans to host a major international conference next week aimed at promoting a continued trade embargo on the Jewish state, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The Post also found that the kingdom continues to prohibit entry to products made in Israel or to foreign-made goods containing Israeli components, in violation of pledges made by senior Saudi officials to the Bush administration last year.
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"Next week, we will hold the ninth annual meeting for the boycott of Israel here in Jidda," Ambassador Salem el-Honi, high commissioner of the Organization for the Islamic Conference's (OIC) Islamic Office for the Boycott of Israel, said in a telephone interview.
"All 57 OIC member states will attend, and we will discuss coordination among the various offices to strengthen the boycott," he said, noting that the meeting is held every March.
The OIC, consisting of 57 Muslim countries, is based in Jidda, as is its boycott office.
Honi, a former Saudi diplomat, has headed the boycott office for the past four years.
The scheduled gathering is listed on the OIC's official Web site in a section entitled "Provisional Calendar of Meetings."
Hamed Salah a-Din, of the OIC General Secretariat, confirmed in a telephone interview that the conference would take place from March 13 to 15, describing it as "our regular annual meeting about the boycott."
The Saudi decision to host the parley appears to run counter to assurances that Riyadh gave the Bush administration when Saudi Arabia was seeking entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
On November 11, the WTO's ruling general council voted to grant Saudi Arabia entry into the prestigious group, which aims to promote international free trade, after it agreed to scrap restrictions on doing business with Israel.
Christin Baker, the assistant US trade representative for public and media affairs, told the Post via e-mail that the US had "ensured that Saudi Arabia in its recent accession to the WTO has taken on all rights and obligations with respect to all WTO members, including Israel."
"Saudi Arabia," she said, "did not invoke the non-application provisions of the WTO agreement with respect to any member," meaning that it must treat all members equally, "including Israel."
Likewise, in hearings last month before the US Senate Finance Committee, US trade representative Rob Portman insisted that the Saudis "have a responsibility to treat Israel as any other member of the WTO."
"We've received assurances from Saudi Arabia," Portman said in separate testimony before the US House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee. "They will abide by their WTO commitments."
Nonetheless, the Post has found, Saudi customs officials continue to enforce the boycott, asserting that no Israeli-made goods be allowed into the country.
"Absolutely not - if it is from Israel it is not allowed," Hamad Abdul Aziz of the Saudi Customs Department at Jidda's Islamic seaport said by phone. "I checked with my manager, and he said it is completely forbidden."
Similarly, a Saudi customs official at King Abdul Aziz Airport outside Jidda also said that Israeli goods were not allowed into the kingdom. "It is prohibited," he said. "It is not allowed to bring any goods made in Israel, whether the whole item or only part of it was made there. That is the rule."
In December, just weeks after being allowed into the WTO, Saudi officials were quoted in the Arab press as insisting that the boycott of Israel would continue. This has raised concerns in Washington that the Saudis are not planning to live up to their commitment.
Baker revealed to the Post that "a team of anti-boycott experts from the US departments of Commerce and State has been visiting the region to discuss efforts to eliminate the boycott."
She added that later this month, "a senior USTR official plans to visit Saudi Arabia and will again seek assurances that Saudi Arabia understands and remains committed to its WTO obligations."