TEHRAN – In 1964, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey came together and formed the Regional Development Cooperation (RCD). It was a visionary initiative because regional economic groupings were not in fashion. At a time when the world lacked a global and regional vision and shared solutions, RCD called for effective multilateralism at the regional level and played its role as a central coordinating organization. The idea was to convert the historical affinities and brotherhood between the three countries into a well-defined multilateral platform. It was envisioned that the main focus would be on promoting the economy through trade and connectivity as well as strengthening cultural ties. Over the past four decades, ECO’s voice in regional affairs has assumed particular importance.

The RCD operated until the Islamic Revolution inaugurated Iran in 1979. After a brief interlude, it was reactivated as the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OCE) in 1985. Later in another historic development , after the Central Asian Republics (CAR) became independent states, the membership base of the Organization was broadened and, with the inclusion of the CAR and Afghanistan, it reached 10. The theme common economic prosperity through the building blocks of trade, connectivity, tourism, energy and cultural cooperation struck a chord with all members who were motivated to preserve their independence and promote progress economic and prosperity.

The region that makes up the current Organization for Economic Cooperation (ECA) is unique in many ways. The people of the region are historically known to share common bonds of faith, culture and connectivity across land and sea. Traders in this region used to travel far and wide through various trade routes. For example, the Silk Road was a network of various trade routes that connected East and West, since the 2nd century BC. It was at the heart of economic, cultural, political and religious interactions between these regions and peoples.

In contemporary times, the term Silk Road is used to refer to certain land and sea routes that connect East Asia and Southeast Asia to South Asia, Persia, the Peninsula Arabian, the Near East, East Africa and Southern Europe. Trade activity has shifted from the main trade routes of the past to more recent routes between modern nation states. Initially, this commercial activity was carried out without traditional trade protection and under international free trade agreements, which allowed commercial goods to cross borders with relaxed restrictions. However, over time, innovative transport and ideas take hold of modern connectivity and, consequently, of commerce.

All these questions will be debated at the 15th ECO summit to be held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on November 28, 2021 under a significant theme: “Towards the future together”. The Summit is likely to be attended at the level of Heads of State / Government, coming to Ashgabat amid important developments in the world in general and in the region in particular.

Over the years, ECO has undertaken major initiatives in the areas of connectivity, trade, energy, tourism and cultural, social and scientific development. It has also created its regional institutions and specialized agencies. The aim is to improve the visibility and awareness of the peoples of the region and to reactivate the same old commercial activity that defined the region. Some of these initiatives include: (I) building trade corridors to remove restrictions and obstacles to promoting intra-regional trade; (II) establish an ECO visa regime to promote tourism and people-to-people contacts; (III) promote scientific, cultural and educational cooperation; and (iv) establish regional financial institutions such as ECO Trade Bank and ECO Clearing Union to finance regional projects, etc. In addition, ECO has also developed a dedicated program to extend development assistance to Afghanistan. Various development and assistance initiatives have been undertaken so far under this program.

The Covid pandemic that has enveloped the entire world has disrupted interactions, commerce and regular transport. There was hardly any aspect of life that was unaffected. Trade and tourism were among the most affected sectors. The ECO region was no exception.

Over the years, ECO has undertaken major initiatives in the areas of connectivity, trade, energy, tourism and cultural, social and scientific development. Under these conditions, ECO modified its operations. Virtual and hybrid modes of interaction have been adopted to continue the schedule of activities and ensure that most of the annual work plan has been carried out as planned.

The ECO Covid guidelines have been developed to ensure that intra-regional trade remains unhindered or at best is affected to a minimum.

In order to ensure regular representation in the Secretariat, another important decision was taken to develop a list for the regular transfer of the Presidency each year among the Member States in alphabetical order. This regular transfer of presidency was not the practice in the past.

In addition, at the 14th Summit, another decision was taken to conduct a mid-term review of Vision 2025 – a key document that set the Organization’s agenda to be achieved by 2025. The document of Vision was adopted in Islamabad in 2017. The aim was to assess the progress made so far and make further recommendations to ensure that most of the goals set out in the vision document are met or that progress is made. significant are recorded towards their realization. The review report produced under the Chairmanship – Turkmenistan, and the Co-Chairs – Iran and Pakistan, will be presented to the Summit.

The major breakthrough achieved in the field of transport during the current year has been the operationalization of the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul road corridor. On October 7, 2021, two cargoes were dispatched from Karachi, Pakistan, to Turkey and Azerbaijan each under the TIR Convention. They carried out a successful operation with effective cooperation from the relevant authorities in Iran and Turkey.

The ECO-ITI project was first launched in 2011 and after constant monitoring and support from Member States – Pakistan, Iran and Turkey – as well as the ECO Secretariat, was finally operationalized to serve the cause of regional connectivity and economic integration. Its transit operations can be further improved by digitizing the corridor to simplify the administrative procedures involved at border crossings and during transit.

In the area of ​​promoting intra-regional trade which represented around 8.3% of the total foreign trade of the CEE member states, ECOTA is awaiting implementation due to the lack of a general agreement on its implementation in its form. current. In addition, another long-awaited goal is to extend its scope from a preferential trade agreement (PTA) to an FTA. Currently, the ECO Secretariat has proposed different ideas and possibilities for tariff reduction for Member States to consider. It remains to be seen how these ideas would prove useful in realizing the ambitious and cherished ideal of trade liberalization.

Another indicator of the strengthening of the CEE is the increased engagement of the RACs with the CEE. The accession to the presidency of Turkmenistan and the hosting of the next 25th COM and 15th Summit are an example of this.

ECO also focuses on the holistic exploitation of the strengths of each of its members. Within the ECO region, some of the ECO member states are endowed with enormous natural resources while others produce vital goods and services. In the region, there is a significant demand for the trade of these products in order to benefit from everyone’s resources and services. Some of the ideas in this regard include the creation of integrated energy / electricity markets; implementation of the ECO energy strategy; Facilitation of visas for the promotion of tourism, including medical tourism; Agreement on the promotion and protection of investments, etc. These initiatives require active monitoring and implementation, which is exactly what ECO focuses on.

ECO is emerging as an important regional organization forging intra-regional economic and cultural links. The main strength of the Organization is its focus on economic and connectivity issues. It strives to adapt to the needs of the Member States with a view to creating an environment conducive to the promotion of trade and the improvement of economic conditions.

The upcoming event will be another turning point in the history of ECO. For the year 2022, the next president in the running is Uzbekistan. It would be a big step if OCE member states decided to extend possible financial support to Afghanistan to proactively prevent looming humanitarian and economic crises. In addition, the mid-term review of Vision 2025 is likely to generate new enthusiasm among Member States for achieving the targets.

Overall, this will be an important high-level interaction between the leaders of the ECO region and the theme of the Summit truly reflects the collective aspiration of all to “Toward the Future Together”.

Mr. Rahim Hayat Qureshi is Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iran.