Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi hailed a new referential trading system to be signed by some of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members this year as an initiative to start the process.

"This is an important first step towards the larger goal of greater economic integration among OIC countries," he said in an opening address to the OIC Trade Forum on Monday.

"It is economic strength which can give the OIC greater clout and secure for itself a more influential voice in international affairs," he said.

Greater involvement

Abdullah said it was up to member countries to ensure that the preferential trading system, details of which will be thrashed out in the next few months, was successfully implemented.

"The future of the OIC lies in its economic agenda and this
economic agenda must be driven essentially by the business community within the OIC"

Rafida Aziz,
Malaysian trade minister

"I hope the system can be adapted or another system put in place to promote greater involvement of the less-developed members in economic development as a whole," he said, adding that this was the best way to create wealth.

Besides the trading system, Abdullah said governments and business communities must develop existing institutions such as Islamic banking and chambers of commerce to promote economic integration.

"Let us look at ways in which we can leverage on our strength. Clearly these must be areas where we not only have a natural advantage but also the critical mass to make our initiatives successful."

The Malaysian leader said that one of the biggest challenges confronting the grouping is the deep economic imbalances between members, which "should be viewed as an imperative for cooperation rather than as an obstacle".

Education

Abdullah called for the education sectors in OIC countries to be improved, pointing out that Islamic scholars had made immense contributions in the past.

In spite of this scholarly tradition, OIC countries are now lagging in education development, he said.

"Out of the total population of 1.3 billion in OIC member states, less than 300,000 qualify as scientists.

"In comparison, the United States of America has 1.1 million scientists; Japan has 700,000," he said.

Finance, technology

The Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is playing host to a range of meetings on Islamic finance and information technology sectors this week.

The annual meeting of the board of governors of the Islamic
Development Bank (IDB), the OIC's investment arm, will be the centrepiece of the programme.

"Let us look at ways in which we can leverage on our strength"

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

The governors, mostly finance and economic ministers, are expected to approve a 10-year global plan to help their countries develop Islamic financial services sectors when they meet on Thursday and Friday.

They will also launch a trade financing body with a capital of $3 billion to encourage trade development among members.

Economic integration

Malaysia, the current leader of the OIC, has been pushing for
closer economic integration in the grouping and for nations to
develop their Islamic finance sectors as a way of strengthening their economies.

Malaysian Trade Minister Rafida Aziz told the forum that member nations must address their very low participation in global commerce.

In 2003, cumulative global trade of the 57 OIC members was only 1.8% of the world total, she said.

"Every effort must be made and every mechanism put in place to move the OIC economic agenda forward through capacity building," she said.

"The future of the OIC lies in its economic agenda and this
economic agenda must be driven essentially by the business community within the OIC."

The OIC was established in 1969 in Morocco. It held its first conference in Saudi Arabia in March 1970.