Candidates from the UK and Saudi Arabia unexpectedly survived the first round of voting in the race to lead the World Trade Organization, alongside three other contenders, including the two favourites for the job.
Liam Fox, the UK’s former international trade secretary, and Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, a Saudi minister who advises the royal court on economics, will go forward to the second of three rounds of voting for WTO director-general, it was announced on Friday.
They will be joined by the two favourites, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s trade minister.
The eliminated candidates were Hamid Mamdouh, an Egyptian former negotiator and WTO official, Jesús Seade Kuri, a veteran Mexican policymaker, and Tudor Ulianovschi, a Moldovan former foreign minister.
While Mr Ulianovschi’s elimination was widely predicted, expectations among many trade officials in Geneva and bookmakers’ odds suggested that the Saudi candidate and probably Mr Fox would also lose out, with either Mr Mamdouh or Mr Seade going through.
After the result was announced, Mr Fox said: “My time as a UK minister in one of the world’s biggest economies with a respected development agenda allowed me to get a real sense of both opportunities and frustrations across the [WTO] membership. I am looking forward to continuing this campaign.”
The EU is not running a candidate after its then-trade commissioner Phil Hogan withdrew from the race. Its member states wield 27 votes out of the WTO’s membership of 164. They decided collectively to back Ms Mohamed, Ms Okonjo-Iweala, Ms Yoo and Mr Mamdouh.
But EU officials say there was also a surprising amount of support for Mr Fox, given his support for Brexit, and for Mr Al-Tuwaijri.
The second round of the contest will winnow the remaining field of five down to two over the next few weeks. The winner will be decided in a third round of voting in early November.
Trade officials say Ms Mohamed and Ms Okonjo-Iweala remain the favourites to reach the final round, though the contest between them remains too close to call. The WTO has never had a female or African director-general.
The current target date for announcing the victor is November 7, a few days after the US presidential election. Some trade officials and experts had suspected that the US would obstruct the process as part of its protest against the way in which the organisation functions, but there has so far been no sign of that.
David Walker, the New Zealand ambassador to the WTO who is chairing the selection process, said on Friday: “Throughout the six days of consultations, it was clear to us that the entire membership is both committed to and fully engaged in this process.”
The WTO director-general has little executive power and largely plays a convening and facilitating role among the institution’s member states.
The vacancy arose unexpectedly after the former director-general, the Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo, departed a year before his mandate expired.
The WTO faces an uncertain future after persistent criticism from the Trump administration culminated in the US last year paralysing the organisation’s highest judicial institution, the appellate body, by refusing to appoint judges to replace those retiring.