On 17 June 2021, the World Customs Organization (WCO) announced that it had organised an online Regional Workshop on Free Zones for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from 14 to 16 June 2021 with the financial support of the General Authority of Customs of Qatar. 45 participants from 15 Member administrations gathered and actively joined the dialogue to explore ways for the sustainable development of free zones with enhanced Customs involvement.
This was the second regional workshop in a series of regional events aimed at discussing the harmonised and efficient implementation of the WCO Practical Guidance on Free Zones (FZ Guidance) that was endorsed by 2020 December Council Session. Qatar Customs provided Arabic translation of the FZ Guidance for this workshop.
“Free zones often mean free from Customs duties but should not be “free” from necessary Customs procedures and controls. Customs should be there as one of main authorities and needs to coordinate with all public and private authorities, with the objective of contributing to a safe and sustainable global trade ecosystem,” said the WCO Deputy Secretary General, in his opening remarks. Opening remarks were also offered by the Chairman of Qatar Customs. He highlighted the importance of facilitating entrance and exit of cargo to FZs during the COVID-19 pandemic and capacity building for effective implementation of the WCO FZ Guidance in the MENA region. He also emphasised this workshop embodied the WCO theme for this year, “Customs to foster recovery, renewal, and resilience for a sustainable supply chain” in FZs.
Experts from Customs administrations, FZ authorities from Qatar and Morocco, the private sector and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) delivered insightful presentations during the three-day workshop. This workshop covered the key elements identified by the WCO FZ Guidance for adequate Customs procedures in FZs. These include Customs involvement in FZs, effective Customs control including onsite check and Customs audit, risk management in FZs, origin determination of goods produced in FZs, reporting requirements with the use of IT, multidisciplinary and international cooperation and expanding the concept of Authorised Economic Operator in FZs.
Through in-depth discussions on these topics, participants recognised the impact of the extraterritoriality of FZs and the significance of Customs’ involvement in the development and operation of free zones for the competitiveness and sustainability of free zones. Some Members shared their experience on strengthening Customs involvement via application of better customs control and by conducting joint onsite inspection with an FZ operating body. Also, the effectiveness and importance of connecting IT systems between Customs and the FZ operating body was stressed. They also recognised that the sharing and use of data and advanced technologies as well as enhanced cooperation were prerequisites for improving the safety and security of FZs.
Story by: Riaan de Lange