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WTO to select new leader at a time of crisis — here's who's on the list

Key Points
  • The current director general, Ricardo Azevedo, said he will leave the WTO on August 31. 
  • Irrespective of who takes over, analysts believe the organization needs to regain credibility at a time when international trade is not a priority for many countries.
  • The Geneva-based organization was created in 1995 and expanded world trade rules. However, critics say it has failed to evolve since its creation.
The World Trade Organization headquarters at sunrise.
FABRICE COFFRINI

Eight candidates are in the running to take the helm of the World Trade Organization, at a time when the institution is going through a deep identity crisis.

The current director general, Ricardo Azevedo from Brazil, said he will leave the WTO on August 31 — one year before his mandate was due to expire. Azevedo cited personal reasons for leaving, but also said it would be good for the organization to have a different leader to face "the new post-Covid realities."

The change is also taking place at a time when many question the future of the WTO as an advocate for international trade.

The candidates

  • Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

    He is currently a minister advising the royal court on international and local economic strategic matters in Saudi Arabia. Prior to becoming a minister, he worked in banking. 
  • Liam Fox, United Kingdom

    Fox is a former U.K. secretary of state for international trade and currently a lawmaker at the U.K. Parliament. He supports updating and reforming the WTO. 
  • Jesus Seade Kuri, Mexico

    An economist who has been working for the Mexican foreign affairs ministry since 2018, Kuri was the country's chief negotiator for the U.S., Mexico and Canada Trade Agreement, known as USMCA.
  • Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, Egypt

    Mamdouh has been working as a consultant since 2017, but had previously worked at the WTO. He was director of the trade in services and investment division of the institution between 2001 and 2017.
  • Amina C. Mohamed, Kenya

    Mohamed served as Kenya's foreign affairs and international trade minister between 2013 and 2018. In this role, she chaired the 2015 WTO ministerial conference in Nairobi — the first African to lead the highest WTO forum.
  • Yoo Myung-hee, Republic of Korea

    Minister for trade for Korea, Myung-hee was the first female to have the job and has held different positions that cover the same area. Back in 1995, she was in charge of WTO affairs at the Korean trade ministry.
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria

    Nigeria's candidate is a global finance expert, who has served as the country's finance minister on two occasions. Okonjo-Iweala has been named one of the "eight female anti-corruption fighters who inspire" in 2019 by Transparency International, and in 2014 Time magazine said she was among the 100 most influential people in the world.
  • Tudor Ulianovschi, Moldova

    Ulianovschi served as Moldova's minister of foreign affairs between 2018 and 2019, and has been a diplomat for 15 years.

The challenge 

Irrespective of who takes over as head of the WTO, analysts believe the organization needs to regain credibility at a time when international trade is not a priority for many economies.

"The vital challenge will be to keep the big players onboard while defending the logic of multilateralism," Gianmarco Ottaviano, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, told CNBC.

The WTO has been scared by the United States' decision in December to block the appointment of two new members to the appellate body. The move has meant that the WTO has not been able to rule on new trade disputes between member countries since then.

The WTO won't have a future in a world that is generally moving towards protectionism.
Fredrik Erixon
Director of ECIPE

Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump has called the WTO "broken," saying countries such as China have taken advantage of it. 

His comments came at a time when the WTO's largest members engaged in a series of tit-for-tat tariffs, which have taken their toll on the idea of multilateralism — when a group of countries agree on specific trade rules to boost their economies.

The WTO has said the criticisms from Trump have been damaging

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NAFTA no more

"We absolutely need the WTO. There is no alternative, but the organisation needs to be restored, and its governance repaired," Karel Lannoo, chief executive of think tank CEPS, told CNBC.

The Geneva-based organization was created in 1995 and expanded world trade rules beyond solely goods to include things like services and intellectual property for the first time. However, critics say it has failed to evolve since its creation.

Officials in the European Union and the United States agree that the WTO needs to be reformed and its rules updated, but there is no consensus on how to do it.

"The WTO won't have a future in a world that is generally moving towards protectionism and where most countries feel they need to take actions outside the WTO to protect themselves against China," Fredrik Erixon, an international trade expert at the Brussels-based think tank ECIPE, told CNBC.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that there are eight candidates in the running to become Director General of the World Trade Organization.