WTO DG Azevedo steps down. Saudi Arabia candidate poised to succeed him

The World Trade Organization’s director-general Roberto Azevedo steps down on Monday 31st August, leaving the already-damaged global watchdog leaderless as it faces the biggest crisis in its 25-year history. The task facing Roberto Azevedo’s successor is mammoth, from the need for reform to fighting protectionism. The process to succeed him is also quite labyrinthine.

The most fundamental question facing the global trade body regards its relevance. In the last few years, the impulse toward liberalization and negotiation has been replaced by protectionist instincts. There is evidence that the globalization mindset which made the WTO possible  back in 1995 in the first place is in retreat across the world.

Under the Trump presidency, the USA has adopted a notably more unilateral stance on issues of global trade. It has been engaged in a trade war with China and Trump has also sharply criticized the WTO, calling it “horrible.”

Who is running to replace Azevedo?

Mohammad al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia)– A former Saudi economy minister, 53, currently advises the kingdom’s royal court on economic strategy. He is one of the founding fathers of Saudi Vision 2030, the strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy.

Amina Mohamed (Kenya) – The former Kenyan foreign minister, 58, is well-known at the WTO, having already chaired the organisation’s bodies.

Abdel Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) – A WTO veteran, he came to its predecessor GATT in 1985 as a negotiator for Egypt, before joining the secretariat in 1990.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria) –  Her country’s first female finance and foreign minister, the 66-year-old was the n.2 of the World Bank.

Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova) – He served as Moldova’s foreign minister from January 2018 to June 2019 but before that he had been his country’s ambassador to the UN and the WTO in Geneva. Even if he is from Moldova he doesn’t have the support of the main European countries.

Yoo Myung-hee (South Korea) – Yoo, 53, became South Korea’s first female trade minister in March last year after a career in trade diplomacy and foreign affairs.

Jesus Seade (Mexico) – A former WTO deputy director-general.

Liam Fox (Britain) – Liam Fox, 58, spent three years as Britain’s first post-Brexit international trade minister. He is the most prominent European candidate but he is pro-Brexit politicians.

Who is the favourite?

The WTO does normally rotate the job regionally and this could be an obstacle for the Mexican candidate Seade since former WTO DG Azevedo is from Brazil (both are from America).

Some pundits believe Africa has a good shot at the job since an African has never held the position. The main issue is that there are three candidates from Africa weakening the position of each other due to the dispersion of votes among African countries.

Europe is also divided. Formally no candidate comes from an EU member state. The Moldavian candidate Ulianovschi is the youngest candidate but without the support of any major EU country and the British candidate’s pro-Brexit stance could weaken his position in the eyes of other EU nations.

The South Korean candidate is a woman, which puts her in a good position to succeed Azevedo. However, China could see her candidacy as a threat to Beijing’s power inside the WTO and could undermine Yoo Myung-hee’s run.

In this complicated puzzle, the Saudi candidate al-Tuwaijri could be in the pole position for the job since he is the only candidate from the Middle East and could also get the support of some countries from different continents considering the divisions mentioned above.


The process ends on September 7, and from Sept. 7 to Sept. 16 the WTO ambassadors will attempt to whittle the field down, first to five candidates and eventually to two. In practice, the uncertainty around the presidential election on Nov. 3 in the United States, which has not said publicly which candidate it prefers, could delay matters further, according to trade sources quoted by Reuters. The 2021 budget, due to be set at the end of the year, which Washington might question, could also be a hurdle. As such, few would be surprised if the decision drags on into 2021.