Nerves on edge as trade talks begin in Qatar

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Two years after the showdown in Seattle, the World Trade Organisation appears to have thought it could insulate itself from the hordes of anti-globalisation protesters by holding its latest ministerial meeting in Qatar, a Gulf state with a suitably zero-tolerance approach to civil disobedience.

As it turns out, the anti-globalisation protests are likely to be the least of the participating delegates' worries as they sit down today at the start of the four-day meeting and try – as they did in Seattle, without success – to kick off a new global trade round.

The biggest security concern is the shadow of Osama bin Laden and his potentially murderous al-Qa'ida network, which might have struggled to mount some kind of attack in Paris or Saint Louis but finds itself right at home with plentiful support among the local population in the Qatari capital, Doha.

American delegates have been told in security briefings that al-Qa'ida could well have operatives inside Qatar and may even have infiltrated the Qatari military.

Nerves have already been set on edge by a lone gunman who opened fire on American and Qatari troops guarding an air base on Wednesday. The man was killed almost immediately by return fire. The Qatari authorities and Mike Moore, the WTO's director general, have insisted that the gunman's motives had nothing to do with the trade meeting.

Still, the threat of further trouble – a bomb, or even a chemical or biological attack – is being taken seriously enough for delegates from the United States and a handful of other Western countries to have been kitted out with gas masks, two-way radios and antibiotics. American helicopters will be on stand-by to whisk delegates out on to aircraft carriers in the Gulf in case of emergency.

All of which will lend a somewhat apocalyptic tinge to the talks, already likely to be contentious enough because of divisions between the industrialised and Third World countries on issues ranging from agriculture and the environment to the patenting of medicines.

Although poorer nations will all get individual representation at the meetings, in contrast to Seattle where they had to settle for regional delegations, they remain deeply concerned that the multinational corporations will set their own profit-driven agenda and pay little heed to local issues, even where they involve life-or-death matters such as food security or access to health care.

A group of countries including India, Brazil, Thailand and a coalition of African states is demanding the right to override rules on medicine patents when responding to a health emergency such as the Aids crisis.

Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist and author of No Logo, perhaps the seminal anti-globalisation text, argued this week that there was a parallel between the response to the terrorist threat and the approach to trade disputes. "What we are witnessing is trade being 'bundled' (Microsoft-style) inside the with-us-or-against-us logic of the war on terrorism," she wrote.

The anti-globalisation movement will have minimal representation at Qatar, although the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is docked in Doha harbour. Protests planned in 29 countries around the world are likely to be muted, partly because of increased security concerns since 11 September.

Yesterday, protesters were planning a sit-in outside the US Trade Representative's office in Washington and a rally is in the works for New York.

In London, there was a flurry of peace and trade-related events on Saturday, with a modest "Reclaim the Streets" venture planned for today.