After the current director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Roberto Azevêdo’s surprise resignation earlier this year, the global body has now launched itself into the process of seeking a new leader, amid one of the most trying times for trade in recent history.

The initial nomination period for the selection process for a new director-general ended on July 8, with eight candidates being put forward by Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, Moldova, South Korea, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

Despite rumours that Arancha González, Spain’s minister of foreign affairs and former WTO chief of staff, would be a shoo-in for the role, there are no nominees from a European Union member state. In a speech at an event organised by Europa Press last week, González stated that she would instead be dedicating herself to contributing to multilateralism from Spain. “I am committed to my country and to the foreign policy direction of the EU, and that’s where I’ll be focussing,” she said.

With González firmly out of the running, there is no obvious favourite for the role. The candidates now have until September 7 to make themselves known to WTO members, before a final selection phase will begin. In order to avoid diverting political energy and attention from preparations for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12), which is set to be held in 2021, the WTO plans to wrap up the process by November at the latest, and therefore will need to determine which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support sooner rather than later.

Mexico: Jesús Seade Kuri – an economist, diplomat and politician

A fluent speaker of the three WTO official languages – English, French and Spanish – Seade defines himself in his biography as a “citizen of the world” who is at home in diverse cultures.

Seade’s experience includes negotiating on behalf of his country when the WTO was established in 1995, before becoming the founding deputy director of the organisation. He has held roles in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and most recently served as the chief negotiator for Mexico in USMCA negotiations.

Whether his experience in these organisations will go against him when seeking support from WTO members such as China remains to be seen, however in a statement to the General Council, he highlighted that he is “close to all members north and south, east and west, and indeed fully equidistant from you all”.

Nigeria: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – a negotiator and proponent of free trade

Okonjo-Iweala was the first female and African candidate to contest the presidency of the World Bank in 2012. Although beaten by Jim Yong Kim, she garnered strong support from developing countries due to her reputation as an honest broker and consensus builder.

Okonjo-Iweala recently published a book titled Reforming the Unreformable about her experiences in implementing a sweeping set of economic and political changes in Nigeria as the country’s coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance. With growing calls for WTO reform,  she may be the safe pair of hands the organisation needs.

“The WTO is one of the most important multilateral bodies in the world despite the challenges it faces and the reforms that need to be done,” she said recently in an interview with local press. “I want the job because I think I have the skills for it. The organisation needs reforms to make it relevant for times we are in and I have a reputation as a strong reformer.”

Egypt: Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh – a facilitator and ‘trusted advisor’  

Mamdouh’s background covers work as a negotiator for Egypt in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the WTO as well as extensive legal experience based on a long career in public international law and trade negotiations. After joining the GATT secretariat in 1990, he moved on to roles including the directorship of the WTO’s trade in services and investment division. Most recently, he has served as senior counsel at law firm King and Spalding since 2007.

Having held no ministerial or agency leadership roles in the past, he says he recognises that he is “in many ways an atypical candidate”, however in a speech to the General Council, he said: “Trade ministers and the ambassadors know me as a problem solver, their humble servant, and hopefully also their trusted friend, and the trusted person to go to for advice. This role continued and even grew after I left the WTO. They no longer seek the senior WTO director but the trusted advisor. Some might also be aware that I have chosen not to serve as a cabinet minister in the past. This is indeed true – and I believe it is also one of my strengths as a facilitator.”

Korea: Yoo Myung-hee – an innovator, strategist and policymaker

As the first female trade minister for the Republic of Korea, Myung-hee has devoted her 25-year career to the advancement of multilateral trade. She is Korea’s key free trade agreement (FTA) strategist, having taken on the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Korea-China FTA, and the critical Korea-US FTA renegotiation.

“Call it a coincidence, but I was born in 1967, the year Korea acceded to the GATT, and I started my career in trade when the WTO was born in 1995. Over my lifetime, I personally witnessed Korea achieve remarkable growth, from a relatively impoverished country recovering from the ruins of war to one of the largest trading nations,” she said in her statement to the General Council. “My career in trade has convinced me it was the open trading system as represented by the WTO that gave Korea the opportunity to follow this development path.”

If chosen as director-general, Myung-hee says that she will pursue inclusive trade initiatives encompassing overall development issues, as well as specific, cross-cutting issues such as MSMEs, women’s economic empowerment, and the environment.

Kenya: Amina Mohamed – an expert in managing large and complex organisations

As a minister and ambassador, Mohamed’s experience includes chairing all of the WTO’s highest decision-making bodies, from the General Council – of which she was the first female chair – to the Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body.

During her time as Kenya’s minister of foreign affairs and international trade, she became the first African to chair the WTO Ministerial Conference in 2015, leading her country to negotiate the elimination of export subsidies in agriculture.

Her vision for the WTO, if elected, is one of reform, recovery and renewal. “We need to recapture the visionary inspiration of the original architects of the system. Governments must breathe new life into the WTO so it can play a key role in helping recovery from the crisis and in rebuilding economic resilience,” she says, adding: “We need to break the cycle of despair and enter into a new phase of hope and realism.”

Moldova: Tudor Ulianovschi – an ambassador and consensus builder

Ulianovschi has had a 15-year career in diplomatic service, accumulating experience in international political and economic relations. As Moldova’s minister of foreign affairs from 2018 to 2019, he initiated government decisions on expanding his country’s diplomatic missions in Asia and Europe as well as opening new embassies in Africa and Latin America.

A skilled negotiator, one of his major diplomatic breakthroughs was the adoption of the UN General Assembly resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Moldovan territory.

Before that, as president of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) trade and development board, he led negotiations on revitalising the intergovernmental pillar of UNCTAD within the broader UN reform process, with a view to bridging the developmental gap.

“I will use my political, ministerial, ambassadorial, managerial and negotiation experience at the strategic and tactical levels, to drive the WTO to a brighter future, where all members, including the smallest, must be part of the driving force,” he said in his statement to the General Council.

Saudi Arabia: Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri – a former banker with a plan to set KPIs

Saudi Arabia’s candidate for the top job brings with him a wealth of expertise from the private sector. With 12 years at SABB, three at JP Morgan and six at HSBC as regional CEO before taking on his current role of minister of economy and planning in 2016, he seems likely to take a data-driven approach to the director-general role.

“With full deference to the member-driven and sovereign nature of the WTO, I am convinced problems can be solved through contributions by the WTO Secretariat staff’s research, analysis and increased technical assistance, as well as through increased interaction with various sizes of businesses from all members,” he says, adding that if chosen for the role, he will establish a “delivery unit” to assess the WTO’s performance against its existing objectives based on data and economic evidence, to ensure that all members understand how the WTO is operating, where it is not delivering as intended, and which functions need attention.

United Kingdom: Liam Fox – an experienced politician but Brexit may go against him

As former secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox was the driving force behind the Department for International Trade’s (DIT) Export Strategy as part of a plan to dial up the intensity of UK trade. His prior political experience includes a stint as defence secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, while under the John Major government he brokered a bipartisan approach for ending the civil war in Sri Lanka.

A self-declared “staunch Eurosceptic” and a supporter of Brexit, he is unlikely to garner much support from European WTO member nations, however he challenges that “a seasoned politician with wide experience is best placed to give the necessary leadership to the organisation in difficult global circumstances”.