The World Trade Organization pushed for reform at a high-level ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi Monday, warning that economic headwinds and geopolitical tensions are threatening global commerce and multilateral trading systems.

The WTO's 13th ministerial conference (MC13), scheduled to run until Thursday in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the first in two years.

The WTO is hoping for progress, particularly on fishing, agriculture and electronic commerce.

But big deals are unlikely as the body's rules require full consensus among all 164 member states -- a tall order in the current climate.

Speaking on the first day of MC13, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that "multilateralism is under attack from all sides," highlighting a need to "reform the multilateral trading system" and boost international cooperation.

"Looking around, uncertainty and instability are everywhere," the WTO chief said, adding that the world is in an "even tougher place today" compared to two years ago when WTO trade ministers last met.

Okonjo-Iweala did not name countries, but tensions have risen between the West and Russia and China in recent years.

The war in Gaza and related attacks by Yemeni rebels on ships in the Red Sea have added to the challenges.

Reiterating warnings that signs of "fragmentation" are appearing in the global economy, Okonjo-Iweala said trade volumes for 2023 likely fell below the WTO's October forecast. Trade volumes may also not reach WTO's growth estimates for this year, she warned.

Her push for reform was echoed by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, who said he hoped MC13 would serve as a "launch pad" for necessary reforms.

"The world has changed. And institutions like the WTO need to evolve too," European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said on Monday, adding that "geopolitical tensions are on the rise. We are faced with crises wherever we look."

- 'Dispute settlement reform' -

During the WTO's last ministerial meeting, held at its Geneva headquarters in June 2022, trade ministers nailed down a historic deal banning fisheries subsidies harmful to marine life and agreed to a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.

They also committed themselves to re-establishing a dispute settlement system which Washington had brought to a grinding halt in 2019 after years of blocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO's appeals court.

"Our challenge this week is to... demonstrate that MC12 wasn't a one-off miracle," Okonjo-Iweala said.

"I have seen the US engage more and I have to say they have been quite constructive," she told a press conference, dismissing claims of an American leadership vacuum.

The WTO faces pressure to eke out progress on reform in Abu Dhabi ahead of the possible re-election of Donald Trump as US president.

During his four years in office from 2017 to 2021, Trump threatened to pull the United States out of the trade body and disrupted its ability to settle disputes.

"There will be the US elections in November... so this is the last chance," a diplomatic source in Geneva told AFP on condition of anonymity.

On Monday, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said "reform is squarely on the agenda for this week."

That includes "dispute settlement reform, where the goal is not just to go back to the way things used to be, but rather to provide confidence that the system is fair," she said in a statement.

But Marcelo Olarreaga, economics professor at the University of Geneva, said the other members of the WTO "cannot expect huge concessions" from the administration of US President Joe Biden in an election year.

- Fisheries deal -

While there is doubt over progress at the WTO on key issues, there is hope for advances on a new global agreement on tackling fisheries subsidies.

After striking an agreement in 2022, which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second deal, this time focusing on subsidies which fuel overcapacity and overfishing.

"We are within sight of ratifying the fisheries subsidies agreement," Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday.

WTO trade ministers could also make advances on facilitating aid for developing countries.

On Monday, the Comoros and East Timor were accepted as WTO members.

Their accession comes a day after more than 120 WTO member states said they finalised an agreement that aims to facilitate investment in developing countries by improving transparency and clearing bureaucratic hurdles.

Despite broad backing, some members may still oppose its integration into the WTO, including India, which typically objects to agreements that do not cover all countries.