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MIDDLE EAST: Turkey to open free trade zone with Arab states as Erdogan denies axis shift

June 11, 2010 |  9:24 am

Picture 23 Turkey's east-west balancing act has become considerably more precarious since the deadly Israeli flotilla raid nearly two weeks ago, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears determined to have the best of both worlds.

He made this clear Thursday when he declared that talk of Turkey's "axis shift" away from the West is "ill-willed propaganda," while simultaneously defending Turkey's vote against Iran sanctions and announcing new free trade agreements with a number of Arab countries.

"A Turk cannot live without an Arab. An Arab is the Turk's left eye," Erdogan was quoted as telling delegates at the Turkish-Arab Economic forum in Istanbul on Thursday.

Erdogan also called on Arab countries to take the initiative in breaking the Israeli siege on Gaza, and vowed that Turkey will not to turn a blind eye to Israel's "banditry," referring to the botched flotilla raid that killed nine Turks.

The free trade zone would include Syria and Jordan, which already have similar agreements in place with Turkey, as well as Lebanon, and would allow for the free movement of goods and services as well as visa-free travel.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlined a vision for even greater cooperation for representatives from 22 Arab countries who attended.

"From Kars [Turkey] to Morocco and Mauritania, from Sinop [Turkey] to Sudan, from the Istanbul Straits to the Gulf of Aden, Turkish and Arab geographies own the most strategic belt of the world," he said. "We want to turn it into a security and economic integration belt. The foreign policy we carry out under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in fact seeks to turn this whole basin into a single basin."

Davutoglu clarified, however, that Turkey is not seeking an alternative to the European Union, of which it still aspires to become a member.

Davutoglu's comments will probably not be welcomed by traditional Arab powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which, analysts say, have the most to lose from Turkey's ascent as a regional hero state.

In addition to Turkey's pro-Palestine credentials, it is also financially independent, unlike Egypt, which relies on U.S. aid, and has proven a valuable economic partner.

Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek reminded delegates at Thursday's forum that trade between Turkey and the Arab world quadrupled between 2002 and 2009,  Al Balad reported (Arabic link), while Turkish exports to Iran grew 500 percent over the same period, according to Reuters.

Turkey's apparent shift eastward and its worsening relations with Israel and, by extension, the U.S. have been cause for consternation in Washington.

The Economist's Blog has an interesting reading on America's understanding of Turkey's motives, taking on U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' assertion that Turkey's disillusionment with the West can be blamed at least partly on European hostility to its bid to join the EU.

"Mr. Gates deserves credit for saying out loud what a part of the American foreign-policy establishment has thought for a while," the post read.

"But, in linking the EU question to Turkish-Israel relations so baldly, Mr Gates appears to be conflating several different things," it continued. "Not to put too fine a point on it, there are several current members of the 27-strong EU who are closer to the Turkish line on Israel than the American line."

– Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers one day after Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships, killing nine Turkish citizens Credit: Burhan Ozbilici