Turkey agrees to plans for Arab 'free trade zone'

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to boost trade with neighbours

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Turkey has agreed to set up a free trade zone with three of its Arab neighbours, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The plan was revealed at a meeting of Arab and Turkish ministers in Istanbul.

The aim is to improve economic relations between Turkey, which remains eager to join the European Union, and the rest of the region.

Despite rapid growth in recent years, Turkey's trade with the Arab world represents a fraction of its commerce with Europe.

One of the characteristics of Turkey's energetic new foreign policy is that it is in large part driven by business interests, the BBC's Jonathan Head reports.

On his frequent trips abroad, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan usually takes a big delegation of Turkish entrepreneurs with him.

Fast-growing economy

So the plan his government announced on Thursday, to create a free trade and travel zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, fits the pattern, our correspondent says.

Indeed, it builds on several years of existing free-trade negotiations with the three countries.

Trade between Turkey and all 22 members of the Arab League has more than doubled over the past five years to just under $30bn (24.7bn euros) a year.

However that sum is still dwarfed by Turkey's trade with the EU.

The shift in Turkey's gaze eastwards fits another pattern - its diplomatic disengagement from Europe and the US, demonstrated this week when it voted against the US-backed sanctions on Iran.

The government still insists that gaining membership of the EU is its primary foreign policy goal.

But its accession has stalled over the divided island of Cyprus and the EU is now a less alluring destination to a fast-growing economy like Turkey's than it used to be, our correspondent says.

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