Erdogan says ties with Arab world key to solving strife

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggests that stronger ties between his country and the Arab world could solve the region's myriad problems.

KUWAIT CITY // The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yesterday suggested that stronger ties between his country and the Arab world could solve the region's myriad problems.

"We must stand together ... by joining forces, we can overcome all our problems. We can resolve the problem of Palestine and the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan," Mr Erdogan said at the opening of a two-day conference here to discuss ties between Turkey and its Arab neighbours. "We do not need a third party to reform and improve our ties."

He said Turkey had been criticised for drawing attention to atrocities in Baghdad, Kabul, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. He said the same critics, whom he did not name, had questioned his country's desire to join the European Union.

Mr Erdogan urged Arabs and Turks to put their past differences behind them, as "these were based on lies".

The Kuwaiti prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah, attended the opening of the conference. Mr Erdogan is being accompanied by a Turkish delegation of parliamentarians and hundreds of businessmen.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey was especially concerned with the status of Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Ankara, he said, believes in "justice for all".

He condemned the recent suicide bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, that killed up to 23 churchgoers after a New Year's Day service.

Turkey's standing in the Arab world has grown since Mr Erdogan's Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. At the same time, Ankara's traditionally strong relationship with Israel has come under increasing strain.

Ties with Israel reached a nadir last year when Israeli commandos killed activists on a flotilla carrying aid from Turkey to the Gaza Strip.

Mr Erdogan was quoted in the Turkish press as saying during his Kuwait trip that the death of nine Turkish nationals as a result the raid was "an act of piracy in the Mediterranean".

The prime minister claimed in his speech that there was a global campaign against Islam, which he labelled a crime. He said conflating the words Islam and terror was an insult, and that the region's Muslims should work together to battle this misconception.

Mr Erdogan held talks with several high-ranking Kuwaiti officials during his visit, and also addressed the Kuwaiti Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said trade between the two countries, which stands at about US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) per year, should be higher, and called for greater investment in his country and more joint ventures.

Turkey has ideas for the development of nuclear energy "which makes us prepared to do joint work in this area", he told the chamber, the state news agency Kuna reported. Kuwait has one of the Arab world's most advanced nuclear projects and will soon decide if building nuclear power stations is a viable option.

The chamber's chairman, Ali al Ghanim, urged the implementation of an agreement to set up a free trade zone between Turkey and the GCC.

Members of parliament from the two countries also met in the National Assembly on Monday. The speaker of the house, Jassem al Kharafi, agreed that the challenges faced by the region require more cooperation between Turkey and the Arab states.

Mr Erdogan said in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas that ties with the GCC became "serious and distinctive" with the signing of a strategic cooperation treaty in Jeddah in 2008.

Trade between the GCC and Turkey is estimated to have grown from $1.5bn in 1999 to $17.5bn in 2008. In 2008, the Gulf's exports to Turkey rose by a factor of five from the previous year, while imports from Ankara increased 15 times.

* With Agence France-Presse