ANKARA (Combined Sources)—Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan may announce the creation of a Middle East free trade zone as early as next January, when leaders of the quartet meet in Istanbul, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review reported on Monday.
The four countries in June agreed to launch the free trade zone to boost economic cooperation. On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York in late September, foreign ministers of the four nations met again to confirm their objective to create the trade area.
Under current plans, the free trade zone will officially be created in early 2011, most probably in January, when leaders of the quartet meet for a summit in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, Persian Gulf officials said Saturday that the six states making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)– Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates–have moved closer to fully implementing their own, much-delayed customs union and only “administrative” hurdles remain, AFP reported
“There is consensus over the customs union and even there is a unified GCC law on customs,” GCC assistant secretary-general Mohammed al-Mazroui told reporters at the end of a GCC finance ministers’ meeting. “But there are some hurdles … These are only administrative difficulties relating to movement of goods between GCC member states.”
“As long as there is integration and joint work, there will be some hurdles and efforts will be exerted to sort them out,” he said.
The GCC official told the opening session that achieving economic integration “requires all concerned committees to accelerate performance and remove the remaining obstacles to the customs union and common market.”
In September, the energy-rich bloc decided to postpone implementation of the customs union in the face of disagreement over the sharing of tariff revenues and problems meeting World Trade Organization rules.
But the council agreed on establishing an electronic clearing mechanism for settling customs duties between the GCC states.
Kuwait’s Finance Minister Mustafa al-Shamali told reporters after the meeting that his GCC counterparts had agreed to implement the electronic system, and he played down the remaining obstacles to a customs union.
The customs union was launched at the start of 2003 for a three-year transition period. But issues of revenues, dumping and protectionism have delayed its full implementation.
The customs union’s final aim is to create a free trade zone to facilitate the movement of goods among the GCC states and between the Gulf and the outside world.
Turkey also plans to bolster economic cooperation between the countries in the north of the Middle East and those on the Persian Gulf.
When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Kuwait in mid-October for talks with the GCC, he said: “We have united the north (through our cooperation with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan), and we are going to launch cooperation with the Gulf countries next year.”
A Turkish diplomat familiar with the plans said Turkey has been spearheading efforts for the free trade zone with a view to transforming it into a powerful bloc for prosperity, peace and stability in the region.
According to Hurriyet, however, some analysts say the trade zone could transform into a pact with political elements in the future. A London-based analyst was quoted by the Turkish daily as saying that the West and Israel might be concerned that what today emerges as a mere trade gathering could in the future turn into a loose political and security pact of Muslim countries in the Middle East.
The presence of Turkey and Syria in the emerging union gives it an anti-Israeli posture, some analysts claim. Syria has been one of Israel’s top adversaries in the region for decades. The Golan Heights area has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, as Israel and Syria remain officially at war.
Turkey, which had been a close ally of Israel, also has seen deteriorating relations with its former partner over the last few years. Turkish-Israeli ties have practically been put into a freezer after Ankara withdrew its ambassador over an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla bound for Gaza killed nine Turks on May 31.
Turkey has been demanding an official apology from Israel along with compensation for the flotilla victims, but Israel has so far firmly rejected the two demands.