Turkey - a key NATO member - looks to the Middle East for new economic ties

Turkey's new overtures to the Middle East have raised important questions here:

Is Turkey, the only Islamic country in NATO, in the process of reorienting its foreign policy?

To what extent is its rapprochement with the Islamic world likely to affect its ties with the West?

The questions have become topical as a result of a series of visits, contacts , and statements by Turkish leaders aimed at stepping up relations with Middle East countries.

* The Turkish head of state, Gen. Kenan Evren, returned March 22 from a three-day visit to Kuwait, where new economic agreements have been concluded with that oil-rich country.

* Deputy Premier Turgut Ozal is currently in Damascus discussing economic and political matters with Syrian leaders. Earlier he visited Tehran, where he signed a number of agreements for closer trade and economic relations with Iran.

* Prime Minister Bulent Ulusu visited Saudi Arabia and Iraq recently.

Observers here see those visits as part of a concerted effort to promote new relationships with the Middle East countries, not just a coincidence. Some analysts regard these high-level contacts as a manifestation of Ankara's new strategic approach to this region, or as ''an overture to the East.''

This new orientation is based on some good reasons.

First, many Islamic countries (particularly the rich ones in this region) offer good opportunities for large-scale trade and economic relations. The visits to Tehran and Baghdad have resulted in ambitious trade deals and economic ventures. Both countries need Turkey's agricultural products and consumer goods, providing a golden opportunity for this country to pay for its imports of Iraqi and Iranian oil. Kuwait offers possibilities of loans to finance big development projects in Turkey, and Saudi Arabia may also be attracted to give financial aid to Turkey.

Already trade with the Islamic countries is rapidly developing. It exceeds the previous level of commercial relations with the West. Turkey's exports to the Islamic countries rose to 40.2 percent from 21.4 percent in 1980, while its exports to the European Community (EC) dropped from 43 percent to 31.9 percent.

Another opportunity is offered by the Arab countries in two different fields: one, in the contracting business, where Turkish firms are engaged in contracts worth $10 billion in various Arab countries; the other, in the labor market, where nearly a quarter of a million Turkish workers are able to find jobs and work in those lands.

These opportunities are in sharp contrast with the difficulties Turkey encounters now with the West. Not only Turkey's trade with the West is in decline, but also European allies, including West Germany, affected by recession and unemployment, have closed the doors to Turkish labor. In fact, Turkish workers in those countries are being asked to return home.

Another more serious aspect of the problem is the refusal or reluctance of some Western countries to give Turkey economic and financial aid because of the military regime and alleged human-rights violations in this country. The EC has frozen the aid program to Turkey, and some members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have stopped their financial support individually.

This, coupled with a strong political campaign against Turkey because of its present regime has provoked deep resentment and anger in official quarters in Ankara. Administration officials have said publicly that Turkey will not bow to such ''disgraceful'' pressures from the West and that it will be able to find ''other sources'' or friends to cooperate with, in order to overcome the difficulties.

Analysts here see the current overtures to the East as more than a simple effort to establish closer, profitable economic ties with those countries. They say this new orientation may lead to a realignment with the Islamic world at the expense of Turkey's relations with the West - unless the Western attitude should change.

Politically, the recent high-level visits and talks have shown the identity of Turkish and Arab views on many issues concerning the Middle East - from the Palestine problem to the security of the Gulf area. Turkish leaders have taken these opportunities to stress their support to the Arabs on these issues.

The grim picture as seen by some Western observers, is brightened somewhat by the US stand, particularly by the support given to Turkey by the Reagan administration. The Turks stress that Washington's policy toward Turkey continues to be friendly and positive. They are trying to differentiate it from the European attitude.

Western analysts say Washington's stand may prevent Turkey from alienating itself from the West and turning completely to the East. Even so, there are limits to Turkish support for US policy toward the Islamic countries. For instance, Turkey is determined to develop ties with Iran and Libya in spite of Washington's negative stand.

The question is how much Turkey's economic needs and political considerations in promoting ties with the Islamic countries will make it dependent on their policies.

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