Turkey forges a 'G7' for Muslim world

Senior officials from seven Muslim countries gathered in Istanbul at the weekend as the guests of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey's first Islamist Prime Minister. Their aim was to prepare the ground for the inaugural summit of a multinational organisation called the Developing-Eight (D8), to be held later this year.

The meeting, attended by foreign ministers from Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as an Egyptian foreign ministry official, was the realisation of a personal vision for Mr Erbakan. His Welfare Party came to power in a coalition with the True Path Party last June. Already, Mr Erbakan is on the way to forming a club which represents 740 million people, from eight of the world's largest Muslim nations.

The D8 reflects Mr Erbakan's preferences. Short on potentially fractious Arabs (Egypt is the only Arab member), a smooth-working D8 will, Mr Erbakan hopes, constitute a developing world equivalent to the G7, the Western club of industrialised nations. The aim of the new club, according to Mr Erbakan, is nothing less than "refashioning the world order".

Mr Erbakan has his work cut out. Average per capita income in G7 countries is $27,000 (pounds 16,000). In the D8, it is just $1,500. While trade volumes between D8 members are expected to increase as a result of the grouping's formation, Turkey's own dependence on trade with the West is illustrated by the fact that 64 per cent of foreign firms active in Turkey are from European Union countries, and just 4 per cent from Muslim ones. The D8's most dynamic economies - Indonesia and Malaysia - have not succeeded by turning their backs on the West.

Nevertheless, the organisation's exclusively Muslim membership has prompted fears that it has been formed to indulge Mr Erbakan's well-known distrust of the Christian West. Since coming to power, Mr Erbakan has assiduously courted the Muslim world, conspicuously failing to set foot inside the EU, with whom Turkey signed a customs union agreement in 1995. Tansu Ciller, the True Path leader and Mr Erbakan's Foreign Minister, says the D8's Muslim composition is incidental. Few believe her, especially since she began sharpening her criticism of the EU's "Christian" nature.

Europhile Turks say Iran's membership of the D8 will only reinforce the perception that Turkey is ditching the West in favour of unpredictable Middle Eastern friends. In August, Mr Erbakan signed a $23bn natural gas deal with Iran. This - and a visit to Turkey last month by Iran's President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - upset the US, which wants to isolate Iran internationally. Yesterday, Iran's Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, confirmed that Mr Erbakan had suggested "wide-ranging defence co-operation" between Turkey and Iran.

Few expect such co-operation to take place. When Mr Rafsanjani was in Turkey, the secular military made it clear that the Iranian President would be denied access to sensitive sites.

While he was in opposition, Mr Erbakan bitterly attacked a defence co- operation agreement which Turkey had signed with Israel, and which had elicited criticism from Turkey's Arab neighbours. Once in office, he was obliged to put his signature to another, earning accusations of betrayal from the same sources which had welcomed his rise to power. Even now an enduring US military presence in Turkey testifies to Mr Erbakan's grim- faced genuflection to his generals' demands.

Western-oriented Turks hope Mr Erbakan will be similarly reined in with regard to the D8. Should he think of abandoning customs duties on trade with D8 partners - as he has hinted - he will fall foul of the EU, whose customs union with Turkey has brought with it strict rules on trade with third countries.