BEIRUT – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for closer ties with Arab countries at an Arab Economic Forum in Beirut yesterday as he hailed his country’s economic advances. In an address to bankers and businessmen, he welcomed Turkey’s commercial relations with Arab countries, which have nearly doubled in recent years. «Turkey’s exchanges with Middle Eastern, Gulf and North African countries have soared by 97 percent, from seven to 13 billion dollars between 2002 and 2004,» he said. «Economic and political relations between Turkey and the Arab world must be reinforced.» He insisted on the need to expand the commercial agreements that already exist between Turkey and countries such as Morocco, Syria and Algeria to others, among them Jordan and Lebanon. «Trade between Turkey and Lebanon is only worth $280 million a year, a figure which we could bring up to one billion,» he said, as he urged the «dismantling of custom barriers.» He also called on Gulf countries to channel financial surplusses obtained from soaring oil prices into investment projects in neighboring countries. He said his country had managed positive growth rates in 2004, thanks to reforms. «Turkey’s GDP (grew) over 9 percent in 2004, which means it is one of the fastest growing countries in Europe, while inflation fell to 8 percent. Our goal is to bring it down to 5 percent in 2006,» he said. Ankara is due to begin EU accession talks on October 3. Erdogan said he championed a policy of «less state intervention» in economic affairs, saying that the role of the state should limit itself to one of a «regulator.» Erdogan’s statement came against the backdrop of efforts by several Arab countries to open and modernize their economies. Lebanon, in particular, is seeking to launch a program of reforms to reduce its ballooning $35.5 billion annual national debt through a regime of privatizations and the reorganization of its public sector. «We have a real opportunity, though the last one» to undertake these reforms, said Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Miqati who was also attending the Beirut forum. «It is incumbent upon Lebanese to engage in economic, financial and administrative reforms,» he said as he called on donors to help Lebanon juggle its hefty public debt. Donors have conditioned further aid to Lebanon on thorough reforms and fighting corruption. The last allocation of $2.6 billion in November 2003 to help Lebanon repurchase outstanding high-interest debt was made with a pledge by slain former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri to reform the country’s economy, which he never succeeded in carrying out because of political infighting. Lebanon ranked 97th out of 145 countries on the Transparency International 2004 list of countries perceived as corrupt by business people and country analysts, falling 19 points over the previous year. Erdogan, who is the first Turkish prime minister to visit Lebanon since 1965, arrived in Beirut on Wednesday for two days. He met with President Emile Lahoud and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, among other officials.