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World: D-8 Summit In Tehran Seeks To Bolster Members' Economic Ties

The D-8 Summit -- bringing together eight developing Muslim countries -- begins today in the Iranian capital Tehran. The two-day meeting will gather top officials from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nigeria. The summit is meant to boost economic ties between the members. But experts say that beyond their Islamic identity, the D-8 countries have little in common.

Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Tehran summit is the fourth such gathering of the heads of states of the D-8. The group of eight developing Muslim nations was founded in 1997 on the initiative of former Turkish Prime Minister Necmeddin Erbakan, as a way of boosting regional cooperation.

The stated objectives of the D-8 are improving trade ties and raising standards of living. But six years after the founding of the D-8, experts say the group has not accomplished its goals.

Notably, business between the member countries continues to represent just a tiny fraction of the countries' overall trade figures.

Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh is a professor of geopolitics at Tehran's Tarbiat Modaress University, and the chairman of the London-based Urosevic Research Foundation. He says the D-8 brings together countries with a motley assortment of political and economic views -- something that makes cooperation between them difficult.

"Iran, Egypt, and countries like that are, I'm sure, selected because they are important Islamic countries. They are important in political terms, of course, and the regimes are politically inclined regimes in those countries. Whereas countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are totally economic regimes, and they are chosen [for D-8 membership] because of their economic success," Mojtahedzadeh said.

The D-8 member states are home to nearly 800 million people, or 13 percent of the world's population. But at the same time, the countries collectively account for just 7 percent of global trade.

This week, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi called for the creation of a common market to promote trade among the D-8 states. But Mojtahedzadeh says simple geography may overrule any such plans.

"These countries do not have any geographical contiguity. They are separate pieces of land scattered all over the world, and it's not clear how these eight countries are going to form a sort of common market to promote economic development among themselves. You don't know what it's all about -- is it a political gathering, or is it an economic gathering? In either case, the necessary ingredient is missing, and that is the geographical contiguity," Mojtahedzadeh said.

Apart from being sprinkled across disparate portions of Asia and Africa, D-8 countries also have widely different levels of economic growth.

Fereydoun Khavand, a professor of international economic relations at the University of Rene Descartes in Paris, says that is another factor hampering the D-8.

"Among these countries you have Malaysia, which is one of the most developed and advanced countries in Southeast Asia. You have Turkey, which is considered one of the advanced countries of the Islamic world. On the other hand, you have countries like Iran and Nigeria, whose main income is from oil; and countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, who, despite some changes in recent years, have not been able to improve living conditions," Khavand said.

"Is it a political gathering, or is it an economic gathering? In either case, the necessary ingredient is missing, and that is the geographical contiguity."
Moreover, Khavand says, the member states are not sufficiently motivated to make the efforts needed to enhance cooperation. He says many of the D-8 members are far more interested in pursuing economic ties outside the group.

"For example, Indonesia and Malaysia's main intention is to expand their economic relations with ASEAN countries. Turkey's main intention is focused on expanding trade with EU countries. Therefore, these countries are pursuing better economic ties with their neighboring countries, which are not necessarily Muslim. I don't think Islam and religious unity can by itself be an effective and determining factor in the creation of economic integration between member countries," Khavand said.

The only head of state not attending the D-8 summit is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is sending Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher in his stead.

Ties between Tehran and Cairo were severed 25 years ago, after Egypt offered asylum to the shah of Iran and signed the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords with Israel.

The two countries in recent months have taken steps toward resuming ties. Mubarak and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami met in December 2003 on the sidelines of the World Information Summit.

And in January, Iran agreed to rename a street in Tehran bearing the name of Khaled Estanboli, the Egyptian army lieutenant who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The street name was one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of ties between the two countries.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.