Every Friday, tour buses pull up outside the Sanko Park shopping centre in Gaziantep, an industrial city near Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
Its marble atria lack the warmth of the bazaars in the city’s old centre, where women bargain over mounds of dark-red chilli paste and garlands of dried vegetables. But these visitors are not looking for atmosphere.
They are Syrians coming from Aleppo – just a few hours drive over the border – to snap up electronic goods and shop in fashion chains, from Mango to Marks & Spencer, that are unavailable at home. They now make up about one in 20 of the 850,000 customers each month, spending an average of $120 a head and prompting the mall to open an office that will refund VAT on the spot.
“Syria is Turkey 20 years ago,” says Emin Berk, who runs a new office to encourage small business dealings between Gaziantep and Aleppo. “Gaziantep is the first stop out of Syria: it’s more developed and it has better shopping.”
The cross-border spending sprees are one of the most visible effects of a recent rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, part of Ankara’s drive to strengthen ties with its eastern neighbours, using trade and cultural links to increase its “soft power” in the Middle East.
The two countries scrapped visa requirements last autumn to seal their friendship – a striking reversal of the tension of earlier decades, when Turkey was suspected of planting bombs in Damascus in retaliation for Syria’s sheltering of Kurdish separatists. Landmines still pepper the border that tourists now cross freely, but the new allies are even holding joint military exercises.
Nor is Turkey’s aim purely diplomatic. Officials hope their country’s exporters will tap fresh markets, and create jobs in the poorest south-eastern regions of the country – where unemployment and poverty fuel a sense of grievance among ethnic Kurds, and government subsidies have so far had little effect in attracting investment.
“It doesn’t matter how much you invest in the region: you have to open routes for trade,” says Mehmet Aslan, head of Gaziantep’s chamber of commerce.
Gaziantep itself is a prospering manufacturing centre, but it has struggled to absorb an influx of Kurdish jobseekers from further east, especially during last year’s recession.
The growing trade with Syria and Iraq, in particular, helped counter the slump in European markets. Turkey’s exports to those two countries rose by 30 per cent last year compared with 2008.
Cement is one of the most profitable products, Mr Berk says, with a 50kg bag selling for $50 in Turkey, but $140 in Syria. Sanko, the biggest local conglomerate, is building a packing plant next to the border to cut transport costs for its cement. Other exports range from carpet yarn to nappies and machinery for processing lentils.
There are still barriers to trade: Mr Berk says high taxes make it difficult for Turkish businesses to sell finished textiles or foodstuffs in Syria.
Furthermore, scrapping visas has brought other benefits. Gaziantep’s private hospitals are drawing health tourists, and its airport is busier as Syrians drive across the frontier to catch cheaper flights to Europe.
Mr Aslan, an influential figure in the region, wants to go further, establishing a common economic zone on the border to help small businesses in both countries enter the other’s market.
The project is embryonic, but he sees it in grand terms, as a model for possible similar zones on Turkey’s frontiers with Iraq, Iran and Georgia.
“We are not only working for Gaziantep, we are working for the whole region,” he says.
Such projects, he claims, would be a microcosm of the Turkish government’s aims of encouraging integration between Middle Eastern economies, and providing a bridge between these markets and the European Union.
“Closer ties with these countries will be vital in our relations with the EU,” says Mr Aslan.
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