Originally posted: September, 2010
Turkey’s growing links with the Arab world are evolving on multiple levels and reflect key shifts in the diplomacy, economy, and society of much of the Middle East. They also reflect Turkey’s desire to utilize its close links to Western nations, its neighbors, and other nations to expand its economy and to have greater influence in global politics.
The most obvious and rapid shifts in the Middle East are diplomatic and political. Since the election of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) in 2002, Turkey has pursued an active role in Middle Eastern affairs. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign policy advisor and now Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoĝlu, Ankara has diversified its foreign policy. While Turkey has kept its traditional ties to the West and NATO, it has also followed a non-ideological approach to Turkey’s neighbors known as the “zero problem policy.” This policy seeks to settle all disputes which directly or indirectly concern Ankara, including those with the Arab states. Over the last eight years, Arab officials have visited Turkey for political discussions, and regional political conferences have regularly been held in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey has mediated the Arab-Israeli conflict and internal political disputes in Lebanon. Finally, Ankara has worked with Riyadh and other Arab capitals to curb the influence of Tehran and its political allies in Iraq.
Since 2008, Prime Minister Erdoğan has become a popular figure in his own right in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. Many Arabs heralded him as one of their own after he angrily left a panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos International Conference in protest of Israel’s military actions in Gaza. His sharp rhetoric towards Israel during the 2010 Gaza Aid crisis has further reinforced his popularity among Arabs.
Still, the Turkish leader’s popularity among the Arab masses has raised concerns among some Arab elites. They worry that Ankara’s enhanced presence in the Arab world has come at their expense and that Ankara seeks to establish a new Ottoman Empire or neo-colonial rule over the empire’s former Arab provinces. These elites also worry that Turkey’s rhetoric regarding Israel will compel them to adopt positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict that are more confrontational than they otherwise would and potentially put them at odds with Western governments.
These fears are not without merit. During the crises over Gaza in 2009 and 2010, Erdoğan’s denunciations of Israeli actions forced a number of Arab governments to provide greater aid to the Palestinians and to issue scathing critiques of Israel — critiques at odds with Washington’s approach to Israel and the crises. In addition, Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf Arab monarchies fear that Turkey’s commercial ties with Iran and diplomatic support of Iran’s nuclear program emboldens Tehran and has strengthened the latter’s influence in the Middle East.
As important as Ankara’s regional diplomacy has been to improving its status in the Arab world, its open-door visa policy has been even more important. The policy has greatly facilitated travel, tourism, and economic integration. While Arabs have visited Turkey as tourists for many years, the number of Arabs visiting Turkey skyrocketed after the policy went into effect. Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians can all now visit Turkey without a visa and vice versa. Southeast Anatolia, Turkey’s poorest region, has especially benefitted from regional economic integration with the Arab world. Thanks to new Arab consumers and Arab tourists, the region’s economy has blossomed. Border communities in neighboring Arab states have also witnessed considerable economic growth after integrating into Turkey’s economy.
Regional economic integration has also spawned social integration. Arabs have become devoted fans of Turkish television soap operas. In fact, the streets of Arab cities I have visited were virtually empty when the shows were broadcast. Some Arabs spend hundreds of dollars for tours to the Turkish neighborhoods where the shows are set or to see the homes of famous Turkish actors. For many Arabs with whom I have spoken, Turkish soap operas evoke their ambivalence toward their northern neighbors. While many genuinely object to Turkey’s seemingly secular and non-Islamic culture, they are also inexplicably drawn to its glamour, power, and wealth.
The “love-hate” relationship and the popularity of Turkish soap operas reflect widespread social changes that have been brewing beneath the surface in the Arab world and Turkey for more than a decade. Significantly, for much of the past century, secular and Western-oriented nationalists shaped how both Arabs and Turks viewed both their neighbors and their past. “Critical” voices in the Arab world stressed that the Turks had enslaved Arabs under the Ottoman Empire, thwarted the emergence of Arabs’ national greatness, and were not true Muslims since they did not speak Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. By contrast, Turkish “critics” portrayed the Arabs as backward. According to this worldview, it was the treachery of the Arabs in World War I, their excessive religiosity, and fierce opposition to Western modernity that had held back the Turks and ultimately led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Over the last decade, however, many Arabs and Turks have begun to move beyond these critical worldviews and assumptions. While they still cherish their national identities, they have sought out their pre-World War I roots and their shared past under the Ottoman Empire. For instance, I have met many families in the Arab world who have recently rediscovered their Turkish heritage and ties to Turkey. In the long run, it is these broader social forces rather than government policies that have opened the door for improved ties between Turkey and the governments of the Arab world since 2002 and will continue to do so well into the future.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s current relationship with the Arab world does not constitute a fundamental shift in its foreign policy or a viable “alternative” to its ties with Europe and the United States. In many respects, Turkey is decades ahead of the Arab countries economically, politically, and socially. Turkey is still part of the NATO alliance and Ankara has not abandoned its desire to join the European Union (EU). In fact, Turkey’s trade with Europe far exceeds its trade with the Arab states or with Iran. Furthermore, Ankara and Washington share a common vision of a democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East.
In this regard, Turkey is no different from the United States, which maintains very close relations with a host of nations that have poor bilateral relations with each other (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia or India and Pakistan). Within this framework, Ankara looks at Arab states in much the same way as it does other states — as partners that can help improve Turkey’s strategic position and expand its economy. Here, it is worth noting that improved ties with Arab states opened markets for Turkish goods and won Ankara support in international organizations. In 2004, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states helped elect the first Turk to the office of Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Five years later, Arab states joined a host of Asian, African, and Western nations in supporting Turkey’s successful bid for a rotating seat on the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC). The UN election was an especially important accomplishment for Turkey, since Ankara had not served on the Security Council since 1961. It also gave Ankara a platform to advance its views on the Iranian nuclear issue and a host of other international issues.
Still, as Turkey’s government pursues its new grand foreign policy vision with Iran and the Arab world, we should not lose site of the importance of the broad social and economic changes that have taken place in Turkey and its Arab neighbors in recent years. These changes laid the groundwork for recent Turkish diplomacy by allowing Turks and Arabs to redefine their historical relationship for the first time since World War I and to rediscover longstanding social and cultural links. With cross cultural trade and social-cultural links growing stronger by the day, Turkish-Arab political ties look set to grow even closer in the future.