The ongoing evolution of Turkey’s domestic politics, economic power, regional ties and international role is one of the great contemporary sagas of the Mideast, as a visit to Istanbul quickly reveals. It is important to assess Turkey and its evolution accurately and in its own right, rather than mainly as an adjunct to American woes, Israeli priorities, European sensitivities, Arab and Kurdish concerns or Iranian plans.
Turkey is not boldly moving away from its traditional close ties with the United States, NATO and Israel in favor of strategic links mainly with Arab-Islamic countries. Rather, it is balancing its relations with all these actors, and assuming a greater role as both a leading regional power that connects firmly with all key players (Arabs, Israelis, Iranians) and also enjoys international credibility.
Turkey can be seen as navigating the third phase of its contemporary evolution. The first, following the end of the Cold War in around 1990, included economic stabilization and expansion, and the emergence of more democratic politics, leading to the eventual triumph of what is now the ruling, mildly Islamist, Justice and Development Party (AKP). The second phase started after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which radically upset the prevailing regional power balance, and allowed both Iran and Turkey to assume greater regional influence. Further democratic adjustments at home saw the constitutional democratic system slowly assert itself over the formerly dominant military-based ruling elite.
The third phase now under way sees Turkey combining its economic strength with its good relations across the region and more assertive diplomacy. The signs of these changes are everywhere, starting from one’s arrival at Istanbul airport, where an increase in business and tourist passenger traffic is partly a reflection of the sensible policy of allowing visa-free travel with more and more neighbors, like Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and others.
Even before landing, from the plane one spots hundreds of cargo vessels waiting to dock at Istanbul port, another sign of robust production and exports. Economic expansion and the burgeoning middle class were critical reasons for the AKP’s electoral triumphs, and economic prosperity may well also underpin Turkey’s improved relations across the region.
The latest economic figures and predictions are staggering. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) expects the Turkish economy to grow by an average of 6.7 percent a year between 2011 and 2017, making it the fastest growing OECD economy. Economic growth in the first quarter of this year suggests an annual growth rate of over 11 percent. The investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts Turkey will be the third-largest European economy in 2050, and the ninth largest in the world (it is now the 16th largest).
The domestic impact of economic growth is visible in many ways, among which, for me, was my first visit to Istinye Park mall in Istanbul. There is something especially striking about this mall, with its 291 up-market stores, 85,250 square meters of retail area, cinemas, restaurants, cafes, health club, four levels of underground parking, enclosed and open air sections, a green central park, and an authentic Turkish food bazaar. Seems like a nice place for the rich to enjoy themselves, I told my Turkish friend as we walked through the mall to an open-air restaurant to dine and watch a World Cup semi-final game on a wall-size screen. He replied that this was mainly a symbol of how the new middle class and upper middle class Turks can spend their money these days.
The political and diplomatic dimensions of contemporary Turkey still have to navigate through bumps in the road, such as the current tensions with Israel, renewed security tensions with militant Kurds, and the domestic political battle over the government’s proposed constitutional changes that would limit the powers of some judicial bodies and make the military accountable to civilian courts. A referendum in September will now decide this issue, after the Constitutional Court left intact most government-proposed reforms.
The tensions with Israel due to the Gaza war and the recent Israeli attack on a flotilla of humanitarian aid ships represent a new element in the region: truly independent Muslim-majority states that will not allow themselves to be pushed around and insulted by Israel or Western powers, as most Arab states allow themselves to be. The diplomatic row will be resolved soon, I suspect, because both countries understand the strategic value of their relations, in multiple fields such as security, diplomacy, trade and technology.
Turkey’s relations with Israel today comprise only one aspect of its multi-faceted regional strategy, which also includes good relations and diplomatic activism with foes of Israel like Syria and Iran. The emergence of a stronger Turkey more directly engaged with all in the region is a positive development, and any one party that thinks it can win Turkey totally to its side is probably engaged in wishful thinking.
THE DAILY STAR