Turkey, or in the past the Ottoman Empire, has always been something of a bridge between Europe and the Near East. In recent years, it increasingly turned its attention westward, joining NATO and hoping, some day, to become part of the European Union. Decades of promises and negotiations have left the country frustrated with Europe however so now, according to The Economist, the Turks are back in the Middle East, “in the benign guise of traders and diplomats.”
The move is natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed, Turkey’s Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.
In recent years, Turkish exports to the Middle East and North Africa have swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. The country is investing considerably in many neighboring states, including Iraq, and is set to grow further in importance as a conduit for energy to the West as the Nabucco pipeline will carry gas from Azerbaijan in the near future.
In part, Turkey thanks its newfound preeminence in the Middle East to a series of free-trade pacts with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It is currently in negotiations with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, to make similar arrangements, as it is with Syria.
The relations with Syria have only recently been restored but already there is hope that the new closeness with secular, moderate Turkey represents a move away from Syria’s controversial alliance with Iran.
For others, it suggests an embrace of Turkey’s more open, cosmopolitan society. And for many — including Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad — it conjures different dreams of a revitalized regional economy, less vulnerable to Western sanctions or pressure.
Turkey doesn’t shred from approaching even Iran: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently visited Tehran and congratulated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his disputed election win in June. Furthermore, Erdoğan opined that Iran is entitled to develop nuclear power for civil purposes.
This dogged diplomatic pragmatism has been ardently pursued by Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, notes The Economist. Davutoğlu taught international relations and advised Prime Minister Erdogan long before his appointment last May. His foreign policy is one of soft power, using trade and historical links with neighboring countries to project stability beyond Turkey’s frontiers.
This marks a distinct shift in worldview. In the past Turkey tended to see itself as an eastern bulwark of the NATO alliance, whereas its Middle Eastern neighbors were viewed as threats to be contained.
That Turkey has nevertheless been “welcomed back” into the Arab world is thanks to the power vacuum left by heavyweights as Egypt and Iraq. Neither wield much clout anymore while American influence has declined sharply after the Bush Administration launched its War on Terror. Besides, many Arabs see Turkey as both a moderate counterweight to Iran and as a window to the West.
For while to Europeans, Turkey may seem something of an underdeveloped, backward culture desperately trying to Westernize, to many in the Middle East, it is the nearest thing to modernity present. As much as Turkey is a gateway to the West to them, it can be a our arch to the East and Turkey ought to be treated as the greater regional power it is therefore.