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Turkey: the new strong man of the Middle East?

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Robin Lustig | 10:27 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

If you were an Egyptian, or a Moroccan, or a Jordanian, what would you think of the role Turkey is now playing in the Middle East?

Compared with Iran, for example, would you regard it as a positive or a negative influence in the region?

It's not an idle question, especially not in the week when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been making a triumphant tour of the three Arab states where they've managed to overthrow their autocratic rulers: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Nor is it a question to which we have to guess the answer. According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute in Washington, and conducted in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favourable views of Turkey range from an astounding 98 per cent in Saudi Arabia to a "low" of 45 per cent in Jordan.

Iran's ratings, by comparison, range from a high of 63 per cent in Lebanon, to 6 per cent in Saudi Arabia. And if you're interested in trends, over the past five years Turkey has been vastly improving its regional reputation, while Iran's has been plummeting.

Why is this interesting? Because Turkey is rapidly emerging as a key player in the region, and Mr Erdogan seems determined to increase his country's influence wherever he can. His message on his visits this week has been an attractive one to Arab audiences - look at us: Muslim, democratic and prosperous. Do as we did, and you can have all this too.

No wonder Turkey's reputation at the moment is sky high. (There are exceptions, of course: you won't find many Kurds or Armenians who share the general Arab view that a resurgent Turkey is a Good Thing.)

Ah, did I mention, Mr Erdogan is also a vociferous critic of Israel, whose ambassador he has just sent packing in the continuing row over the killing last year by Israeli forces of nine Turkish citizens on an aid flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip.

In a speech last Tuesday to the Arab League in Cairo, he accused Israel of behaving like a spoilt child, and said: "Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state."

That word "solitude" was carefully chosen. Turkey used to be on good terms with Israel - the two countries' military forces worked closely together, and Ankara acted with some success as a mediator between Israel and Syria.

Those days are long gone. As Mr Erdogan well knows, Israel now has no friends in the region, and is watching anxiously as Egypt's new rulers suggest that the Camp David peace agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979 "is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion."

The Turkish prime minister enjoys playing to the crowd, both at home and abroad. He has good Muslim credentials, with a background in Islamist politics. He, like most Muslims, but unlike the Iranians, is a Sunni, which means that on a religious level he is much closer to the vast majority of Arabs than to the ayatollahs of Tehran.

Until quite recently, Turkey harboured real hopes of being allowed to start a negotiation process that would end up with it joining the European Union. But deep hostility in France, Germany and elsewhere seems to have put an end to those hopes, at least for the forseeable future. In many western European eyes, there are three big objections to Turkey joining the euro-club: it's too big, it's too poor - and it's too Muslim.

So now Mr Erdogan seems to be shifting from his former foreign policy stance of being friends with everyone and enemies with no one. He hasn't abandoned his dream of joining the EU one day, but in the meantime he is fostering much closer links with the Arab world's new leaders.

What he has in mind is very different from the days of the Ottoman empire, when for the best part of 600 years, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula, the Turks dominated the Arab world as colonial masters.

But his new brand of muscular diplomacy, coupled with enticing offers of economic and technical assistance and populist anti-Israel rhetoric, make him a man who has to be taken seriously.

For now, Washington, and his other NATO allies, are prepared to watch and wait to see how far he intends to go. But there will be tensions and disagreements (the vote next week at the UN on whether to recognise Palestine as a state will be the next one) as Turkey gets used to its new status as the most influential kid on the block.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think your reference to the Ottoman empire is extremely prescient.
    With instability in the EU leading to a possible regrouping of nations into smaller blocks are we witnessing a return to something like the "natural order" mirroring the pre Great War situation?
    New versions of Ottoman (post Syrian collapse, rapprochement with Kurds in Iraq etc.), Russian, Northern Blocks (Prussian and Austro Hungarian replacements) together with an overpopulated appendage off the coast.

  • Comment number 2.

    Part 1. Turkey, under PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is that strange combination of secular govt and Muslim religion. Turkey is perfect to provide example and provide advice. I am pleased and admire his political acumen in visiting turmoil-shattered Egypt, Tunisia & Libya in a row this week.
    The distance presently existing between Israel & Turkey can only enhance Erdogan's already powerful position. For sure it cannot but build stronger, more trusting ties with Egypt.
    During his visit to Egypt, Erdogan addressed the Arab League in Cairo, saying "Israel must respect human rights and act as a normal country before it is liberated from Turkey's isolation." This is fair, well-spoken statement.
    His visit came only two days after a group of Egyptian protesters broke into the Israeli embassy in Cairo. They destroyed a newly-built concrete wall outside the embassy building, lowered the Israeli flag & threw documents out of the windows.
    Egypt had threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Israel last month after 5 Egyptian border guards were killed when Israeli security forces were hunting gunmen it said were responsible for deadly attacks in southern Israel. It displeases me that persons get killed without capture or trial.
    However, Turkey suspended military and economic ties with Israel and downgraded diplomat relationship to Second Secretary level this month in protest over Israeli refusal to apologize over the killing of 8 Turkish nationals & a US citizen of Turkish descent, during a commando raid on a flotilla Mavi Marmara which was trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip last May.
    Furthermore, Turkey pledged to support the Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in future, claiming the neutrality of the high seas.

  • Comment number 3.

    Part 2:
    Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor refused to comment on Erdogan's speeches in Cairo. However, Israel had defended that its raid on the flotilla was out of self defense when confronting strong and organized resistance. I believe the entire Arab World must be tired, even nauseated, by Israel's constant refrain: "Self Defence!"
    Turkey's influence has risen steadily due to its growing economy & policy in the region, mostly towards Israel; this, even though, Egypt has long deemed itself as a leader in the Arab world. Turkey & Egypt seems like a mighty tandem to me. Erdogan is not tryint to usurp power; he seems to see himself as guide, big brother.
    The reason for Turkey's capability to keep stability owes much to its rapid economic growth in nearly a decade when Erdogan came into power. Turkish economy increased by 8.8% in the second quarter of 2011, which was beyond remote expectation. Turkey's economic growth is exemplary when Erdogan was seeking to leverage the Arab unrest into a chance of making greater influence in the region, which he has done.
    Turkish-Egyptian trade volume hit 2.3B US dollars in the first 7 months of 2011. Incidents in Egypt "did not lead to any recession in our commercial relations," Erdogan said in Cairo at The Turkey-Egypt Business Forum joined by nearly 1,000 Egyptian businessmen & 280 Turkish investors.
    He said the two countries "should increase trade volume to 5B US dollars in two years and up to 10B dollars in 4 years" and he believed that the two countries can reach this target easily by removing visa procedures following the elections in Egypt.
    Erdogan is not the "new strong man" of the Middle East", He is something much better - a guiding light, a big brother, a source of experience & wisdom.

  • Comment number 4.

    Geography has always been the greatest asset of Turkey. Those seeking change in the Arab world are interested in expanded economic opportunities and Turkey represents those opportunities. The conflicts in the Arab world are about pursuing either the past or the future. The wrecking of the global economy by the banks and investment firms will make this transition much harder and has taken away many of the opportunities that could have been available to support the transition to more democratic states in that region. What the financial industry has done is similar to what happened during the depression and we all know what kind of leadership those hardships opened the doors to. It is more difficult to make the case for democracies when the democratic governments betrayed their people to enrich the wealthy.

  • Comment number 5.

    Another interesting article Robin. You forgot to mention about the valuable off shore gas field off the coast of Greek Cyprus which Israel was hoping to capitalise on. This will be more tricky now that Turkey has declared that it will escort Turkish registered ships in the international waters near Israel and Gaza.

    Erdogan and Turkey seems to be responding better to events than Israel. Israel can either respond to the changing environment around them with half-witted violence, or with intelligent peace. History and form suggests Israel will do the former.

    IMO Israel should respond to the Arab Spring by actually supporting Palestine's UN membership, but she will always choose violence and colonialist expansion.

  • Comment number 6.

    Yeah, what about them Israelis, unwilling to support UN membership for a state run by terrorists who are commited to Israel's destruction. (God forbid!)

    What are they like?

  • Comment number 7.

    "and populist anti-Israel rhetoric"

    May one assume that Mr. Lustig has accepted that all critique of Israel is ´populist´?

    --- How many dead and injured Palestinian innocents are required before the anti-Israel rhetoric is justified ?

  • Comment number 8.

    "For now, Washington, and his other NATO allies, are prepared to watch and wait to see how far he intends to go--"

    Is that not a rather arrogant implication ?

    The extreme Turkish poverty led to the civil war which was brutally crushed by the Turkish military -- the ´left´bearing the brunt. The West was only too happy to support the military- as American ´listening posts´, military bases etc. were important during and after the Cold War.

    As with many oppressed ´Islamic´ societies --the ´intellectual´Left was eventually replaced -- by a ´With God on their side´-- opposition. With hindsight, hardly an improvement as seen by Washington and its NATO ´yes sir´ side-kick -- who are now frantically trying to prevent an ´even worse catastrophe´(from their point of view).

    As GoS #4 correctly implies --the ´dictatorial wealthy elite´ have made a ´quietening down´ of the situation more difficult -- due to the bankrupting of the World economy.

    However I would take the argument further and maintain they would accept Millions of deaths -- just to maintain the unfair status-quo.

  • Comment number 9.

    I accept the Holocaust was the greatest unjustified crime against Humanity and the Jewish faith ( slavery, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have at times been justified)

    The populist pro-Israel view (and others) has succeeded to instill into World opinion --that anything less than that planned Genocide - is acceptable.

    I see nothing in Judaism (or Islam and Christianity) to support this -- and it appears Erdogan has similar views.

  • Comment number 10.



  • Comment number 11.



    I do not know what this means.

  • Comment number 12.


    This was a timely article. I had just finished reading Pepe Escobar’s article in the Asia Times when I found yours.

    What [Erdoğan] has in mind is very different from the days of the Ottoman empire, when for the best part of 600 years, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula, the Turks dominated the Arab world as colonial masters.

    I agree with you regarding Erdoğan, but your characterization of the Ottomans is a bit exaggerated: it would have been closer to have stated “the best part of 400 years” rather than of 600 (i.e. starting with Selim I.), and the Ottomans never reached the Atlantic coast — Morocco remained independent of the Sublime Porte.

    Kit Green: On post 1, in my opinion, no — or at least, not yet. Should there be USD and EUR collapses, then a resurgence of regional Great Powers would be easier to imagine.

    quietoaktree: Regarding post 9 and the greatest unjustified crime against humanity, Leopold II. and his Force Publique in the Congo Free State might have exceeded Hitler and his SS in occupied Europe.
  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    Providing proof of arguments using the BBC and Wikipedia links and statements by the British government are censored ?

    --- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opt-outs_in_the_European_Union


  • Comment number 15.

    -- maybe this blog should be closed ?

  • Comment number 16.

    This has been on every news report as 'narrow' while an examination of the poll shows more than twice as many 'for' as 'against'

    BBC Bias? Never!

  • Comment number 17.

    After Maummar Gaddafi's Libya, Turkey is the most well armed non European state in the Middle East. I say this because Israel is regarded thoughout the Middle East as being a European state. In an armed conflict, Turkey, I believe will give Israel a run for its money. But I pray that things don't come to a head like that.

    The Turks are native to the Middle East, not tied to it by myths and US Right Wing Religion, like Israel is, so they garner more respect in the neighborhood. Most people in the Middle East believe as I do. There will never be a Two State Solution as long as AIPAC and AEI control the US Congress, so the Palestinians might as well go for broke.

    Peace in a thing that is not convient or appealing to the West right now because it needs a divergence from its own financial troubles. As for the Arab Spring, anyone that believed it is more than Western propaganda needs his or her head examined. George Friedman has jaded me to the possibility of this phenonon being true.

    But I say, when any people get tired of being oppressed, they will pick up a weapon and free themselves. This should be a caution to Sarcozy and Cameron as they go spreading freedom and democracy thoroughout the Middle East and North Africa and have very little of it at home.


  • Comment number 18.

    Erdogans Turkey is highly controversial.
    Erdogan has achieved a great deal by creating stability and positive investment enviroment but was not able to change Turkey to a modern nation.
    The big gap between the progress and the Ottoman/Islamic policy is hitting back.
    From the zero problem and peace enviroment he turned to many problems and conflict enviroment based on old principles and a geopolitical policy that will get him into trouble.
    The Armenian policy failed. The ex Soviet countries approach failed. The relation with Greece went back to critical. The Kurdish problem becomes bigger and more pressing. The Turkish dominance is not accepted in New Egypt, in Lybia and in struggling Syria.The Cyprus problem is in standstill.The EE project is dormant and he decided on top to create major problems with Israel and go against American/Israely interests.
    The American/Nato interests are still very strong in Turkey but there is a limit in everything.
    Adored and hated in his own Country he cannot become the populistic hero of Islam because he is Suni and follows the basic U.S interests in the area.
    North Africa has distant but strong memories of the hated Ottoman rule.
    If he is not yet he risks to become a funny media figure throwing "threats" here and there like other selfabsorbed leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

  • Comment number 19.


    mary gravitt,

    "You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts."

    Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  • Comment number 20.

    #18 Constantinos_Cyprus

    --- of course, Greece and Cyprus will be a regional power when Enossis occurs !

  • Comment number 21.

    #17 Mary Gravitt

    -- President Obama has made his speech --and listed the topics to be discussed between the Palestinians and Israel.

    In the BBC news snippet --- I did not hear him mention the occupying ´settlers´.

  • Comment number 22.

    The tactic of Britain to call all freedom fighters ´terrorists´ did not prevent the end of Colonial Empire but caused only more undesired animosity (if that was possible).

    When large portions of the ´terrorist naming countries´ do not listen to their populations, the label ´terrorist´ will not only be diluted-- but risks active support for the oppressed.


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