Ali Suleiman
Last updated: 5 February, 2012

Reality check: Turco-Arab Relations

Holding both nationalities and having lived in both Turkish and Arab societies, I believe gives me a unique view on Turco-Arab relations. Though I am critical of the AKP party in the following article, I do not hold any political allegiance, and I recognise the benefits it has bestowed upon Turkey. My purpose is to shed light upon what many in the Arab region are overlooking and to challenge its public discourse.

“One minute, one minute,” cut in Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, objecting to Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum, “you know how to kill very well”. He then packed up and left the stage accompanied by bedazzled journalists. Enter stage right: the Arabs, swept off their feet, falling in a love affair with Erdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Turkey in general.

This new relationship is reflected almost everywhere. Arabs are glued to their television screens keeping up with Turkish soap operas that overwhelm with alluring scenes of the Bosphorus. One Palestinian in Gaza named his son after Erdoğan. And, amusingly, there are now Arabs who profess their newly rediscovered Turkish roots, even if this involves a grandparent, or better yet, a distant great-grandparent.

Part of me is very happy about the new relationship. During my primary school education in Jordan, our teacher touched on the Ottomans and Arabs, mentioning the Arab Revolt from the Ottoman joke. To this day I recall the students turning to me and giving me contemptuous looks, knowing that my mother was Turkish. Now I imagine the Education Ministry refining those tiny details to suit a better public discourse.

This love affair is getting out of control. It needs a reality check to slow things down for a rational re-assessment. The AKP has been able to muster much sympathy in the Arab world for two primary reasons: increased intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and carrying an “Islamic” persona that projects itself as a role model for successful governance. Hereafter, I will use AKP and Erdoğan interchangeably.

Sure, I’m happy with Turkey’s new stance on the conflict, but not with the methodology. Following the Gaza flotilla incident Erdoğan became more flamboyant than before, adding threats of military action and promising to accompany future aid ships with naval powers. The AKP recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and ended all military relations with Israel (though the extent of this has not been confirmed).

Who in their right mind threatens a more powerful and intelligent army? (After all, you don’t threaten a lion when you are a mouse.) But Erdoğan is not dumb; he knows how to use this Israel-bashing opportunity to improve his image at home and to gain Turkish investment opportunities in the Arab world—and that’s all it is.

You may disagree, but if Erdoğan were really passionate and sincere about the Palestinian cause, he would terminate economic relations with Israel, not the meagre military one that only benefited Turkey with some small measure of arms. Israel was Turkey’s fourth largest trading partner in 2008, so it is interesting that Erdoğan chose to continue economic relations that feed the Israeli occupation. Does he value the Turkish economic performance—thus ensuring political popularity—over the lives of Palestinians?

Finally, I’m opposed to Turkey’s intervention in the Palestinian question due to Erdoğan’s swashbuckling methods and use of “Islamic” idioms. I believe the Palestinian cause should be an Arab initiative and effort (with international aid, not intervention), devoid of any religious idioms, and certainly not Islamic, because it is an insult to our Jewish, Christian, and non-religious friends who strive on behalf of the Palestinians. The conflict is territorial, not religious.

AKP’s “Islamic” roots are a major catalyst in this new relationship. Erdoğan even exudes an image of the future Caliph to some Arabs. It may sound frivolous, but this is the reality in the Arab and the wider Islamic world. Even In Turkey, while campaigning next to mosques following the Friday prayers, he is also seen by some as a sort of return to the Ottoman Caliphate.

Opposition parties in Turkey use this imagery in their polemics, but I don’t believe in it. Establishing a caliphate is not in his or his backers’ best interests, neither will the AKP impose sharia law. Nevertheless, the idea does truly exist in the minds of fundamentalists or the uneducated, who view a vote for the AKP as a vote towards God.

I can’t blame the Arabs; from their perspective Erdoğan is a saviour (as demonstrated above) and the AKP is the model to follow if you want to achieve economic success and better living standards, with an Islamist twist. How does it work?

Turkish soap operas are a vital cultural export. The shows exhibit a lush lifestyle with attractive characters driving expensive vehicles and living in villas overlooking the Bosphorus. Of course the shows in the Arab world are edited to censor sexually tense scenes to fit in with the “moderate Islam” angle. Still, the audience, in turn, metaphysically participates in the presented lifestyle, which integrates a biased positive image of Turkey and, by extension, Erdoğan, and the civil society that awards such a pleasurable experience to them.

Not only has this attracted larger number of Arab tourists, it has convinced many that this is the ordinary Turkish lifestyle. Credit where credit is due: AKP has probably provided the best social services and reforms in the recent past. But this comes at a cost of increased corruption and a more authoritarian regime. Over 57 journalists have been jailed based on anti-government bias. Other intellects and writers have been detained or put on house arrest based on flimsy conspiracies to overthrow the government. The 2010 constitutional referendum, which passed, allowed the AKP to appoint Supreme Court judges and other unprecedented government control.

Yet the soap opera lifestyle remains reserved for close friends of the AKP and its supporters. The Arab region is fed a biased view of the Turkish economic performance, often citing only GDP growth. Yet Arabs who have never read into Turkish history or politics somehow find the authority to claim Turkey is in better shape after Erdo intervention; poverty, unemployment, and consumer purchasing power has either deteriorated or remained stagnant.

The Muslims in the Arab world have to wake up and realise that neither is the AKP modelled on true Islamic values, nor will the perceived caliphate seek out the Arabs’ best interest. Turkey’s goal is to enhance its regional power and seek economic dominance, not create a brotherhood of Turks and Arabs holding hands. One only must recall his latest trip to Egypt and North Africa where Erdoğan was accompanied with over 350 businessmen from Turkey. Similarly, over 500 officials and businessmen from various trade and investment groups joined Erdoğan in January 2011, when he visited the GCC capitals.

Since the AKP’s victory in 2002, new interest groups formed that possess lobbying powers on foreign policy. These include the Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board, Turkish Industrialists’ & Businessmen’s Association, and the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists. Such bodies have increased Turkish expansion into Middle Eastern markets, and trade and investment between Turkey and its Arab neighbours has almost quadrupled between 2002 and 2009.

I would be the first to suggest that enhanced and healthy economic relations lead to stronger political and social relations, but here we are getting a clear picture of who is dominating. Even if we were to agree on a trade relation that benefits Turkey more than the Arabs built on the trust of some vehicle of Islamic unity, most Arabs are unaware of the foreign privatisation movement in Turkey. Major industries and family companies are giving way to European or American firms, often with AKP compliance. Privatisation can yield benefits, but Turkey’s complete and almost unregulated sell out of natural resources, telecommunications, banks, and other key institutions is alarming.

We Arabs can be emotional people. We think with our hearts, and there is the danger of being easily exploited due to this weakness. With attachments to a sense of nationalism and religion, anyone who speaks to us in this language will get our trust.

Rather than fully embracing this new relationship, we must be cautious in our analysis. Are we asserting our regional interests in these bilateral agreements? Are we safeguarding our internal policies from exploitation?  Turkey should be a regional ally holding extensive relations with its Arab neighbours, but to achieve this, we need a stable, rational, and truly bilateral process that protects self-determination of the Arab region.

This article was originally published in Kalimat – Winter 12, Issue 4.