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Turkey and the Mideast: an ever closer union?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

“Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had,” wrote Alice Sebold in her book The Lovely Bones. We knew the train was coming; we felt the humming of the tracks as the engine approached, then we saw it in the distance, and now we begin to hear the whistle blow. How ironic that current of history brings the order, which was destined to be, no matter what calamities befall us on the way!

Almost a year ago, I discussed the prospect of a union in the Middle East in an interview with Israel National News/Arutz Sheva. I am not sure the idea even seemed sane at that time, much less feasible; but Prime Minister Erdogan seems to have endorsed the concept during a live TV show last Thursday on Turkish television, suggesting a Middle Eastern union as an alternative to the United Nations Security Council.

Turkey’s unique foreign policy is nothing new. It started in 2007. The alternative style Turkey has adopted does not go beyond criticizing the system with the rules of the system itself. The criterion whereby Turkey has been criticizing the international communities is based on the same humanitarian and democratic principles, which those same communities have themselves espoused specifically.

Turkey is recently seen as a killjoy when Erdoğan criticizes the U.N. for not taking action in the areas of conflict, but let’s remember the expressed charter purpose of the U.N. Security Council: The primary responsibility of the council the maintenance of international peace and security. Notwithstanding this noble responsibility, the natural tendency of all human combinations, councils, trade unions, and even nations is to departure from their foundational ideals. All human endeavors need periodic reform; otherwise, they give in to the expiring nature of time. With that in view, PM Erdogan openly stated his initiative to ask the member states to call the council to reform last Thursday, adding “no leader I have spoken to so far [has] disagreed.”

The most significant feature of these statements will prove to be Erdogan’s recognition of what everybody already knows, to wit “either the Council will reform or some of the member states start a new initiative to form their alternative union.”

Surely, many people have questions about this new union initiative, but there is actually nothing new about it. In fact, it has been in the making for at least five years: Erdogan explained the need and drew the main line of this union very clearly: “U.N. Security Council has been incompetent in solving the security issues of the member states or attaining peace in the world. Even in the humanitarian issues, the Council is not keeping up with the developments in the member nations.” The attainment of world peace has been a dream for which we have been taught to aspire since elementary school. It is high time to say it out loud: What is possible for the European countries in the second half of the 20th century is likewise within reach of the Middle Eastern peoples today.

The Sectarianism issue

Sectarianism has been on the increase in the Middle East recently and Turkey is perceived as a Sunni power. However, as an aid to understanding Turkey’s recent position, this framework is both insufficient and deceptive. For example: Turkey’s relationship with Iran did not deteriorate because Iran is a Shia power. On the contrary, until very recently, Turkey advocated to minimize fears about Iran’s nuclear development program and stood shoulder to shoulder with Iran against alarmist sentiments. Turkey fell out with Iran because of Iran’s support for Assad in Syria.

The idea of cooperative union between Middle Eastern nations is not predicated on any hereditary claim of right or military dominion. It is not to be won by military might.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Likewise, Turkey still has growing trade and tourism with Lebanon. The recent chill began only when Lebanon adopted an official policy to support Assad and his massacres. Conversely: Turkey did not get closer with Egypt just because Egypt has a Sunni majority, and the recent falling out between Turkey’s AKP and Cairo is not the result of any shift in sects in Egypt but a military take over. In fact, Sisi and his ilk are all Sunni Muslims, like the majority in Turkey.

Turkey’s approach to Muslim nations is best articulated in Erdogan’s own words: “For me there is no difference between Sunni or Shia. I said this to Khamenei too. For me, there is Islam. And it is the only uniting force in this region. Why would I make that force dysfunctional by segregating between Shia and Sunni? Since my student days I have never distinguished between the two.”

And he outlined how easy forming a new union is with his words “When the European Union first started, it wasn’t the European Union it was European coal and steel community. Then it transformed into a political and social union.” Look at the Middle East today, it is one of the most fertile places in the world, which is also fruitful in terms of underground resources. But these resources are so poorly managed that even though they can be enough to feed the entire planet, the inhabitants of the region itself are suffering. But when these resources are handled in a pool system, the economic problems of the countries will be easier to solve.

Solving economic problems

Libya, for example faces a crying need for better infrastructure and has a new credit to do the job. Unfortunately, she lacks the human capital to address the challenge. Meanwhile, Egypt has abundant human resources, a youthful workforce, and increasing unemployment. Well-regulated passport free - visa free travel between Egypt and Lebanon would ameliorate the problems of both countries, but this can only happen under the umbrella of a cooperative union along the lines of the European Union. A cooperative union of Middle East countries could address problems like sectarianism, the crisis of refugees, and the dependence on foreign labor and unemployment among the several Middle Eastern nations. The same union could form a pool of financial resources for use by member countries, credit facilities between brothers, with extended loans. In this way, countries like Egypt could modernize without going cap in hand to Brussels, and we could all avoid the oppressive dynamic which we seen unfolding in places which rely on the IMF, like Cyprus and Greece.

Would the West want such a union? Yes, the West should favor a cooperative union in the Middle East because political order and stability here would mean the constituents of such a union would be less dependent on the West. They wouldn’t cry to the West for help in every crisis situation or blame the West for failing to guarantee utopian conditions here. Currently, from Bahrain to Tunisia no one country in the Middle East can overcome its problems on its own.

This is not a Caliphate. People in this region have different interpretations of sharia. These independent countries cannot be forced to accept one interpretation.
This is a modern, secular union for all peoples of the Middle East without segregation. This is an alternative model to today’s dysfunctional international communities.

The idea of cooperative union between Middle Eastern nations is not predicated on any hereditary claim of right or military dominion. It is not to be won by military might or enforced by police or perpetuated by any supremacist ideology. This is a proposal for a regional union based on principles of democracy and respect for individual human rights. God send the day.


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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.