Turkey’s ‘Mideast experts’ struggle to decode region

Rather than overcoming the language and field research problems, some experts prefer to protect their respective positions in the institutions they work for

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

The Middle East is living through an unprecedented time due to the uprisings that emerged in several Arab countries, developments in the politically fragile region that have started to have an impact on Turkey. As a result, several people who call themselves “Middle East experts” have taken the stage in Turkey.

Hardly a day passes without those experts commenting on TV channels over issues regarding the immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood, which for many decades Turkey had turned its back on and neglected developments taking place there.

I have no problem with the increasing number of scholars, academics and journalists focusing on the issues in the Middle East. This is something we should be proud of, although I believe that such an interest should have emerged in Turkey decades ago, not now.

Experts fall short

However, what really disturbs me is the approach these experts take while interpreting developments in the region.

Because the country they live in had kept itself away from the region for decades, and because they lack the language spoken in the countries that they comment on, comments made by these experts lack a view of the full picture, eventually leading these very experts to fail to understand the dynamics in the region.

One can hardly find a Middle East expert in Turkey who can fluently speak Arabic or even Kurdish, Persian or Hebrew. Not knowing the language of the country you are commenting on, regardless of how much you have read up on it, will lead you to miss some points in interpreting the developments there.

Knowing a language rescues one from being dependent on other sources. And after language, an expert can conduct field research in that country.

Today in Turkey, rather than overcoming the language and field research problems, some experts prefer to have blinkers on to protect their respective positions in the institutions they work for. It is too easy to recognize such experts because whatever happens to be the position of the government, they immediately take it on.

Quiet on the tough questions

Today, Middle East experts seeking good positions in academic life or in government refrain from asking this simple question: What went wrong with Turkey’s Middle East policy so that it went from a country admired by the states in the region to the odd man out in the very same region?

Resorting to conspiracy theories to explain every Turkish failure in the region illustrates a break with reality. It does not work and it should not work.

Sinem Cengiz

It is no secret that Turkey is in a difficult position due to its current strained relations with its neighbors, resulting from its policies in Syria and Egypt. Turkey got it wrong in Syria and in fact, in the Middle East in general.

Some “Middle East experts,” attempt to paint a rosy picture about Turkey’s position in the region in order to prevent drawing criticism from the government, despite knowing the reality on the ground.

Rather than admitting that Turkey has started to lose weight in the Middle East and that Ankara’s adventure in the region was based on the delusion that it would be the major player shaping the new regional order which has come to an end, they chose an easier way and accused foreign powers of being uneasy over Turkey’s increasing power in the region.

Resorting to conspiracy theories to explain every Turkish failure in the region illustrates a break with reality. It does not work and it should not work.

Absence of academics

A much more desperate matter is the lack of think tanks that could help Turkey overcome its shortage of qualified experts. Turkey has a poor think tank track record. These incubators of thought in Turkey are still well below Western standards.

Some think tanks, wielding enormous budgets because they are funded by business interests close to the government, enjoy the leadership’s support. However, this also means they lose their independence -- a fundamental characteristic of a think tank.

Those government backed institutions which label themselves think tanks and civil society organizations not only use different methods from other think tanks to apply pressure but also have better access to resources, which in turn leads to an inevitable limitation in diversity of opinion and alternative policies when it comes to the Turkish domestic and international political situation.

It is no secret that experts working at such think tanks prepare programs and columns for newspapers and television channels under the control of the government.

Turkey’s incorrect reading of the developments in the region is also influenced greatly by reports prepared by experts working at these think tanks. This incorrect reading has led to strained relations not only with various Arab neighbors but also with Western allies.

Allow me to conclude with a quote from the former head of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), Hasan Kanbolat, who was forced to resign from his position as head of the organization upon the intervention of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

“I assumed that ORSAM was a civil society organization. However, I was informed that I was fired and had to hand over my post to the newly ‘appointed’ president. It was decided that ORSAM should be redesigned according to new policies. The fact is, the Turkish Foreign Ministry is the main sponsor of ORSAM has destroyed ORSAM's identity as a civil society organization. When political power is combined with the state's power, you have no room for maneuvering as a civil society organization. Living in Turkey is becoming increasingly difficult for ordinary people. They are expected to remain silent. If they do not remain silent, they are discarded.”


Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the most circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

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