Turkey takes a U-turn and pivots back to West

Over the past decade, Turkey has increased its economic and diplomatic activity across the Arab world and the broader Middle East

Ceylan Ozbudak

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While the headlines have been screaming whether or not Turkey is totally turning its back to the Western world, Turkey has taken a U-turn in its foreign policy and decided to pivot back to West. We Turks love doing business and having close relationships with our Arab neighbors, we still believe in striving to have zero problems with our neighbors, but a region full of strife, civil wars, constant uprisings, military interventions and dictatorships has little to offer.

The volatile relationship between Turks and Arabs dates back to the 1700s. An intellectual group including both Sunni and Shiite intellectuals founded a group called The National Scientific Club in what is present-day Iraq and published an influential pro-independence socialist newspaper, dedicated to the cause of “Arab nationalism” or to better describe the concept, “ARAB ONLY nationalism.”

When compared to the covenant of the spirit of religious brotherhood the Ottomans were built on, this was a brand new concept. With Butrus al-Bustani in Lebanon and Sheikh Rifa'a Tahtawi in Egypt, this activity started division among the Arab public towards the Ottoman rule. All factions asked for self-rule; WWI broke out not long after and the Central Powers were defeated. This was followed by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and we all know the rest of the story.

As the Levant spent a turbulent century full of civil wars, military coups, Ba'ath party oppression, dictatorships and civil uprisings, the Arab majority made it clear that they wanted nothing more to do with Turks. For decades after WWI, Turks were still not regarded as fellow Muslim Middle Easterners, but recent imperial overlords because of widespread Ba'ath education in socialist pan-Arabism. Turkey, in the meantime, kept investing in various industries, developed a culture of democracy, established partnerships with the European countries and fulfilled its duties as a credible NATO ally. Turkey became a representative of the Western world and therefore was increasingly alienated from the region.

Turkey joins Arab brothers after a century of absence

After 9/11, the U.S. counted on Turkey to be a reliable ally in the ‘war on terror’ to support the U.S. in Iraq; but American anticipation came to naught. One of the decisive factors for Turkey to avoid war in Iraq was the concern that the invasion could spark the destabilization and the division of Iraq, which recently turned out to be just on point. Again in the last decade, as the stalled membership bid for the EU began to offend the Turkish public- owing to a good deal of EU intransigence on the matter - Turkey started moving closer to its Middle Eastern neighbors with a vigor, unseen before. Buoyed by a dynamic economy and a decade of political stability under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey was welcomed by its Muslim neighbors like a relative coming back from a journey bearing the expertise of success. There were no more grudges against Turkey or vice versa.

Over the past decade, Turkey has increased its economic and diplomatic activity across the Arab world and the broader Middle East

Ceylan Ozbudak

In a thirst for building a better and freer future for themselves, the people of the immediate region approached Turkey with great interest as Turkey started sharing its expertise of how to thrive in the Middle East without being oil rich. After years of political partnership and close trade ties, The Arab Spring began in the North African Arab states. Even after the uprisings subsided, Turkey stood by these embryonic democracies and established new Chambers of Commerce in the newly free countries. Over the past decade, Turkey has increased its economic and diplomatic activity across the Arab world and the broader Middle East.

Fellowship did not last long

However, the bliss did not last long; all transitions need stability, something difficult to find in the Middle East. The combination of ethnic tensions, extremist revolts, sagging economies, political gridlock, military takeovers, the unceasing and grinding civil war in Syria and no real institutional alternatives weakened the Turkish-Arab partnerships. The Turks love doing business in the Middle East but economics is the foundation for all international relationships. From the very beginning of the second Arab uprisings, Turkey's diplomatic machine have been working to provide the country at least the same amount of trade agreements and industrial exchanges as Turkey enjoys with the U.S. and the EU countries.

In a quest to satisfy 76 million people, the Turkish government pivoted back to West. The AKP succeeded in signing the historic visa liberation agreement with the EU in Ankara in December of 2013. According to the document, visa exemption for Turkish nationals will be introduced in three years’ time at most, in line with the completion of necessary procedures; therefore, not only Turkish tourists but also Turkish businessmen and their goods will be able to travel freely to EU countries in the near future. In terms of industrial style, Turkey’s large textile industry has never been interested in producing a T-shirt as cheaply as Bangladesh can, but it can meet the delivery times and quality standards for a German department store. With the removal of visa requirements, the additional discount will most likely boost Turkey’s textile and chemical industries. This will mean the EU will be shouldering the Syrian refugee bill of Turkey, on which the Turks have spent at least $2.5 billion so far while the EU in total donated only $250 million.

In December 2013, Prime Minister Erdoğan acted fast to sign textile and other trade agreements with the U.S. before the U.S. signed free trade agreements with the EU, which resulted in a $4 billion boost to national revenues. This was one of the steps to guarantee a pivot back to West as the Arab nations seem far too busy with their internal conflicts at the moment. According to the latest reports of the World Bank, Turkey has become 15th biggest economy of the world in 2014 in terms of PPP, or purchasing power parity. The Economics Minister Zeybekçi, mentioned the formation of a supreme board to enhance trade partnerships with the EU countries and the U.S. This new board bore its first fruit with the new economic and commercial partnership commission with Netherlands. According to this new agreement, both the Dutch and the Turkish companies will be able to join economic missions in each other’s territories. While the trade volume between the two countries was 2.5 billion Euros in 2002, this number already exceeded 5.2 billion Euros by 2013. In addtion, Turkey will play a key role in energy route structuring with the Southern Gas Corridor project (SGC), which will supply Europe with gas from Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkmenistan and possibly Iran.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem

In its pursuit for fitting its foreign policy back in line with the EU, Turkey has largely wrapped-up the normalization process with Israel, infuriating the Arab street, further complicating the “Arab-Israeli peace process.” The sides marked the normalization with Turkish firms signing a 20-year contract for purchasing about 7 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Israel’s Leviathan field. Moreover, oil exported from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) via Turkey’s Ceyhan pipeline was sold to its first international buyer; Israel via the port of Ashkelon and payment of the revenue for this first batch of crude has already been deposited at Turkey’s state owned Halkbank. Despite some rhetorical tensions , Turkey never cancelled its military or intelligence partnership with Israel, either on paper or in fact.

It is not only Turkey who is making a foreign policy U-turn due to the present situation; the West wants Turkey at the foreign policy table as well. In economic terms, Turkey is strongly anchored to the European Union - and to a lesser extent to the U.S. - through trade, investment, and technology transfers. Turkey clearly showed more interest in being in the EU customs union rather than the Shanghai Corporation Organization or the ongoing regional status quo. Turkey’s European partners are also more willing to cooperate since Turkey seems to be the lifeboat energy hub for energy dependent Europe after Russia signed a 30-year agreement with China for gas following the Ukrainian fallout with the Union. Just as Turkey needs its Western allies to save its thriving economy, Europe needs Turkey as stable as possible in order to provide the continent much-needed energy via the SGC.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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