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Turkey's growing ties with Arab world

By Amberin Zaman
Turkish affairs commentator

image captionTurkey is using a "soft power" approach in its dealings with Arab leaders

On 10 January, before an audience of eminent Islamic scholars in Kuwait City, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was awarded the "Outstanding Personality in the Muslim World" prize.

Drawing on his training as a Muslim cleric, Mr Erdogan elicited cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) as he launched into a passionate tirade against Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians in his acceptance speech.

The moment perfectly captured Turkey's growing popularity in the Arab world under Mr Erdogan's mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party government that shot to power in 2002.

And it will have undoubtedly provided fresh fodder for those who argue that - under AK - Turkey is hurtling out of the West's orbit and going a decidedly Islamic green.

'Zero problems'

Yet for all Mr Erdogan's fiery talk about Muslim solidarity, the main purpose of his three-day visit to Kuwait and Qatar by his own admission was to create new markets for Turkey.

Some 358 Turkish businessmen eager to cash in on Kuwait's $140bn (£88bn) five-year infrastructure spending budget travelled to Kuwait with the prime minister.

"Sure there are political dimensions, but the primary aspect is economic," Mr Erdogan told journalists on the flight home.

Turkey's growing regional clout is pinned on ambitious plans to create a zone of economic, political and cultural influence in its long-neglected Arab hinterland.

The brains behind this scheme is Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.

His "zero problems with neighbours" policy is multi-pronged: improving political relations, sowing up business deals, establishing free-trade zones, easing visa restrictions and adding Arab capitals to the rapidly swelling destinations offered by the national carrier, Turkish Airlines.

The results are palpable. Between 2001 and 2008 the value of Turkey's exports to the Middle East and North Africa grew seven-fold to $31bn.

From cars to canned tomatoes, jeans to generators, Turkish-made goods once seldom seen are now ubiquitous in markets from Irbil to Tehran.

Turkish contractors who now rank only second to China are building everything from airports to cement factories across the Middle East.

And Turkish soap operas have millions of Arab viewers glued to their televisions every evening.

EU aspirations

This soft power pragmatism is in stark contrast with American strategies that mix military might with diplomacy and trade in the Middle East, where anti-US sentiment has reached record highs.

Friendship with the Arabs marks a shift for Turkey, which once saw itself as an eastern bulwark of the Nato alliance.

Disdain for the Arabs was summed up by an old Turkish adage: "We want neither the sweets of Damascus nor the face of the Arabs."

Turkish peddling of Western credentials invariably included its strong military ties with Israel and a determined emphasis on the fact that Turks are Muslims, but not Arabs.

The turnaround mirrors the dramatic shift within Turkey itself.

Turkey's once omnipotent generals used to be at the vanguard of Turkey's Western orientation. But with AK's rise to power, their influence has been steadily eroded.

Ironically, this comes from Mr Erdogan's aggressive pursuit of reforms aimed at winning full membership of the European Union.

In 2005, he persuaded the EU to open membership talks. But these have been lagging over Turkey's refusal to open its air and seaports to Greek Cypriot carriers and also because of strong opposition among some EU countries to Turkish membership, notably in France.

Even so, Mr Erdogan has repeatedly stressed that the EU remains a priority and that better relations with the Arabs does not mean a chill with the West.

The EU is still Turkey's top trading partner.

Flotilla row

But relations with America's top regional ally, Israel, hit an all-time low when Israeli soldiers raided a Turkish-led aid flotilla on 31 May 2010, killing nine Turkish civilians.

Turkey recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv and has said he can only return if Israel apologises and compensates the families of the victims. Israel has refused to comply.

Washington has exerted heavy pressure on Israel and Turkey to mend fences.

But it appears that Israel's coalition government won't bend.

And with nationwide parliamentary elections set to take place in June, it is extremely unlikely that Mr Erdogan will back down either.

All of this has added to Mr Erdogan's popularity on the Arab street.

So too has his refusal to vote in favour of additional UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

But Washington's ire has been offset by Turkey's endorsement of Nato plans to erect a missile shield over Europe.

Although the project (thanks to Turkish insistence) does not identify Iran by name, it is designed to defend Europe against a possible missile attack from that country.

Meanwhile, Turkey continues to facilitate the flow of supplies to American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey.

Leaked American diplomatic cables published this week by the Wikileaks website reveal that until 2006, the US used Incirlik to transport "terrorism suspects" as part of its "extraordinary renditions" programme.

The generals are no longer in the driving seat, but Turkey's military relations with the West continue to thrive, just as it merrily consumes "the sweets of Damascus" and strokes "the face of the Arab".

Amberin Zaman, an Istanbul-based journalist, is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for the Haberturk daily.