Turkey’s relations with its neighbors are being tested by recent developments. At an event hosted by the Carnegie Middle East Center, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), a number of Arab, Turkish, and European experts gathered to discuss Turkish-Arab relations, and perceptions of Turkey in the Arab world. Opening remarks by Mohamad Chatah, advisor to the caretaker Lebanese prime minister, the Arab League’s Basem Haidar, and Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz were followed by three panels of discussion with other regional experts.

Turkish Policy Toward the Arab World

Formerly considered antagonistic toward the region, Turkey has invested tremendous effort in mending relations with its neighbors. However, the Arab Spring has challenged Turkey’s foreign policy. Experts discussed whether the Turkish state will be able to adapt to these changes or risk compromising its power.

  • The evolution of Turkey’s Arab policy: Chatah noted that Turkey has undergone a tremendous policy transformation in recent years, which improved the Arab perception of the former imperial power. He described the transformation as “moving from a zero-problem platform to a coordinated regional system.” The end of the Cold War, the two Iraq wars, the conflict in Afghanistan, the crisis with Iran, and the recent global financial crisis molded and re-molded Turkish foreign policy, added Ozyildiz. 

  • Turkey’s new foreign policy approach: Chatah asserted that Ankara’s foreign policy is based on two assumptions: first, change is inevitable; and second, change benefits Turkey and it should adapt to it. 

  • Implications of the Arab uprisings: Ozyildiz stated that the Arab awakening marks a “transition towards a transformation” in Turkey’s foreign policy toward a new coordinated regional system based on a combination of political and moral factors. Although some observers attempt to root this transformation in the ideological inclination of the government, it is mostly the result of adaptation to regional and global change. 

Factors Behind Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Middle East

  • Historical factors: With the absence of an Arab “national heroic figure” such as Egypt’s former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, part of the leadership void was filled by Turkey, which was able to gain the support of much of the Arab street. The Center for Strategic Studies’ Mohamed Noureddine said that Turkey was able to achieve this due to its charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, Turks and Arabs share a similar history and a drastically changing political and social landscape.  Moreover, Turkey is perceived as able to play a key role in encouraging reform, and building stability and peace in the region.

  • Arab perception of Turkey: TESEV’s Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar asserted that the Arab perception of Turkey is overwhelmingly positive, while the inverse is not true, according to a survey conducted by TESEV. The second most popular country after Saudi Arabia was Turkey, the survey showed. Gündoğar suggested that this popularity may be attributed to economic factors. Additionally, Turkey’s prudent foreign policy was able to appeal to Arab nationalists, those with Islamic tendencies, and reformists among regional publics and governments alike, stated Chatah.

  • Turkey’s growing soft power: Cengiz Çandar, a journalist at Radikal newspaper, said that Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East has increased through its instrumental use of soft power, such as Erdogan’s 2009 public argument with Israeli President Peres at Davos, last year’s flotilla incident, and its support of demonstrators against then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square. Reformers in the Middle East endeavor to emulate the Turkish model, which Mohammad Noureddine explained is based on three pillars: democratic transformation, economic development, and a reformed foreign policy that exports solutions. But the limitations of Turkish foreign policy have also surfaced, particularly in Ankara’s hesitance to support uprisings in both Libya and Syria, said Çandar. 

Obstacles and Shortcomings Related to Turkey’s Role in the Arab World 

  • Foreign interferences: Haidar said that Western states require Turkey to support their positions in the region in exchange for facilitating Turkey’s integration into the European Union. Israel’s policy toward Turkey aims to limit Ankara’s authority in the long-run by encouraging tensions between Turkey’s various ethnic groups. Turkey might also be hindered by difficult positions it has to take between regimes and protestors in the increasingly contentious Arab world.  

  • Arab reluctance to accept Turkey’ influence: Rami Khouri of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB) suggested that Arab states are democratizing and regaining their sovereignty. He attributed Turkey and Iran’s inability to play a major role in the Arab world to the fact that they are simply not Arab, and hence have to overcome high cultural and nationalist obstacles.  Problems that emerged in the relationship between Turkey and the Arab states are also due to the great difference between their political and socio-economic systems: Turks and the Arabs had a history of great parallelism, but the Turks advanced while the Arabs lagged behind, observed Khouri.

The Future of Turkish-Arab Relations

  • Transformations in the Arab world: Following the Arab uprisings, Bahgat Korani suggested that three issues will likely redefine relations between the Arab countries and Turkey: civil-military relations, economic development, and relations between the business class and the ruling elite.

  • Turkey reshapes its foreign policy: Although the unfolding events within the Arab world have caused some confusion in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government should draw lessons from the Arab Spring and play a constructive role throughout the Middle East, asserted Noureddine. Turkey envisages a new Middle East in the globalizing world, one that allows a free flow of people, goods, and services, said Çandar. As a consequence of the events in Syria, Turkish foreign policy will learn to adapt to changes and include elements of real and moral politics, he concluded. 

  • Turkey’s prospects for an increased influence: Annahar newspaper’s Jihad Al-Zein spoke about Turkey’s role in mediating the deep Sunni-Shiite divide through its diplomacy with both Syria and Iran. He predicted the rise of Egypt would leave Turkey less space to maneuver in the Middle East, but that it will likely continue to enjoy foreign direct investments and an increase in tourism in the coming years. Moreover, Mohammad Chatah added that Turkey should remember that passing the litmus test for aspiring regional powers depends on what it is willing to do for Palestine. 

In conclusion, American University of Cairo’s Bahgat Korany said Turkey should be viewed as a successful non-Arab Middle Eastern state. By 2050, Turkey will likely have a first-class army, be more powerful than Germany, and rank as the world’s ninth most powerful state, he added.