TURKS ARE NOW BACK IN THE MIDDLE EAST: THE ECONOMIST

news.am
Nov 2 2009
Armenia

Frustrated by European equivocation, Turkey is reversing years
of antagonism with its Arab neighbors," The Economist weekly
reads. NEWS.am quotes the passages from the article.

"It is a thousand years since the Turks arrived in the Middle East,
migrating from Central Asia to Anatolia. For half of that millennium
they ruled much of the region. But when the Ottoman Empire fizzled
out and the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, they all but sealed
themselves off from their former dominions, turning instead to Europe
and tightly embracing America in its cold war with the Soviet Union.

The Turks are now back in the Middle East, in the benign guise of
traders and diplomats. The move is natural, considering proximity,
the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling
in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with
the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. In the past
seven years the value of Turkey's exports to the Middle East and
North Africa has swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008.

>From cars to tableware, dried figs to television serials, Turkish
products, unknown a decade ago, are now ubiquitous in markets from
Algiers to Tehran. Already a vital conduit for sending energy from
east to west, Turkey is set to grow in importance as more pipelines
come on stream. The most notable is Nabucco, a proposed 7.9 billion
($11.7 billion) scheme to carry gas across Turkey from Azerbaijan
and possibly Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq and Egypt.

A single Turkish construction firm, TAV, has just finished an airport
terminal for Egypt's capital, Cairo, and is building others in Libya,
Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Turks have scooped up
hundreds of infrastructure contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan, and invested
in shopping malls, hotels and even schools.

These achievements are partly due to an energetic pursuit of trading
privileges, such as Turkey's free-trade pacts with Egypt, Israel,
Morocco and Tunisia. It is seeking a similar deal with the six-member
Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia. Earlier this
month, teams of Turkish ministers travelled to Baghdad and Damascus
to sign a package of 48 co-operation deals with Iraq and 40 with Syria.

Turkey's Premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has just been warmly received
in the Iranian capital, Tehran, a reflection of the realpolitik that
has kept links open despite the Islamic Republic's international
isolation. Turkey only recently made an historic breakthrough in
relations with another eastern neighbor, Armenia. If the parliaments
of both countries endorse the move, diplomatic ties may be restored
after a 16-year freeze.

This dogged diplomatic pragmatism has been ardently pursued by
the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, an ebullient professor of
international relations who had long advised Mr Erdogan before his
appointment in May. Mr Davutoglu, who in a book described the Middle
East as &'Turkey's strategic depth', has called for a policy of &'zero
problems with neighbors'. Reflecting the mild, modernist Islamism
of the Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish initials
AK, which has ruled Turkey since 2002, the new policy seeks to use
the soft power of trade, along with historical links, to project
stability beyond Turkey's frontiers. The AK party has also reversed
decades of official policy by trying to meet the demands of Turkey's
large Kurdish minority (some 14m in a total population of 72m). The
granting of more cultural and political rights, and the admission of
past discrimination, have soothed tempers not only among Turkish Kurds,
but among their ethnic kin in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Turkish officials, however, have been careful to explain that their
renewed interest in the Muslim east does not mean a chill towards
the West. Instead, they present Turkey as a useful bridge, a regional
force for peace, and the model of a democracy that is compatible with
Islam. Its Western allies have generally shared that view and have
not opposed Turkey's eastward shift. Yet such benign indifference
could change, if Turkey's prospects for joining the EU die, or if
Turkey is seen as undermining attempts to pressure Iran.

But ties have frayed as Turkish public opinion, which now counts for
more, has turned increasingly hostile to Israel. Mr Erdogan, a tough,
streetwise politician, felt slighted last year when Israel attacked
Gaza only days after he had met Israel's then Premier, Ehud Olmert,
who assured him that Turkish-brokered peace talks between Israel
and Syria would resume. The bloodshed in Gaza outraged many Turks,
who heartily praised Mr Erdogan when he stormed out of a debate with
Israel's president, Shimon Peres, at Davos in Switzerland earlier
this year.

The Turks were again angered in September when Israel denied Mr
Davutoglu permission to cross into Gaza during a visit to Israel.

Turkish officials respond that they have no intention of breaking
off relations with Israel, and think they can still be a useful
interlocutor with the Jewish state," the article reads.