Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Middle East in a nutshell [AUDIO]

Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East has evolved over the last two decades, with a focus on seeking normality and good relations with neighbors, and the country’s economy has become a major player in the region – says Marian Karagyozov, Bulgarian political scientist.

Marian Karagoyozov has recently defended a doctoral thesis at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences on “Turkey’s Middle Eastern Foreign Policy (2002-2011)”. This is the timing and summary of the first part of the conversation with him. The entire transcription is available below.

00:00  Turkey’s aspirations and strategic goals in the Middle East from 2002-2011 are discussed in relation to the impact of the last two decades in Marian Karagyozov’s dissertation on Turkey’s Middle Eastern foreign policy (2002-2011).

02:23  Turkey’s proximity to the Middle East provides security and economic benefits, with Turkish goods being exported to the region and political Islam and Neo-Ottomanism influencing Turkish foreign policy.

06:05  Neo-ottomanism, a term not used by AKP officials, is associated with former foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu and is a topic of discussion in international relations regarding the relationship between Turkish domestic and foreign policy and the use of Islam in both fields.

10:26  Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East has shifted towards seeking normality and good relations with neighbors, improving ties with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel after previous support for Muslim Brotherhood strained relationships with Gulf monarchies and Egypt.

13:00  Turkey’s strategy towards the Kurdish question is related to security and territorial integrity, with the Kurds dispersed among four main countries and facing opposition from their governments.

17:01 The global economic crisis impacted Turkish foreign policy, leading to Turkey’s rise as a middle power with a more active foreign policy towards the Middle East and the Balkans.

19:11 Turkey’s economy is diversified with high exports, despite the depreciating Turkish Lira, making it one of the biggest economies in the Middle East.

22:04  Turkish economy is providing opportunities for Middle Eastern wealth funds to invest, despite mixed feelings among the population.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border talk, in which we will pay attention to the recently defended dissertation on Turkish foreign policy, written by a leading Bulgarian expert on Turkey. This is Marian Karagyozov, who has been a guest on our programme a number of times. He wrote about Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East between 2000 and 2011, which made us ask even more questions about the Middle East. But that is not all. Turkey has multi-vector interests, and we will address a number of issues.

Veronika Susova-Salminen: Yes, hello everybody. Welcome, Marian in Cross-border Talks. I would like to start our discussion on the topic of your dissertation, which focused on Turkey’s Middle East policy between 2002 and 2011. The first question I would like to ask is, as we know, this region, I mean, the Middle East is probably a very traditional region for the Turkish or, before that, Ottoman influence. With that in mind, I’d like to know from you, in a nutshell, what are Turkey’s main aspirations and strategic goals in this region over the last, let’s say, two decades? That is to say, not only in the period in which you are studying, but also afterwards, in our days?

Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. I would say, as you mentioned, the Middle East is traditionally very important for the Ottoman Empire and for Turkey, because it is a neighbouring region. Any neighbouring region could be a threat or an opportunity. That is why the Middle East has traditionally been important to Turkey. Turkey is not very rich in natural resources, so it used to import significant amounts of oil and gas from the Middle East. At the moment, as you know, Russia is also one of the main suppliers. But then the Middle East is an important region for Turkey, not only from this security and geopolitical point of view, but also economically, and when I say economically, I don’t just mean this import of energy resources. After the liberalisation of the Turkish economy in the 1980s, the Middle East became one of the main markets for Turkish goods, because of the similarity of tastes and geographical proximity. Many Turkish companies, which are not located in Istanbul or in the western parts of the country, started to export their production to the Middle Eastern countries. I think this importance of the Middle East hasn’t changed during the AKP (Justice and Development Party) years in Turkey, and AKP has been in power in Turkey from 2002 on.

What I could see in the older literature and in general is the belief that Turkish politics and society are changing under the AKP government.There’s talk about Islamisation, that political islam or islam in general is playing a bigger role than it had under, let’s say, Atatürk’s concept of a secular state. Some authors of course say that this Islamisation is now also influencing foreign policy, because the Middle East is close to Turkey in terms of religion and civilisation. Some even talk about a kind of neo-Ottomanism. Could you tell us something about that? Is it a kind of mythology that doesn’t really have anything to do with reality, or are these kinds of ideological and religious concepts influencing, let’s say, visions or perceptions on the Turkish side of this region of the Middle East?

First of all, I think we should emphasise that the term neo-otttomanism is mainly used by foreign academics, writers and journalists, while AKP officials generally refuse to use this term specifically. The term neo-otttomanism is definitely older than the AKP. The first mention of this term dates back to the end of the 1980s. But one of the main figures associated with the term neo-otttomanism in the period I am focusing on in my dissertation is the former foreign minister and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. As you know, he is now an opposition politician. He is no longer in the government, because they split their roles with the Justice and Development Party and its leader, the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But anyway, as I said, neo-ottomanism is not Davutoglu’s intellectual heritage. It is not only related to his works. It’s even a decade before him and currently, while many others continue to use this term, which means that this phenomenon is there. It’s not just related to one person.

This idea that there is a strong connection or a causal relationship between Turkish domestic and foreign policy and the use of Islam in the domestic sphere and the pro-Islamist or more activist foreign policy in the Middle East are related is very much related to the work of the so-called constructivist school in international relations. Many articles have been published in recent years discussing this issue: is there such a causal link? If so, why? If not, why? Basically, we could say that Turkey is currently using soft power more actively in the Middle East, initially in the period of the AKP’s initial rule. The AKP used more soft power instruments such as mediation, humanitarian aid, religious influence before the Arab Spring.

Later this picture changed completely with the start of the uprising in Syria. The events in that country, like the creation of Kurdish autonomous zones, the creation of Islamic State-controlled zones, created security threats for Turkey. That is why Turkish foreign policy towards the region has become very militarised. Some people see these military operations that Turkey has carried out in northern Iraq, in Syria as an expression of the neo-Ottoman spirit, while the Turkish government just says that it wants to protect its national security and territorial integrity from the threats emanating from the Middle East.

What I’m trying to say is that there is certainly a much more active Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East in recent years, combining in the past this soft power approach and later on this more militarised approach. But after 2020, we have again a kind of search for normality, for good relations with the neighbours. Turkey has started a rapprochement or has started to improve relations with actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, which had deteriorated. Very much different than in the previous period, when Turkey used unilateral actions, supported the Muslim Brotherhood in different countries, including Egypt, which created some problems with the Gulf monarchies as well as Egypt. We see a very active Turkish foreign policy in the region. And this active foreign policy uses different tools and different means in different periods.

Yes. You have already briefly mentioned this problem, which I would like to ask about now. The Kurdish question. Basically, you have already said that Turkey maintains this policy, at least towards some particular actors in the region, as a question of security and territorial integrity. The Kurdish question is very important for Turkey. It is also a long term problem and it is linked to that part of the Middle East. Could you tell us again in a nutshell, what has been Turkey’s strategy in this area towards the Kurdish question and within the wider Middle East policy?

The Kurds are dispersed among four main countries in the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The Kurdish community is somehow divided. In a sense, they speak different Kurdish dialects. They use different alphabets – Arabic alphabet in Syria and Iraq, Latin alphabet in Turkey, and also Persian, which is a modified Arabic alphabet. The Kurdish question became a problem after the end of the First World War when, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist with the creation of the new nation states. This meant separation of the Kurds among these countries. Historical pattern is that in general, even the governments of those four countries have significant issues. Syria and Iraq are not happy with some Turkish policies related to trans-border rivers like Tigris and Euphrates. Even if they have issues with Turkey, they always find a common language, a common ground when they have to counterbalance the Kurdish aspirations. The governments of those four countries always support each other in their respective fights against the Kurdish, rebel groups, and insurgencies.

There are, however, some exceptions to this pattern. For example, for quite some time, Syria supported the PKK. During the 80s, the Kurdish Workers Party began its activities against Turkey in the 80s, as Syria was trying to somehow level the playing field, because Turkey was the stronger player. Well, so historically, yes, the the Kurds are one of the main factors or among the main factors in Turkey calculations in regards to the Middle East.

My last question I noticed they know that you are also talking about their short plan. I would like to ask you if it’s possible to say that there would be some kind of changes or impacts on Turkish foreign policy, which would be related to the impacts of global economic crisis, because I, for example, read quite a lot of studies already which are talking about this event or this crisis crisis event, other something which started the decline of the West. I mean the fragmentation of the Western power and creation of a multipolar world, the rise of the middle powers, among which Turkey is very often mentioned. So I would like to know if you think that there were some impacts and what kind of impacts there were, if they were.

Turkey is among the top 20 global economies. Turkey is a member of G20. The size of its economy is 16th, 17th or 18th. In general, in the literature, it’s very often cited that during the early years of the AKP government, the Turkish economic growth was very spectacular. And it helped, Turkey having a more active foreign policy towards the Middle East, the Balkans and other regions. In fact, that decade was quite a good decade for the global economy. So there it was, a general rise in that decade, so many, many countries have this growth rate. Currently we have a situation in which Turkish lira is losing value. It’s true, but on the other hand, we see that Turkish exports in absolute terms are quite high. The trade turnover of Turkey is approximately 250 billion US dollars every year. I mean it has signifiant volume.

Turkey is one of the biggest economies of the Middle East. There are some other countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, also with significant economies. However, as far as I am aware, maybe Vladimir would tell us more – he is an expert on Iran – the Iranian economy now is facing much more serious challenges and problems in comparison to the Turkish one. The same if you compare Turkey with Saudi Arabia or some other Arab economies. It’s a much more diversified economy, producing food, textile, chemical, automobile, having also heavy industries, such as iron, steel. They’re exporting cement. Aso furniture. If you build a hotel, for example, you can fill it with everything produced in Turkey from steel and cement to the electric cables, furniture, carpets, sofas. And then you can serve the Turkish food and Turkish drinks to your guests if I can use this metaphor.

The Turkish economy is a diversified economy. It is giving opportunities for Middle Eastern countries which are having wealth funds like UAE or Qatar. It is giving opportunities for them to invest in the Turkish economy. So with the economy, we have a kind of a mixed picture. The Turkish population, the ordinary Turkish people, probably they’re not very happy with the current situation of the economy because of the inflation and rising prices in the markets. If we take not this microeconomic perspective, but a more macro view, we see that the foundations of the Turkish economy are sound. Economy is one of the factors giving opportunities of Turkey to play a role in the Middle East.

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