By Jacques N. Couvas
Turkey’s foreign policy is undergoing an acid test as the political turmoil continues in the Arab World. The fragile situation in Tripoli, in particular, is giving the jitters to government and businesses alike, with billions of dollars of Turkish investment and trade at risk.
The massive exodus of immigrants from Libya has reminded the Turkish public opinion how vulnerable their country may be as it has become increasingly dependent on the Middle East and Africa for its economic development.
It is estimated that 25,000 Turkish workers and businessmen were residing in Libya at the end of January. More than 3,000 have already been repatriated by air and sea, and the waiting list for a passage out is long.
Turkish investment in Libya currently exceeds 15 billion dollars, with many Turkish companies having lucrative contracts with the Gaddafi administration and family.
“If Muammar (Gaddafi) falls, our contracts are worth less than tapestry paper,” Murat Can, an Istanbul-based construction entrepreneur, told IPS.
The business lobby in Ankara, through its powerful associations and clubs, has been the driving force behind the government’s reluctance to be vocal towards Tripoli, and for Turkey’s official opposition to U.N. sanctions against Libya.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged the U.N. Security Council not to impose sanctions, warning that the Libyan people, rather than Gaddafi’s government, would suffer most. “We call on the international community to act with conscience, justice, laws, and universal human values – not out of oil concerns,” he pleaded. Many believe, however, that this position against international determination to coerce Gaddafi to resign, or to open up to democratic dialogue with his own people, was motivated by economic concerns of major Turkish exporters and investors, a convincing argument in a year of parliamentary elections.
The business community has decisively supported Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party in winning the 2002 and 2007 elections and the constitutional reforms referendum of September 2010.
The Security Council on Saturday voted sanctions 15-0 on arms sales to Libya and on Gaddafi and his immediate family. Several countries, including the U.S. and Switzerland, have announced they would be freezing the family’s assets in their respective jurisdictions.
Turkey appears to have been as unprepared as any other country in the wake of the Arab revolt, but the consequences for it, politically and economically, are likely to take different dimensions from its western allies.
Prior to the regional crisis, trade and diplomatic relations with nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) had been cordial and solid.
Exports to MENA have exploded from 5 billion dollars in 2002 to 30 billion dollars in 2010, a 600 percent increase. In contrast, outbound commerce with the EU has grown 2.5 times only, to 52.7 billion dollars over the same period, but in reality declined last year by almost 20 percent in comparison to 2007 and 2008.
The shift in focus towards MENA is the result of a combination of business and political factors. New opportunities have surfaced in the MENA emerging markets, mostly in construction, agriculture, processed foods, manufacturing, and defence.
This has given Ankara political and diplomatic ammunition to further its agenda for soft hegemony in the region, a doctrine introduced by Ahmet Davutoglu, the man who has been in command of Turkish foreign affairs since 2009.
Davutoglu, 52, who joined the government in 2002 as foreign policy advisor, spent the longest part of his career as an academic in Istanbul and, more recently, with the Islamic University of Malaysia. He has developed a vision of Turkey as a regional power, whose roots and destiny lie in the Middle East, the Eurasian Turkic states and the Balkans – geographical areas that for nearly 500 years were part of the Ottoman Empire until it was dissolved in 1918.
The West, particularly the United Sates, initially welcomed the initiative, on the belief that Turkey could become a model for democratising the Middle East and the former Soviet Union Turkic states in line with western policy. But they soon labelled Davutoglu a neo-Ottomanist, a term that he rejects, preferring the attribute “Pax Ottomana” to qualify his project.
This self-confidence was manifested in Ankara’s closer ties with Tehran and its defiance last June of the Security Council of the U.N., of which Turkey was a non-permanent member until the end of last year. Turkey voted against new sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear programme, alienating its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, as well as China and Russia.
Humanitarian reasons and political moderation were cited to explain the vote. Economic reasons are, however, more plausible as the basis of the decision. Turkey has signed a 25-year agreement allowing the country’s national oil company to exploit three natural gas fields in Iran and to distribute to Europe 30 billion cubic metres annually of Iranian and Turkmen gas. Annual bilateral trade is currently estimated to exceed 10 billion dollars.
Convinced of its vocation as regional power, Turkey has intensified its support to the Palestinian cause, leading in May 2010 to an open confrontation with Israel and the freezing of its diplomatic relations and military cooperation with the Jewish state. The ensuing popularity of Erdogan in the Arab streets was seen by the main statesmen in the region as domestic interference.
The demise of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, consequently, did not upset Ankara. Egypt has been a rival in jockeying for regional supremacy since the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel.
But the rapid pace of events now has led Turkish diplomacy to miscalculations. Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit in February to Tehran coincided with large demonstrations by the Iranian opposition, which led to brutal crackdown by the Revolutionary Guards.
Erdogan’s acceptance last year of Gaddafi’s International Human Rights Prize and his stance so far to stop international sanctions against Libya is another message that seems to be confusing Arab freedom seekers. The new government in Egypt last week cancelled a major infrastructure project with Turkey.
Meanwhile, Ankara has changed its tactics in respect to Turkey’s membership to the EU. In the past few weeks the government has hardened its position on the Cyprus issue and postponed indefinitely the transposition of Community acquis to Turkish law. This may be pre-electoral bravado, or a manoeuvre to obtain new concessions from Brussels.