How Strong Is Turkey In The Middle East – Analysis


By Ozdem Sanberk

We urgently require dispassionate academic studies based on data in order to close the gap between Turkey’s expectations and capacity.

There has been a good deal of discussion recently about whether Turkey can be a source of inspiration for the Arab world. Ankara’s proactive strategy and desire to alter the balances within the region has naturally provoked serious discussion about the limits to Turkey’s strength. Some people think that Turkey is punching above its weight, others that it has become the central player. All these discussions make it important to ascertain just how strong Turkey is and to carry out empirical research to discover this; because only these will enable Turkey to identify its areas of weakness and make practical policy proposals. USAK (the International Strategic Research Organization) has now published a report on exactly this. The report examines Turkey’s strength in the Middle East in terms of its diplomatic, economic, and soft power components. In this column, I would like to share some of its findings with you.

Turkey’s Diplomatic Strength in the Middle East


In measuring Turkey’s impact on the Middle East, the report begins with the indicators relating to diplomatic relations. The data on the Foreign Ministry is remarkable. The Foreign Ministry has 5,533 personnel, of whom 1,146 are career officers. These personnel are distributed across 114 embassies, 11 permanent representative offices, and 71 consulates general, with Ankara as their headquarters. A point here deserving of attention is that in the last ten years since Turkey began following a multilateral foreign policy, the shortage of personnel has begun to be felt much more acutely. So the regulations adopted on June 24, 1994 and in force until June 2010 have now been altered.

When the material and human resources are compared with data from other countries to assess their adequacy, Turkey comes at the bottom of the list of countries surveyed with its budget of 436 million Euros. A comparison of personnel numbers puts Turkey, with 5,533 personnel, ahead of India (3,414) and Brazil (4,150) but behind European countries like France (15,008), Germany (12,437) and Britain (17,100). Another interesting piece of data relates to the language skills of our diplomats. Turkey has 17 missions in countries where Arabic is spoken, and the total number of career officers in them is 90. So Turkey has on average roughly five diplomats per country where Arabic is spoken, but of this 90, only four can speak Arabic. Inside the ministry itself, there are 122 officials dealing with the countries where Arabic is spoken, but only eight can speak Arabic.

Turkey’s Economic Strength in the Middle East

Economics is the second dimension in the parameters of Turkey’s rising influence in the Middle East and in the debate about its potential as a regional power. The Turkish economy has grown rapidly in the last ten years. During this period, the Turkish GDP grew threefold and its annual export volume rose from $36 billion to $135 billion in 2011. The total volume of trade rose nearly fourfold. Between 1980 and 2006, $10.4 billion of foreign investment flowed into Turkey, but between 2000 and 2010, there was an inflow of $100 billion.

The share of Turkish trade with the Middle East expressed as a share of its total trade rose from 6% in 2002 to 16% in 2010. The total volume of trade with the Middle East went up from $3.9 billion to $23.6 billion during the same period. However, according to the report, various restrictions exist which may stand in the way of the economy making a sustainable contribution to its regional foreign policy goals.

The share of exports dependent on natural resources and low-technology products within the total dropped from 63% in 2002 to 56% in 2010. At the same time, the share of medium and high-technology exports rose from 37% in 2002 to 44% in 2010. Meanwhile however, the share of high-technology products within Turkey’s total exports only rose from 2.5% to 3.3% in the same period. A similar situation applies for Turkish trade with the Middle East. The share of high-technology exports from Turkey to the Middle East in total exports slipped from 4% in 2002 to 3.5% in 2010.

Turkey’s Soft Power in the Middle East

When it comes to soft power, the report scrutinizes Turkey’s potential. It looks first at the number of students from the Middle East studying in Turkey. In 2011, there was a total of 9,374 foreign students of whom 1,123 were Arabs, about 12%. From this, it can be seen that the number of citizens of Middle Eastern countries studying in Turkey is very limited. A further point relates to whether or not contact is maintained with these people when they complete their education and return to their countries. No institutional mechanism has been developed to keep up contact with them.

Second, the policies which Turkey has followed recently have won the sympathy of Arab peoples for it, while Turkish TV series have sparked curiosity and developments in Turkey’s cultural policies have all helped make Turkey an important tourist destination for the Arab countries. Visitors to Turkey in 2002 from the Arab countries numbered 975,000, but by 2010, this figure had risen to 3.6 million. The percentage of citizens of Middle Eastern countries within the total number of visitors rose in the same period from 7.3% to 12.6%.

Third, many non-Arab countries broadcast TV and radio channels in Arabic to the Arab world. These include Russia, Britain, the United States, China, France, Germany, and Iran. Turkey took an important step forward in establishing direct communications with the Arab countries in April 2010 when the Arabic-language service of the TRT, TRT Arapça, began broadcasting. When TRT Arapça is compared to the broadcast channels of these countries, it still falls somewhat short of them, even when allowance is made for disadvantages arising from its novelty. Furthermore the audience for Turkish TV series in the Arab world is very high. One series, Silver (Gümüş) reaches an Arab audience of 85 million, while another, Under the Lime Trees (Ihlamurlar Altında), has 67 million Arab viewers. Though Silver was the first Turkish TV series to enter the Arab world, a total of 42 series have now done so.

Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Politics

The report discusses these various issues in a rather comprehensive fashion on the basis of empirical data. Finally, it is appropriate to emphasize a point which the report needs to develop, though the writers touch on it in an outline: There is a need to look more closely at the influence that domestic political structures have on Turkey’s foreign policy. In this context, detailed analysis of the Kurdish problem in particular is an important issue regarding which further work needs to be carried out.

To conclude, to close the gap between expectations and capacity in Turkey, we are in sore need of dispassionate and statistically-based academic studies like this one. It is to be hoped that these studies will continue.

Ozdem Sanberk, Director of USAK

Turkish version of this article is first published in ANALIST Journal.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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