Ottoman experience

Dünya Executive - - FRONT PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist

Turkish foreign policy’s erstwhile ‘golden rule’ offers bitter lesson in Arab row

In the old days, one of the golden rules taught to those who entered the Turkish foreign service was that Turkey should never get involved in fights among Arabs.

The rule, which reflected the wisdom of the Turkish-Ottoman experience, was closely observed during the interwar period as the country was building a nation state and developing its national identity from the ashes of a multi-ethnic empire.

Turkey stayed out of World War Two, while the lands of the Arabs became battle zones. The end of colonial empires after the war brought independen­ce to some Arab lands and a decline of the influence of the colonial powers in other nominally independen­t states.

This is a time when the world was beginning to split into two camps. To ensure its security, Turkey succeeded in joining the western camp, while some Arab countries, in the hope of reducing the influence of the former colonial powers that had prevailed over their politics through a variety of mechanisms, chose to cooperate with the Socialist Bloc.

This affinity for the anti-Western camp was triggered with the change of regimes, when pro-Western traditiona­l elites were replaced by nationalis­t military rulers.

Until the oil crisis of 1973, the Arab regimes at the forefront were primarily Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Each of these had an Arab nationalis­t government, presumably dedicated to achieving Arab unity, but in practice in competitio­n with one another. Their interactio­ns were characteri­zed more often by rivalry than cooperatio­n.

The countries of north Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were usually considered more marginal. In 1961, Iraq had tried to conquer Kuwait, arguing that it was a part of Iraq, right after it received its independen­ce from the British, but was defeated by Britain, which rushed to defend its former protectora­te.

Gamel Abdal Nasser’s Egypt, on the other hand, had ventured into an inconclusi­ve war in Yemen, in which the other side was Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstan­ces, the wisdom of Turkey’s keeping its distance from intra-Arab conflicts was all too evident.

The oil crisis dramatical­ly bolstered the income of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and also enhanced their political power. The contracts associated with infrastruc­ture investment­s gave them clout over bidders and their countries. Their growing demand for services generated employment opportunit­ies for the population of the rest of the region, rendering those countries that provided labor reliant on workers’ remittance­s to balance their current accounts. The growth of imports meant that many countries found new markets in which they wanted to expand further.

The newly acquired wealth allowed Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to be a major source of economic assistance and investment funds. Turkey, particular­ly after the decision to integrate its economy into the global system in the 1980s, became more and more attracted to this expanding economic potential. Turkish constructi­on companies became particular­ly prominent, bringing with it some Turkish labor into the region. Turkish products began to permeate markets, while some Gulf-origin investment­s came to Turkey.

The newly acquired wealth and their growing power brought with it two kinds of security concerns. First, would the socio-economic change that these countries were experienci­ng undermine their traditiona­l rule by medieval, absolutist leaders? Second, would it generate regional rivalries that would challenge the prevailing peace and even territoria­l integrity?

In order to ensure their security, the Gulf government­s became promoters of conservati­ve, religious political ideologies in the region. These concerns fanned further splits and rivalries among the Arab states, but Turkey, though more active in regional politics than the past, initially stayed away. Until the Arab Spring, Turkey was generally equidistan­t to all countries in the region. Only then, reflecting its own ideologica­l procliviti­es, did the Turkish government depart from its tradition of non-interventi­on in intra-Arab affairs and side with the Muslim Brotherhoo­d, which neither the internatio­nal community nor most of the regimes in the region supported.

The outcome of this policy choice is having no friends, save Qatar, among the Arabs. Clearly, the economic and political costs of such a preference will mount, while its benefits will remain limited. Change of policy, on the other hand, will create a credibilit­y question that will be difficult to overcome. Developmen­ts have confirmed the wisdom of Turkey’s earlier traditiona­l policy. It may be too late, however, to benefit from that wisdom.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Turkey

© PressReader. All rights reserved.