There is no doubt that the Turkey of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is fundamentally different from that of eras since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 at the hands of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk.
At that time, Atatürk, supported by the army and Turkish nationalist forces, removed the Islamic religious cloak from his country and shifted towards the West. Atatürk’s desire here was not to control, dominate and spread religion, but to keep up with the progress and advances of civilization.
Since 1923, Turkey has been trying—almost begging—to convince Western states that the country as a whole, and not just Istanbul, is a part of Western civilization, in order to achieve its dream of joining the European Union. The West, however, resisted this for a number of reasons, the most important of which was that most of Turkey is in Asia, not Europe. In addition to that, the EU said Turkey’s democracy was artificial, and its treatment of minorities, such as the Kurds, was aggressive and oppressive.
There were also several other criteria for joining that Turkey could not meet. An example of this was the assumption of power by religious parties such as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which defied European standards, most notably the need for the separation of state and religion.
This constant rejection by Europe may be the reason why the Turks have begun to look to their history and to move East. There lies wealth, urbanization, a low population, the reliance on the labor and products of others, and the mixing of religion with politics—even where this tends toward religious extremism.
All these factors have encouraged the Islamist AKP to look back at the Ottoman legacy in order to compete with the West for profitable resources and lucrative markets—and this is exactly what has happened.
Erdoğan’s government began to address Arab sentiments by speaking openly about the rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state, and using verbal confrontation—Erdoğan’s public row over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Perez at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, in which Erdoğan stormed off the stage—and physical confrontation—the dispatch of the Mavi Marmara to Gaza—to gain Arab trust.
All these actions encouraged the neo-Ottomans to return to the legacy they left when poor and exhausted, only to return to find it one of the richest in the world. Because of this, Turkey not only attracted the attention of the West, it achieved remarkable economic growth. Even the debts that burdened the Turkish state became a distant memory.
It is no secret that Arab Gulf markets, investments and tourism have all played a great role in reviving the Turkish economy. We can point here to Turkish agricultural and industrial products and Turkish construction companies, which have been noticeably present in most Arab countries, particularly Iraq, which relies more on Turkish companies, labor and products than it does on Iran’s.
But this Turkish invasion now seems likely to recede, for a number of reasons.
The first is Erdoğan’s involvement in internal Arab conflicts. He had a good relationship with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but soon turned against him and supported the uprising that toppled his regime. When the military-backed June 30 uprising toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi, Erdoğan stood defiantly against the ouster, a move that resulted in the recalling of the Egyptian ambassador and the expulsion of his Turkish counterpart. If this was in relative harmony with Western stances, it was in total contradiction to those of the Gulf, which were mostly in agreement on supporting post-Brotherhood rule, and this proved that Erdoğan was following his Brotherhood-inspired political sentiments.
The second is that there is no doubt that the Americans and the Europeans do not want Turkey to be an integral part of the West. At the same time, they do not want Turkey to abandon them, because economic independence leads to political independence, and the Americans and Europeans cannot allow Turkey to flood markets exclusive to the West with cheaper products, especially in countries with which it also has strong religious links.
The third reason is the recent corruption scandal. Corruption in all its guises was one of the causes of the deterioration of the situation in Turkey under governments before the AKP. Erdoğan’s government succeeded economically because it was not corrupt. But late in 2013, financial scandals affected a number of ministers and led to the formation of a new government by Erdoğan, despite demands from some that he shoulder the political responsibility for the scandals and offer his resignation.
Finally, the Turkish dream of abandoning the West by moving East will not come about because major Western powers will not allow Turkey—and especially its Ottoman model—to regain the wealth it lost more than 90 years ago. They do not want it to bounce back with an ever-greater appetite for consumption, foreign labor and security. This is doubly so since the West—the heir of the Ottoman legacy—can provide Gulf Arabs with their needs directly, or indirectly through states and people with little ambition beyond exporting their labor and goods.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.