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A Muslim tiger? Turkey’s rising power and influence

November 22, 2012
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Oxfam Private Sector Adviser Erinch Sahan (right) is blown away by Turkey’s rising influence across the Muslim world

Turkey is on the rise. It’s become a confident middle power with visions of becoming a regional super-power. The one time ‘sick man ofIndonesia - Flores - Cocoa3 Europe’ is expanding its influence, across region and beyond and is seen as the leader of choice across the Muslim world.

Nowhere is Turkish influence more evident than across the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Last month, while walking the streets of Azerbaijan, I was overwhelmed by the amount of Turkish music, restaurants, television channels and football jerseys I came across. As a native Turkish speaker, I was delighted that every Azeri I came across understood every word I said. “It’s because all we watch is Turkish television and our kids go to Turkish schools”, one man informed me.

This growth in soft power is not restricted to Azerbaijan. From Dubai to Cairo, Damascus to Beirut,  Islamabad to Bosnia, audiences are glued to screens depicting scenes from Turkey’s past and present. Turkish drama has hit the screens in 76 countries since 2005. Perhaps more importantly, there are now over 1,000 Turkish schools linked to the movement led by Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen, in 130 countries.

The growth of Turkey’s economic power is even harder to ignore. With the economy growing at 8.5 and 9 per cent over the last two years, Turkey is set to continue to lead the OECD growth tables. Turkish firms aren’t shy in expanding overseas either. Turkish company, TAV, the world’s 4th largest airport contractor, is expanding aggressively. Turkish construction companies now have operations in 94 countries and $25b in Turkish investment now reaches 109 countries. HSBC predicts that Turkey will jump six spots to become the world’s 12th largest economy by 2050. The expansion of Turkish economic power will continue well into this century.

Why does it matter?

If you work in the Muslim world or in Africa, you cannot ignore Turkey.

Turkey as an economic actor

Turkish business is at the frontiers of development. Turkey’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa has gone through the roof in the last 10 years, from $750m in 2000 to $7.5bn in 2011. Turkish investment is also reaching all corners of the continent. Kolin, a major contracting company, has started a $140m infrastructure project in Uganda and is looking at opportunities in South Africa and Kenya. The Turkish conglomerate Koc Holding (which includes BEKO appliances) acquired South African appliances giant Defy for $324m in 2011.

Will Turkish firms become ideal ‘lead firms’ in value chains projects? Could you partner with them to further develop social and environmental standards in Africa? Should we be looking at discussing public private partnerships with them? Increasingly, it’s worth considering.

Turkey as a trusted donor

Turkey is a rapidly growing aid donor. Interestingly, as an OECD member, it has not joined its aid committee, the DAC, despite meeting the criteria of official aid exceeding $100m (I wonder if it’s the transparency requirements that puts Turkey off). In 2011, Turkey spent $1.3b in aid. This is not insignificant – about the same levels as Austria or Finland.

Big in Bosnia: steamy scene from Turkish soap 'Forbidden Love'

Big in Bosnia: steamy scene from Turkish soap 'Forbidden Love'

But the volume of aid is only half the story. Turkish aid seeks places where it can leverage its soft power and increase its influence. Until recently, most Turkish aid went to Central Asia and the Balkans, to former Ottoman domains and fellow-Turkic speaking nations. However, Turkish aid to Africa and the Middle East is rapidly growing.

Turkey has quickly become a mover-and-shaker in Somalia.

Last year, Prime Minister Erdogan became the first non-African leader to visit the country. A similar story can be told in Yemen.For a Muslim nation, it’s a novelty to receive aid from a fellow-Muslim nation. Turkish aid makes the news in Muslim countries. It is received with a trust not afforded to western donors and carries greater influence. Turkey is seen as an honest broker across the Muslim world.

According to a Pew survey in July 2012, PM Erdogan is the most popular leader in the Muslim world . Moreover, most Muslims believe that Turkey is promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. 78 per cent of Egyptians think Turkey is promoting democracy in the region. In contrast, the billions of US aid poured into Egypt over decades has bought them a measly 37 per cent of Egyptians accepting that America is promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Turkey as a moral leader

Such unparalleled positive perception among Muslim peoples and leaders, coupled with growing Turkish aid to the region, makes Turkey a formidable power that can shape the institutional future of the Muslim world. Whatever your view of the quality of democracy in Turkey, it’s miles ahead of most of the Muslim world. And it seems an overwhelming majority of Muslims agree.

“We called ourselves conservative democrats. We focused our change on basic rights and freedom… This stance has gone beyond our country’s borders and has become an example for all Muslim countries.” Erdogan proclaims. According to the exiled leader of Hamas, the Turkish government has shown the “bright face of Islam” -Erdogan is not only the leader of Turkey but also a leader of the Muslim world. The Turkish PM is greeted like a rock-star whichever Middle Eastern or North African capital he visits.

Should you be knocking on the door of the local Turkish embassy to partner-up in delivering governance programmes? Should you be lobbying to influence Turkey’s position, hoping they’d throw their weight behind your agenda? Should you be dropping in some positive examples of reforms in Turkey the next time you put together an advocacy message? Or perhaps, aligning your message with Turkey’s official line on democracy and reform? I would suggest yes. Because if you’re working in the Muslim world, you cannot ignore the influence of Turkey.