16 May 2012
With its booming economy, growing political influence and brimming self-confidence, Turkey is attempting to carry out a more assertive foreign policy in the Middle East.
Outlining the future trajectory, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoðlu told parliament late last month that Turkey would play a primary role in shaping the Middle East, as it guides the "winds of change" in the region.
"A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East," Davutoðlu said.
However, despite its ambitions, Turkey's diplomatic power, institutional capacity and human resources make it questionable how great a leadership role it can play.
"The foreign ministry's present institutional and personnel structure is insufficient for Turkey to become a 'determining actor' or a 'central country' in the Middle East," a recent report by Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), concluded.
While its diplomats have hammered out various successful initiatives in the Middle East, Turkey's power and capacities in the region are still limited as diplomatic representations are understaffed.
In Turkey's 25 diplomatic missions in Arab countries, there are 135 diplomats -- a number considerably lower than the leading Western countries. This number doesn't include administrative staff, which mainly deals with consular work and provide other support functions.
Lack of foreign language skills is an important indicator of Turkey’s diplomatic incapacities, hampering access to local information resources and a full understanding of events on the ground. Only six Turkish diplomats speak fluent Arabic, and none are ambassadors. Last year, the total number of Arabic speaking diplomatic personnel in the foreign ministry was 26, up from 10 in 1990.
"Unfortunately, Turkey's state bureaucracy, its academic world and think tanks all lack genuine capacities to follow developments in the Middle East first hand. One of the main deficiencies here is certainly the lack of personnel with good knowledge of Arabic," former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis told SES Türkiye.
Yakis, with a good command of Arabic, was among the key figures who redirected Turkey’s attention to the Middle East and the Islamic world, soon after becoming the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) first foreign minister in 2002.
Yakis says Turkey still lacks the ability to develop distinct policies towards the Middle East and analyse issues first hand, largely because most Turkish journalists, academics and bureaucrats are following the Middle East through the eyes of Western media and think tanks.
"It is true that there has been a major change [in] Turkey’s approach to the Middle East since the AK Party came to power. But it will take at least 15 to 20 years for Turkey to close this gap, and also for the foreign ministry to have our young diplomats with good knowledge of Arabic serve as ambassadors in these countries," he said.
Compared with the European heavyweights, Turkey is still far behind in terms of its foreign ministry budget and number of personnel.
According to the USAK report, the ministry has a total of 5,533 personnel, compared with the 12,437 of Germany, 15,008 of France, and 17,100 of the UK. Turkey's Foreign Ministry budget is also still limited, at around 436m euros (1 billion TL), far behind most of the G20 countries, the USAK report underscored.
According to Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru, the ongoing transformation of the ministry’s structure and work processes offers good prospects for the future.
"We are going through an adaptation process, necessitated by global changes and the dynamism of our foreign policy vision," he told SES Türkiye. "A country like Turkey with such a dynamic foreign policy execution certainly needs more resources and capabilities."
In the last three years, Turkey has opened 40 new diplomatic representations abroad, bringing the total number to 214. The foreign ministry has also increased recruitment. In the last two years, 175 new diplomats have joined the ministry, and this year it is planning to recruit 75 new diplomats and 100 consulate staff and experts.
According Koru, the ministry is also adapting itself to new realities by expanding ties with other foreign policy components, including NGOs, think tanks and municipalities.
"Foreign policy is not something that can only be executed through the foreign ministry," he said, noting that non-state actors contribute to foreign policy formation and implementation.
Turkey's involvement in the Middle East has been accompanied by "soft power" and the expansion of economic relations. Growing tourism from Arab states, coupled with cultural interactions -- mainly with the popularity of Turkish soap operas -- has improved the image of Turkey in the Middle East.
While Turkey's trade with Arab countries stood at $6.5 billion in 2000, it reached $35 billion in 2011. Last year approximately 1.5 million Arab tourists visited Turkey.
Turkey's image in the Arab and Muslim world has been considerably changed in the last ten years of AKP rule.
According to a poll by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in 2011, 78% of citizens in Middle East countries said they have a somewhat or very favourable view of Turkey. The poll found that 71% thought Turkey should play a larger role in the region.
But Yakis said years of anti-Turkey propaganda in Arab states created a negative perception of both Turkey and the Ottoman era. "It is true that with the developments in recent years, there has been a positive change for Turkey’s image. But one should not forget that it will take at least one to two generations before the remnants of this negative propaganda against Turkey are erased."
In the TESEV poll, 61% of people in the Middle East said they consider Turkey to be a model, while 22% disagree. Turkey’s democratic regime (32%), economy (25%) and Muslim identity (23%) were listed as reasons why respondents consider Turkey to be a model.
According to Koru, Turkey's economic growth and democratisation process has enabled the country to conduct a more active policy in world politics. Turkey is not portraying itself as a model, he says, but is offering assistance to all interested parties who wish to make use of Turkey's experiences.
'Throughout history, Turkey has always been an integral part of the Middle East. Today, Turkey's active role in the region is not a choice, but a responsibility that has been put on our shoulders by our common history and our common future," Koru told SES Türkiye.