In shifting sands of Middle East, who will lead? (+ video)
Leadership in the Middle East is up for grabs as the Syrian war intensifies, the Arab Spring changes regional power dynamics, and Israel's airstrikes and Hamas rockets again roil Gaza. Last year, Turkey was the assumed role model for the region. But it has fallen down on the job.
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In the spring of 2011, some observers believed that Turkey was a model for countries in the Arab world that aspire to democratic politics and successful economies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumphal tour of Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli in September 2011 reinforced the idea that Ankara was the natural center of a new emerging regional order.Skip to next paragraph
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Turkey certainly has much to offer the region. It is more democratic than any country in the Arab world and boasts the 16th largest economy in the world. The din of various Arabic dialects spoken by Egyptian, Libyan, Saudi, and other tourists at passport control at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport or in the famous Grand Bazaar speaks to Turkey’s regional pull.
However, a little more than a year after Mr. Erdogan’s regional tour, Turkey’s popularity – while still strong – is softening. In a recent poll, the respected Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation uncovered a creeping ambivalence among Arabs about Turkey’s regional role.
For example, across 16 countries surveyed, 69 percent of respondents reported a positive impression of Turkey. But the number of Arabs who regard Turkey as a model fell to just over half from the year before. Approval of Turkey’s regional influence was 60 percent, also lower. In the abstract, these are all enviable results, but they represent a slide of eight to nine percentage points in just one year – a significant drop.
Deteriorating relations with Iraq and alignment with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Syria are taking a toll on Turkey’s regional standing. It is true that the Turks are helping the Syrians free themselves from a brutal dictator, but few in the Arab world trust the Qataris, and especially the Saudis.
Ankara’s approach is also fueling suspicion – if only by circumstance – among Arabs that the Turks are pursuing a sectarian strategy that will sow conflict in the region, which in some ways has already begun in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s regional prominence before the uprisings was based in part on its ability to be a neutral arbiter and problem solver in the region. That esteem seems to have been lost in the maelstrom of Syria and the complexities of Arab transitions.
And forgotten in all the romance about neo-Ottomanism is the fact that while the Turks are geographically adjacent to the Middle East and are overwhelmingly Muslim, they remain outsiders given their own colonial legacy in the Arab world. This view of Turkey is common among older Arabs and even younger activists who took to the streets to depose dictators in the name of national empowerment and dignity as well as democracy.