Turkey: the next great power

No longer a mere tourist destination or aspiring EU Member, Turkey is re-asserting itself East and South.

If it hasn't happened already, Turkey will be the new country on every journalist's lips. For years it hoped to join the EU, but that application was supported by few, save the UK. But now Turkey's recent rapid economic growth has enabled it to seek fresh opportunities to its east and south.  “Today, Turkey seeks to emerge from the shadow of America and the West in general, to become a regional if not world power in its own right” notes Turkey-based US journalist Jim Buie in his blog.

With a huge standing army and as a key NATO member, it fears no other regional power. Its control of the waters flowing into rivers of Syria, Iraq and the Jordan Valley give it massive political leverage.

After an early recession, its economy thrived, expanding by 8% last year according to EBRD's Transition Report 2010, and by 7.8% according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Sources predict that the economy will cool a bit in 2011, with The Economist projecting 4.5% growth this year.

Murat Ulgen, an economist at HSBC in Istanbul, told the BBC, "The EU is a matter of democracy, improving institutions and social development." The Turkish government appears to believe that joining the EU would aid economic growth and thus bolster political stability. Yet, as WikiLeaks releases revealed, France and Austria would never agree to Turkish membership. Most Turks don't seem to care much, it seems.

They look to Muslim countries now for business opportunities. It seems that this is neither a neo-Ottoman resurgence of imperialist intentions, nor Islamist is essence but purely for reasons of commercial expediency.

Until Kemal Atatürk founded modern secular Turkey after WWI, the Ottoman empire reached Algiers, Khartoum, Aden, Abu Dhabi, Budapest and Athens. Turkish power was massive as its influence extended beyond even those borders. As the empire shrunk and finally collapsed, Atatürk fought the Allies to gain Turkey's independence as a Republic.

Today, Turkish connections enable its corporations and institutions to develop profitable enterprise across this entire region. Airports group TAV exemplifies this: founded in 1997 to construct a new terminal at Istanbul, it now manages successful airports at Muscat in Oman, Tunis, Cairo, Skopje in Macedonia, Tblisi in Georgia, and elsewhere. But Turkish influence extends into the Turkmen heartlands to the north of Iran and south of Russia, as far as the border with China. And further south, into Syria, Iraq and into North Africa, too, Turkish companies are opening up markets for expertise and exports. Its no accident that the Syrian Opposition to the Assad regime decided to meet in the Turkish city of Antalya on its Mediterranean coast. There in June, 400 Syrian liberals, conservatives and Islamists hammered out a strategy for a concerted campaign.

Across all of Africa, Turkey is developing interests.  Business Day reported on July 12 that “a report released by the African Development Bank last week shows that Turkey is now counted among the top five emerging market economies with a sizable interest on the continent.” Although China has a clear lead in inward investment on that continent, Turkey is responsible for 6.5% of the total.  Enough for the South African media group to alert its readers to “the quiet rise of Turkey’s influence in Africa.”  Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Sudan were once Ottoman, but the rest is “virgin turf” points out The Economist.  It reported in 2010 that "a 37-year-old Turkish businessman who settled in Douala, Cameroon, three years ago, swaps Turkish-made pasta for local timber. He says his business model is based on alliances with local Muslims.”  Much of Turkey's enhanced penetration of African commerce, says the newspaper, is made by Anatolian tigers”, small to medium sized “entrepreneurs from Turkey’s conservative heartland” which are “eyeing opportunities” and “Africans are responding with enthusiasm.”

The Turkish Lira is strong, the economy booming, inward investment expanding and outward commercial enterprise thriving. It has loosened its political ties of late with Israel, exemplified by Turkish support of boats intent on busting Israel's Gaza blockade and has, alongside Brazil. attempted to mediate in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Turkey has a population of 78 million. At present, the World's 17th biggest economy, Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, ranks it at 14th by 2050, positioning it ahead of Canada, Italy, Vietnam and Iran. Istanbul is a mega-city, with just under 13 million people, making it the world's fifth largest and the only one to span two continents – Europe and Asia, as it extends across the Bosphorus.

While eyes might have been until now fixed on China, Brazil and India and maybe Indonesia, Turkey will likely be the focus of intense future attention.

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