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Friday, 16 September 2011

16 September 2011

If you were an Egyptian, or a Moroccan, or a Jordanian, what would you think of the role Turkey is now playing in the Middle East?

Compared with Iran, for example, would you regard it as a positive or a negative influence in the region?

It’s not an idle question, especially not in the week when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been making a triumphant tour of the three Arab states where they’ve managed to overthrow their autocratic rulers: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Nor is it a question to which we have to guess the answer. According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute in Washington, and conducted in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favourable views of Turkey range from an astounding 98 per cent in Saudi Arabia to a “low” of 45 per cent in Jordan.

Iran’s ratings, by comparison, range from a high of 63 per cent in Lebanon, to 6 per cent in Saudi Arabia. And if you’re interested in trends, over the past five years Turkey has been vastly improving its regional reputation, while Iran’s has been plummeting.

Why is this interesting? Because Turkey is rapidly emerging as a key player in the region, and Mr Erdogan seems determined to increase his country’s influence wherever he can. His message on his visits this week has been an attractive one to Arab audiences – look at us: Muslim, democratic and prosperous. Do as we did, and you can have all this too.

No wonder Turkey’s reputation at the moment is sky high. (There are exceptions, of course: you won’t find many Kurds or Armenians who share the general Arab view that a resurgent Turkey is a Good Thing.)

Ah, did I mention, Mr Erdogan is also a vociferous critic of Israel, whose ambassador he has just sent packing in the continuing row over the killing last year by Israeli forces of nine Turkish citizens on an aid flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip.

In a speech last Tuesday to the Arab League in Cairo, he accused Israel of behaving like a spoilt child, and said: “Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state.”

That word “solitude” was carefully chosen. Turkey used to be on good terms with Israel – the two countries’ military forces worked closely together, and Ankara acted with some success as a mediator between Israel and Syria.

Those days are long gone. As Mr Erdogan well knows, Israel now has no friends in the region, and is watching anxiously as Egypt’s new rulers suggest that the Camp David peace agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979 “is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion.”

The Turkish prime minister enjoys playing to the crowd, both at home and abroad. He has good Muslim credentials, with a background in Islamist politics. He, like most Muslims, but unlike the Iranians, is a Sunni, which means that on a religious level he is much closer to the vast majority of Arabs than to the ayatollahs of Tehran.

Until quite recently, Turkey harboured real hopes of being allowed to start a negotiation process that would end up with it joining the European Union. But deep hostility in France, Germany and elsewhere seems to have put an end to those hopes, at least for the forseeable future. In many western European eyes, there are three big objections to Turkey joining the euro-club: it’s too big, it’s too poor – and it's too Muslim.

So now Mr Erdogan seems to be shifting from his former foreign policy stance of being friends with everyone and enemies with no one. He hasn’t abandoned his dream of joining the EU one day, but in the meantime he is fostering much closer links with the Arab world’s new leaders.

What he has in mind is very different from the days of the Ottoman empire, when for the best part of 600 years, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula, the Turks dominated the Arab world as colonial masters.

But his new brand of muscular diplomacy, coupled with enticing offers of economic and technical assistance and populist anti-Israel rhetoric, make him a man who has to be taken seriously.

For now, Washington, and his other NATO allies, are prepared to watch and wait to see how far he intends to go. But there will be tensions and disagreements (the vote next week at the UN on whether to recognise Palestine as a state will be the next one) as Turkey gets used to its new status as the most influential kid on the block.

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