By Sinem Cengiz
22 March 2014
This week, Saudi Arabia - the heavyweight of the Arab world - hosted the Jeddah Economic Forum, also known as “the Davos of the Middle East.” It brought together leading politicians, businessmen and academics to discuss economic and social issues in the politically fragile region.
In past years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was among the most popular speakers at the event, where he would proudly talk about the success of the “Turkish model.” However, there was no Turkish participation at the forum this year.
This absence could be considered an important indication of the strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh over their differing positions towards the military overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi last year. Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood leader is not approved of in the Gulf, which until very recently enjoyed close economic and political ties with Turkey.
Erdogan received a hero’s welcome when he visited Saudi Arabia to attend the JEF in 2011. At that year’s forum, Erdogan - whose popularity among Arabs was increasing - was invited to speak at the session on “Global Leaders.”
Turkey “has made great progress in the last eight years,” he said. “We’ve made many reforms, from the economy to foreign policy, from social life to domestic policy. We attach great importance to stability and confidence as the most important elements of economic development and active foreign policy.”
Times Have Changed
Erdogan, who spoke about the success of his region foreign policy, has become the victim of his own dubious choices. The Turkish leadership, which used to praise its foreign policy based on the philosophy of “zero problems with neighbours,” has become the odd man out in the region due to its currently troubled relations with Arab countries.
Ankara’s policy towards Egypt has put it at odds not only with Cairo, but also with Gulf states. This comes at a time when Turkey is already under stress from the war in Syria, and has cold relations with Iraq and Iran.
Turkey may have preserved its positive image in the eyes of the Arab people, but has lost the support of Arab leaderships due to its regional policy choices. The “Turkish model” that was once honoured in the Middle East appears to be declining.
Arab countries used to cite Turkey’s economy, democracy, and its simultaneously secular nature and Muslim identity as reasons for being a regional model. Now, however, they seem to have lost their confidence in Erdogan, particularly after the way he handled the Gezi Park protests.
Let us remember what the Turkish prime minister, who attempted to control the judiciary in response to the major ongoing corruption operation, said in his JEF speech in 2011: “We’ve made significant political and judicial reforms to ensure stability and confidence in our country. Thanks to those reforms, the Turkish judiciary became faster, reliable, unbiased and independent.”
Arab countries at that time were impressed by the way Turkey achieved a balance between Islam and modernity, and its policies regarding the West and the Muslim world. They were looking forward to benefitting from the Turkish experience of political and judicial reforms.
However, today Arab states are disappointed to see Ankara moving away from the democratic path after the recent political turmoil and corruption scandals.
In 2004, Erdogan told the JEF that Turkey was a “bridge between the European Union and the Middle East.” Ankara has not only burned bridges with the West after the EU criticized government meddling in the judiciary, but also with the Middle East due to its regional policies, particularly towards Egypt and Syria.
Turkey has failed in its assessment and interpretation of regional events, and Erdogan has lost his popular standing in the Middle East.
Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the latest circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. Cengiz has conducted several interviews with presidents, foreign ministers, and heads of the political parties in abroad and diplomats based in Ankara. She is experienced on covering issues in foreign countries with field research. She has also covered major international conferences abroad and in Turkey. Cengiz participated to programs in several organizations and institutions. Cengiz graduated from the department of International Relations and still continues her master studies on Middle East issues at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She currently works on her thesis regarding Turkish-Saudi Relations in the past decade.