Monday, 19 September 2011

New Ottomans, Persian Iran and diminishing American influence

In the sixteenth century the Mediterranean Sea was an Ottoman lake. From their capital Istanbul, the Ottomans held sway over lands including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. Perhaps as a result of Ottoman suzerainty of Arab lands, Arabs have traditionally not held sympathetic views about Turks.
Like most modern Turks, the Ottomans identified themselves as a European power with a constant desire to modernize in the footsteps of industrializing Western Europe. However, controlling Islam's Holy cities of Mecca, Medina and other vast areas of the Arab world granted Ottoman's political legitimacy as Defenders of the Faith.
A map of the Ottoman Empire during various periods (source: Wikipedia)
The Ottoman Empire may no longer exist but Turkish influence in the region is seeing a renaissance of sorts. Turkey's renewed regional role is predicated on a confluence of events. It is a reminder of days former Ottoman governorates took orders from Istanbul's Topkapi Palace before making key policy decisions.
After decades of watching non-Muslim Eastern European nations waltz into Brussels, the Turks finally decided European Union (EU) need not be the raison d'etre of Turkish foreign policy. To Turks, the EU looks more and more like an exclusive Christian Club with which Muslims are only permitted 'association agreements.'
The Turkish political elite have finally tired of being humiliated by Brussels.
Consequently, as the snubs by Europe became more frequent, Turkey adopted a less 'western-centric' foreign policy. One facet of Turkey's new approach is greater economic and diplomatic ties with the Arab world.
The Arabs, fearing greater Irani encroachment into the Sunni Islamic world, grudgingly reciprocated Turkey's outreach. The fear of Iran feeds into Arab acceptance of Turkey in more ways. When the US invasion of Iraq unwittingly opened the door for aggressive Iranian influence, Sunni Arab nations calculate that Turkey can act as a possible counterweight to Iran.
Arab nations have other reasons to be fearful of a power vacuum in the region. US credibility has suffered with its inability to score an outright win in Iraq or Afghanistan even after ten years of fighting. Moreover, traditional Arab monarchies were aghast with the ease with which the Americans dropped long time ally and client, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The more vulnerable monarchies have decided that reliance on US support for survival is dangerous. America cannot be trusted.
Turkey's increasing economic power plays a vital part in Turkey's revival of fortunes. Based on 2010 data, the Turkish economy is the seventeenth largest in the world. That puts Turkey ahead of nations like Australia, Switzerland and long time rival Greece. 
The Ottoman Navy fleet during its eight month 'wintering' in the French port of Toulon in 1543
Turkish private sector corporations have demonstrated tremendous capacity to expand overseas in support of Turkish diplomacy. Large Turkish companies, having sewn up markets in recently independent Central Asian and Caucasus states, have moved aggressively into Arab countries to undertake a variety of projects.
Money has a way of increasing influence and Turkey has been pumping Liras into its neighbourhood.
Politics is not a zero sum game but Turkey's shift towards the Islamic world has not gone unnoticed with erstwhile ally, Israel. A Turkey more confident of its leadership role within the Islamic world has taken a harder line against Israel's Palestine policies.
Turkey's rise to prominence amongst the Arab nations has not occurred overnight. Al-Qaeeda's 9/11 attacks set off a series of global political realignments, many of which are still in motion. Introspection and a reassessment of political Islam are occurring across the Islamic world. Turkey is no exception. The NATO member's historical post World War II tilt towards the west is being recalibrated in line with new realities.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at  

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