Leadership in the Middle East: culture, power or democracy?

Serazat - Leadership in Middle East - Ahmed Necip YILDIRIM
Serazat - Leadership in Middle East - Ahmed Necip YILDIRIM

By Ahmed Necip YILDIRIM

There are four main countries in the Middle East who have the potential of becoming leader in the Middle East: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Israel.

The Middle East is the land of cultural diversities. Cultural context becomes the most defining variable in the Middle East is in case. There are innumerable nations, ethnic groups, religions, sects, and subsects across the region. Any political approach based on a specific religious and/or national identity produces “us – them” division. Divisive approaches consolidated on differences naturally generate distinction, antagonism and ultimately clash.

The only adhesive that can bring the majority of individuals in the Middle Eastern together is democratic values. Any leader state who will be sincerely adhering to the democratic principles (like rule of law; balance of power; freedom of speech; free press; free and fair elections; protection of basic human rights… etc.) will indisputably be the leader in the Middle East. Democracy must be backed up by a free market economy, a social life tolerant to all identities, relative hard and soft power.

Turkey is the probable and viable country for the leadership in the Middle East.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Divisive Ideological States

In February 1946, George F. Kennan, then at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, sent a wide-ranging report analyzing Soviet policy. In this report, recommended “restraining and confining” of Soviet Union because he observed that the Soviets perceived themselves to be in a state of perpetual war with capitalism and that the Soviets would use controllable Marxists all over the world as their allies against the capitalists. He also noted that Soviet aggression and expansionism was aligned with historic Russian xenophobia and paranoia. This paved the way to the “containment” of Soviets in US foreign policy.

Today, Iran is following exactly the same methods as Soviets were utilizing at that time. Iran uses all the controllable Shiites against any regime and authority in the region. In this sense, it is aggressive and expansionist. Democratic Turkey’s rising influence and power will definitely mean “containment” to the expansionism of Iran, because it will be restraining and confining Iranian influence in the region. The very existence of the regime in Iran is based on a cultural core which defines all non-Shiites as the “relevant other”; i.e. dividing individuals across the region.

Similar to Iran, the political regime of Suadi Arabia is based on Wahhabism, an interpretation of Islam. Generally, Wahhabism is falsely regarded as Sunni Islam, but it is completely different in details. Suadi Arabia has also based its state ideology and foreign policy on expansion of a creed. It is true that Turkish Republic and Suadi Arabia never experienced an explicit antagonistic relationship, yet they did not enjoy any considerable mutual cooperation either. Taking in mind the basic ideological viewpoint of the Saudi regime, it will be quiet difficult for Saudi Arabian decision makers to see an active democratic Turkey in the Middle East.

Democratic Turkey is a natural antidote for divisive, expansionist, undemocratic ideologies of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Israel: Small Island in an Ocean

Israel is a democratic country; however the country has bad relations with most of the Arab countries. Culturally and historically, people in the Middle East will not follow Israel as a leader state.

Israel would be a close partner of Turkey if it was not located in the Middle East. The relationship between Turkey and Israel does not mean anything per se. Even if Turkey and Israel will establish close mutual relations, their respective policies in the Middle East will always contradict. So, when we study the relationship between Turkey and Israel in the big picture of the Middle East, we see that Israel cannot establish as friendly relations with Middle Eastern countries as Turkey can.

As long as it approaches with democratic values towards the Middle East, Turkey does not have to distance itself from Israel in order to develop close relationships with Arab countries, and vice-a-versa.

Why Egypt is never an option?

Those who know Turkey and Egypt closely will right away dismiss Egypt as a potential competitor of Turkey in any possible aspect. Except the conjunctural success of Nasser days, which were merely a “flash in the pan”, Egypt has never been a serious potential leader of the Middle East. Political, economic, and social dynamics of Egypt is far from being ready for playing for the leadership in the Middle East. Turkey actually a very good role model for Egypt.

Turkey: The Natural protector of all in the Middle East

Turkey was deliberately neglecting the Middle East for around 80 years. This was so partly due to internal dynamics of Turkey and partly due to the international dynamics. Things, however, started to change after the end of the Cold War. International conjuncture and internal dynamics of Turkey is obliging Turkey to come back and reclaim its natural role in once forgotten friends in the region.

Actually, nature has bestowed a lot of opportunities to Turkey: Turkey is located in a strategic place which has geographical proximity with Middle East, Balkans, Caucasus, Europe, Asia, Africa and all Eastern Mediterranean states. This region is also rich of important natural resources which enhance Turkey’s importance as a passage for the energy routes.

Turkey possesses a cultural advantage in the region. Turkey has strong cultural ties and speaks the same language with around 300 million Turks. And we share a common history with the countries in the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East. All of these nations have peacefully coexisted with Turks for centuries in the Ottoman time. One must also mention ‘state tradition’: As a state, Turkey is founded over an ancient legacy of knowledge and the experience in statehood. Turkish military power is one of the strongest armies in the region.

In spite of all its deficiencies, Turkey is the best example with a functioning democracy among all other Islamic countries. It has a vast agricultural land and relatively rich human resources.

Turkey has consolidated its position as a strong regional power and an active global actor. In the last years; Turkey has mobilized all its resources in order to increase its power; i.e. its state tradition, natural resources, its military power, human resources, geostrategic location, developing economy and so many other factors deserves to be placed in such a position. The only thing Turkey needs for going even further is the continuation of the determined political will and stability witnessed in recent years.

By Ahmed Necip YILDIRIM
(Originally published in Turkey Tribune)