The rise and fall of the “Turkish Model”

The rise and fall of the “Turkish Model”

Jean-Loup Samaan
In the years following Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise to power in Ankara, Turkey’s geopolitical inclinations sparked growing interest, if not outright fascination, among Arab intellectuals and scholars. The focus of this interest was mainly on the new Turkish grand strategy, which was designed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. This strategy revealed Ankara’s new ambitions for the Middle East, not only as a regional player but as a “model” for a political system able to combine the rule of a strong Islamic party –the AKP– with democratic process. 

Over the last few months, however, Arab fascination has been severely tested and now appears to be waning. This is the result of apprehension over Turkey’s strategic choices in different areas.

Although Turkey has always been a subject of interest in the Arab political debate, attention to the country grew dramatically after the AKP gained power in 2002 and its newly assertive foreign policy was felt in the Middle East. 

Michel Naoufal, Editor in Chief of the Lebanese newspaper Al Mustaqbal and an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, explained how “Turkey represents a safety valve (samam aman) in the Middle East.” 

At the time, Naoufal and other Arab intellectuals toned down Arab fears of a new Turkish imperialism and characterized Turkey’s agenda in the region as a manifestation of soft power (quwat na’ima). 

Still, the pinnacle of Turkish popularity in the Arab world did not preclude certain concerns. The attention which Arab observers paid to Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s grand strategy focused in part on the so-called “new Ottomanism” that was supposed to characterize it. The use of such expressions as “new Ottomans” or “neo-Ottomanism” blurred, rather than clarified Turkish policies.

By the summer of 2011, it had become clear that Arab fascination with Turkey was backfiring. This was no more salient than in the case of Syria. Until the summer of 2011, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu tried and failed to initiate diplomatic dialogue with Assad. After reaching a deadlock, the Turkish government decided to suspend all relations with Syria. 

This latest decision may have signaled the start of the downward turn for Turkish soft power in the Middle East. 

Bashar al-Assad repeated this narrative in several interviews and speeches. It is worth taking note of Assad’s terminology when he talks about Erdoğan; in November 2012, he declared: “[Erdoğan] considers himself the new Ottoman sultan and thinks he can control the region the same way the Ottomans did before”, adding that Turkey’s strategy in the Middle East went “from zero problem to zero friends.” 

But, even for Arab thinkers who support the revolution against the Syrian ruler, Turkey’s 
assertiveness has been progressively seen as ill-advised and perilous, leading to an escalation of the conflict. 

The concerns over Turkey’s policy in the Middle East were further exacerbated in the summer of 2013, following the destitution of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the military in Cairo. 

Whether or not the Egyptian protests that led to the removal of Morsi turned into a military coup, Turkey’s positioning on the international stage was perceived in the Arabic press as a direct interference in Egyptian domestic affairs. 

Finally, the late-May demonstrations in Turkey itself, in protest at a planned demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, severely undermined the appeal of the “Turkish model” in the Arab world. If the events did not directly impact Turkish foreign policy in the Arab world, they surely exacerbated the worries and emboldened those who are most resentful of Ankara’s ambitions in the Middle East. 

This calls for a sobering reappraisal of the “Turkish model”, or of soft power in the Middle East. Arabs still view Turkey’s contemporary grand strategy as being shaped by their Ottoman legacy. 

This distorts the understanding of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s options, when it comes to issues like Turkey’s Muslim identity, or its Middle Eastern ambitions. Turkey’s venture into soft power was a double-edged sword from the outset: the fascination it created within the Arab world was not associated with enthusiasm within the Middle Eastern audience, nor is it likely to be so in the future.

Jean-Loup Samaan is a researcher at the Middle East Department of the NATO Defense College in Italy. This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). This one is an abbreviated version of the piece. For more information, please visit