The Arab Spring has prompted a lot of talk about Turkey's possible role as a model. Turkey's recent economic success and the relative liberality of its institutions have made it a point of reference to many in the Middle East.
Let's leave aside for the moment the issue of whether the Arabs really need a role model, since they're perfectly capable of establishing their own system without copying either Turkey or the West. Being a model is not only about having a well-functioning democratic system but also having the capacity to be able to foster it domestically and internationally and to be able to put rhetoric and aims into action. Does Turkey really offer a useful template for democratic values and institution building?
First of all, it's worth taking a look at Turkey's capabilities. While there has been considerable discussion of Turkey's role in the region, a look at the country's diplomatic, economic, and soft-power resources is sobering. Though Turkey has 25 diplomatic missions in the Arab countries, at last count only six of the 135 staffers in these missions actually spoke Arabic. Needless to say, this says a lot about Turkey's ability -- and perhaps its willingness -- to develop wide-ranging diplomatic relationships throughout the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Furthermore, although Turkey's trade relations with the region are frequently cited, most of its exports are based on natural resources and low-technology (56 percent), followed by medium-technology goods (40.5 percent). Its share of high-tech exports to the region remains low (3.5 percent in 2010). This suggests that Turkey is not necessarily one of the main economic competitors in the region, a factor that will tend to limit its influence.
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My previous employer, the Turkish think tank USAK, has published a report offering some useful data for assessing Turkey's capacity as an economic and diplomatic actor in the Arab world. A USAK report -- which includes the data mentioned above -- shows that there is much that needs to be done if Turkey wishes to increase its credibility as a regional role model. Currently, Turkey is far from having the capabilities to take action in line with its rhetoric. This doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Ankara's ability to project its influence into more dysfunctional Middle Eastern states.
Let's take "soft power" for a moment. The report notes that, while Turkish state TV began Arabic-language broadcasting to the Arab countries in 2010, its presence on the airwaves still lags far behind other Arabic satellite broadcasters -- not to mention Arabic-language broadcasting from the western countries, Russia, and Iran. (The report also notes that Turkish TV dramas are highly popular around the region -- though some polling figures suggest that more conservative segments of local populations often regard these shows as a bad influence.) Of the 9,374 foreign students who chose to study in Turkey in 2011, a mere 1,123 (12 percent of the total) were Arabs. This suggests that the talk of Turkish soft power influence might require a bit of qualification.
Despite its structural shortcomings, Turkey has undeniably been working hard to develop its political and economic ties within the broader region. (The photo above shows Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving in Cairo for an official visit on Nov. 17.) Yet Ankara has offered little in the way of concrete measures to promote democracy or safeguard human rights. Generally the Turkish government prefers to stick to the principle of non-intervention and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs. Although this so-called zero problems policy has helped Turkey to establish good relations with the MENA countries, the non-intervention aspect of this policy has somewhat hindered Turkey's open emphasis on democracy promotion. Most notably, the cases of Syria and Libya have exposed the contradiction between Turkey's claim to support democracy and its reluctance to undertake actions that would amount to concrete support for pro-democracy forces within specific countries.