Traditionally much at odds with the Arab world, the hope for many here is that as Turkey moves closer to Europe, it will bring its Arab neighbours closer too.
“Because of the whole discussion about membership, Turkey has become something of a centre of attraction for Arabs,” Nilufer Narli, dean of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, says.
The prospect of Turkey joining the EU has certainly acted as a magnet for finances, with many Gulf-based banks moving up their Turkish operations in recent years.
“Of course, the prospect of future membership will act as a strong boost for foreign investment in the country,” Istanbul broker Tolga Ilhanoglu said.
“We’ve seen banks from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain thinking recently of Turkey as a kind of stepping stone to Europe – since it became clear Turkey’s EU bid was serious. There’s also a sense that Turkey’s economy will benefit, so it’s a good investment.”
Yet the process of accession talks – which may take up to a decade – is not only being seen from an economic viewpoint.
The US in particular strongly backs Turkey’s EU bid because it sees Turkey, a pro-Western Muslim country, as setting a “good example” to the Arab world.
Turkey’s rule of law and freedom
“I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” US President George Bush told Turkish leaders back in June at the Nato summit in Istanbul.
“I believe you ought to be given a date by the EU for your eventual acceptance into the EU.”
Turkey becoming locked into the EU membership process will oblige it to continue with many internal reforms in its political, legal and economic systems. This reform process, some feel, has made the country a source of inspiration in many Arab lands.
“Many Arab intellectuals support Turkey’s EU bid because Turkey is an example of a moderate political Islam,” Narli said. “It has moved towards reconciling an Islamic tradition with EU democratic norms.”
The EU accession process will also require it to normalise its relations with all its neighbours, including Syria, Iraq and Iran.
As Turkey moves closer to EU, it
“Regarding Syria,” says Ankara-based strategic analyst Yusuf Alpakan, “relations have been improving for some time anyway. Since the old days, when Damascus was sheltering Kurdish militants on the run from Turkey, Syria has become a lot closer.”
This has recently meant the opening of better trade links and many diplomatic exchanges. This process looks set to intensify if Turkey gets its feet firmly on the EU membership road.
“Turkey has long had a role in the region that many of the Arab world have seen with suspicion,” Alpakan said.
“Its relationship with Israel was quite close in the 1990s, and with the US. But both have cooled down since the current government came to power.”
Cool towards US
The Justice and Development Party government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan voted against letting US troops use Turkey as a base to invade Iraq last year.
“One can’t really compare and think the ‘Turkish model’ will fit all. The country has been trying to Europeanise for two centuries, and has such proximity to Europe. It’s quite a unique place”
They have also distanced themselves from Israel, dragging their feet on a number of economic projects agreed by previous administrations, while condemning Israeli actions against the Palestinians.
This coolness may be reinforced as the country moves closer into the European orbit.
“Turkey has also received quite a lot of support from the Arab and Muslim world for its EU bid,” according to Kadir Has University professor Narli. “The Muslim Council, for example, said that if the EU discriminated against Turkey, it would also be discriminating against the Muslim world.”
Yet others view the accession process as much less than the reconciliation of clashing civilisations others hope for.
The military acts as the guardian
“Turkey has quite a different history and tradition to the rest of the Arab or Muslim world,” says Alpakan.
“One can’t really compare and think the ‘Turkish model’ will fit all.
He added: “The country has been trying to Europeanise for two centuries, and has such proximity to Europe. It’s quite a unique place.”
With the vote of the European Parliament on December 15 backing Turkey starting EU accession talks, hopes are higher than ever in the country that EU heads of state (who have the final say) will give a green light to the country on Friday. There may be much riding on their decision – not just for Turkey and Europe, but for the Arab world as well.
As for what happens if the EU rejects Turkey, Alpakan says, “Well, that seems unlikely. But it would be a major setback for almost everything – from democratisation in Turkey to peace in the region.”