Why would a person whose job is to improve relations with the Arab media and promote Britain’s position vis-à-vis the developments in the region travel to Turkey and want to meet with a Turkish journalist?
In this meeting three years ago, I asked this British diplomat why he had traveled to Turkey and wanted to meet with a Turkish journalist. His response was impressive: “Everybody in the Middle East, including businessmen, politicians, journalists and ordinary men, praises Turkey and its impressive rise. I wanted to see this country that amazes everybody in the region and understand how it has improved its image over this short period of time.”
This was something that anybody in the region would notice. Turkish soap operas were aired by several TV stations in all countries in the region; a growing number of tourists from Arab countries were visiting Turkey; intellectuals, businessmen and civil society organizations were getting to know each other; President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, were welcomed everywhere they visited and many people, from Morocco to Iran, were viewing Turkey as a model country. This growing interest in Turkey by the governing elites and the ordinary people in these countries was further evidenced and verified in all domestic and international surveys.
The Arab Spring, which has dramatically changed the usual clichés and models of relationships in the region, initially supported this constructive view on Turkey. Many leaders who emerged during this process declared that they were taking Turkey as an example. Turkey took sides with the people in Tunisia and Egypt; this policy paid off. Turkey has contributed to the resolution of the crisis in Libya as well.
However, the Syrian part of the Arab Spring has not only destroyed our relations with this country but has also negatively affected how Turkey is perceived in the Middle East. The most recent public survey in the series which the Turkish Economic and Social Research Foundation (TESEV) conducts every year on perceptions of Turkey in the Middle East shows that the positive image of Turkey is declining for the first time.
According to the survey conducted in 16 Middle Eastern countries in August, the regional average of those who held positive views on Turkey was 78 percent in 2011, but this declined to 69 percent in 2012. With the exception of a 1 percent increase in the Gulf countries, the positive perception of Turkey is in decline in all of the countries surveyed. The percentage of those who had positive views of Turkey fell from 86 percent to 84 percent in Egypt, from 78 percent to 63 percent in Lebanon, from 89 to 77 in Palestine, from 44 to 28 in Syria, from 71 to 59 in Iran, from 74 to 55 in Iraq and from 91 to 80 in Tunisia.
With the exception of Syria and Iraq, most of the people in the countries in the region still view Turkey as a friend. Turkey is also seen as a country that contributes positively to the process of change in the region. This is of course important. However, only 52 percent of the participants found Turkey’s policy on the Syrian crisis to be correct; 36 percent viewed this policy as wrong. The number of those who felt that Turkey’s influence is rising in the region declined from 70 percent to 61 percent, whereas those who believed that Turkey could serve as a model for the Middle East declined from 61 to 53 percent, the survey found.
What is more difficult than getting to the top is staying there? The current situation suggests that we are at a critical point in terms of preserving the positive image of Turkey. The improved image of Turkey in the region affects every aspect of life, including the economic boost from a large number of Arab tourists visiting Turkey, but it is also true that the decline of this image also affects not only the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) administration but also the entire population of Turkey. Therefore, it is essential to recognize this problem where a number of factors, including Turkey’s Syrian policy and its alienation in the region and the quality of its communication with the Arab world, have been influential and take the necessary measures accordingly. I will discuss this in my next column.