The Economist explores Turkey's new strategy of "reversing antagonism" with its Arab neighbors and puts it into the context of regional power vacuum.
IT IS a thousand years since the Turks arrived in the Middle East, migrating from Central Asia to Anatolia. For half of that millennium they ruled much of the region. But when the Ottoman Empire fizzled out and the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, they all but sealed themselves off from their former dominions, turning instead to Europe and tightly embracing America in its cold war with the Soviet Union.
The Turks are now back in the Middle East, in the benign guise of traders and diplomats. The move is natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed, Turkey's Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.
In the past seven years the value of Turkey's exports to the Middle East and north Africa has swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. From cars to tableware, dried figs to television serials, Turkish products, unknown a decade ago, are now ubiquitous in markets from Algiers to Tehran. Already a vital conduit for sending energy from east to west, Turkey is set to grow in importance as more pipelines come on stream. The most notable is Nabucco, a proposed €7.9 billion ($11.7 billion) scheme to carry gas across Turkey from Azerbaijan and possibly Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. A single Turkish construction firm, TAV, has just finished an airport terminal for Egypt's capital, Cairo, and is building others in Libya, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Turks have scooped up hundreds of infrastructure contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan, and invested in shopping malls, hotels and even schools.
These achievements are partly due to an energetic pursuit of trading privileges, such as Turkey's free-trade pacts with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It is seeking a similar deal with the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, teams of Turkish ministers travelled to Baghdad and Damascus to sign a package of 48 co-operation deals with Iraq and 40 with Syria. Covering everything from tourism to counter-terrorism and joint military exercises, the deals could end decades of tension between Turkey and its former Ottoman provinces.