Somewhere in between the international and cultural vibe of Istanbul and the ancient city of Ephesus, I came to the conclusion that Turkey is one of the most fascinating countries I have been to. Medieval, yet modern. European, yet Eastern. Islamic, yet secular. Progressive, yet conservative. I realized that these fascinating sets of contradictions make it one of the oldest and newest places in the world. This sense of awe was heighted by its breathtaking views of the Blue Mosque alongside the Bosphorus, delicious plates of kebab and humus, over-the-top hospitality and rich Biblical and Ottoman Empire history. However, as an entrepreneur and investor, I couldn’t help but take note that this European and Middle Eastern hybrid was not only on the rise economically, but that it has emerged to become a strong regional power and an important actor on the world stage.
Turkey took dramatic steps to chart their own path in the world. This transformation was led by the war hero, General Atatürk (which literally means “Father of the Turks”), after he took power in 1923 and forced Turkey to turn away from its past and embrace European culture in order to “catch up” to the West. He created a secular republic, traded the Arabic alphabet for Latin letters and banned the veil in order to make the country more European. However, 20 years ago, Turkey remained a typical developing country with a weak democracy controlled by the military, high debt levels and inflation, a poor economy with low growth and a weak private sector.
That is no longer Turkey today. In 2002, Turkish voters rejected both the leading secular parties and Islamic parties, choosing one that both supported a moderate version of Islam and worked closely with the West. Its economy has surpassed the trillion dollar mark and it has developed a stable democracy and robust private sector. Since then, per capita annual incomes rose threefold, from $3,500 to $10,500. After ongoing battles to try and become a member of the European Union, Turkey’s non-acceptance now appears to be a sign of good fortune. Its economy has grown much faster than the rest of Europe and without the burden of having to support bankrupt states. Turkey no longer sees European integration as a necessity to compete in the global economy as it is able to look towards the Middle East, Central Asia and East Asia – in addition to Europe – in order to take advantage of its natural geographical and cultural advantages.
Turkey is a prime example of the rising powers described by Fareed Zakaria: “We still think of a world in which a rising power must choose between two stark options: integrate into the Western order, or reject it, becoming a rogue nation and facing the penalties of excommunication. In fact, rising powers appear to be following a third way: entering the Western order but doing so on their own terms – thus reshaping the system itself.”
The Turks have had a long history of leading the Islamic world. This will likely hold true in the future as Turkey’s economy and military have become the most powerful in the region and it continues to gain influence with its neighbors and the world. This new role will likely provide a stable and positive platform for the region, particularly in the midst of the instability throughout Syria, Egypt and Iran. Turkey is a rising global power that has shaped its own policies to meet its needs, and by the looks of it from my recent visit, it appears to be working and its citizens are pleased. But then again, if a country gets its economy right, most of the other issues simply fall into place or get ignored.