One of the most important developments in the Middle East during the past decade was the remarkable expansion of Turkey’s relations with its neighbors. After ignoring the region for decades while trying to integrate into the European Union, Turkey devoted the past 10 years to improving its ties with Iran and Arab countries, while taking the lead in the mediation of several regional conflicts. This was a visible break from the past, when Turkey played a more or less subordinate and supportive role to U.S. and European policies in the region. In recent years, Turkey has asserted its own independent Middle East policy, one that has been at odds with Europe, the United States and Israel on several issues.
Turkey’s diplomatic and economic re-engagement with the Middle East during the past decade coincided with a period of strong economic growth and stability at home, one unprecedented in the country’s modern history. Turkey owes both of these achievements to the policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed since 2002. Much to the surprise of its critics, the AKP adopted conservative pro-business economic policies that promoted economic growth. At the same time, the party’s Islamic orientation provided a cultural incentive to pursue closer diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey’s Muslim neighbors.
Indeed, Turkey’s domestic economic growth and improved relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors were closely interconnected. Growing trade with the Middle East has contributed to Turkey’s economic success story, best demonstrated by the fact that while the EU’s share of Turkey’s exports diminished from 56 percent in 2002 to 45 percent in 2010, the share of Middle Eastern countries rose from 10 percent to 20 percent during the same period. Furthermore, exports to the Middle East and Central Asia remained stable during the 2008-2010 global downturn, when exports to Europe declined.