The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East: Soap Opera Diplomacy?

Given the Ottoman Empire’s history in the Middle East, Turkey’s secularism upon the founding of the republic has left many with a less than favorable perception of the country among Arab states. However, the tide seems to be changing. Anyone who has lived in the Middle East or at least visited an Arab household has witnessed the predominance of a soap opera culture that engrosses men, women, and children alike. One of the most popular soap operas in the Middle East currently is in fact a Turkish series entitled Gumus (or Noor in Arabic), and it’s safe to say that it has helped “conquer hearts and minds in the Arab world.”

It’s not just the striking good looks of the lead characters that appeals to the Arab viewers; the series also tackles contentious norms that a male-dominated region would otherwise sweep under the rug. The show’s courage in taking on these issues has struck a chord with audiences beyond Turkey, providing a fine touch of cultural diplomacy to complement the Turkish government’s broader initiatives.

The German Marshall Fund held a roundtable discussion April 21 on a recent survey released by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV, a former CIPE partner) that measured the perception of Turkey among seven Arab nations: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. Indeed, this “newfound positive image” is also demonstrative of Turkey’s shift in its foreign policy priorities since the 1990s and its ongoing efforts to be an influential player in the region (as seen in the globe-trotting Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s numerous trips to the region). Turkey’s growing role as a mediator in the region and Prime Minister’s Erdogan’s heated exchange with Israeli president Shimon Peres at Davos in support of Palestinians following the 2008 Gaza war have slowly led to a warming of opinion for the nation of 72 million.

The study noted, however, that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not the “most urgent issue” facing the countries; in all countries surveyed (except Palestine), it ranked second to the economy. Surprisingly, when asked if Turkey could be a “model” for the rest of the Arab world, 61 percent of the participants answered affirmatively, despite Turkey’s secular political structure. Similarly, 63 percent of participants found Turkey to be a “successful combination of Islam and democracy.”

Conspicuously missing from the list of Middle Eastern countries surveyed, however, was one of the most important actors in the region’s politics: Iran. The BBC recently reported that Turkey would extend its role as a regional mediator over Iran’s nuclear program negotiations. Naturally, this was raised in the roundtable discussion and the team of researchers noted that it was excluded due to funding constraints but will be in the forthcoming survey to be released in 2011.

Public opinion has been known to sway policy makers but one can’t help but wonder if the results would be the same had the survey been conducted in person than over the telephone, especially given that most of the participants reside under an undemocratic or authoritarian regime privy to any “unwelcome” voice. It remains to be seen whether Turkish leaders and policymakers will use the results of this survey to direct further energy on the region, in essence capitalizing on the success of their efforts, or focus more on other regions of the world where Turkey’s perception may not be as positive such as in Western Europe.