Richard Melson

September 2006

MERIA: Turkey

the GLORIA Center,
Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya

MERIA Journal V.10, N.3 (September 2006)

Panel Discussion*

On June 29, 2006, the U.S. Department of State's International Information Programs in Washington D.C., the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center jointly held an international videoconference seminar focusing on the state of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, especially Turkey-Israel and U.S.-Turkey relations.

Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article. This seminar is part of the GLORIA Center's Experts Forum series.

Zeyno Baran: What is the goal of the AKP government? Is it Islamic, is it conservative, or is it Islamist? I would answer that by saying, compared to what? Compared to other Islamist organizations in the Middle East, and also compared to Erbakan and his party, the AKP is much more traditional center-right. Yet I think that by now we do see that it does have a political Islamist agenda. Even conservative Islamic circles in Turkey are critical of the AKP in that they think it doesn't necessarily have a conservative or an Islamic agenda.

The record is mixed. We have seen how the municipalities and bureaucracy have been manned by like-minded people. We have heard of booklets being distributed in municipalities that are closer to the Salafi ideology than the traditional Turkish-Islamic way of addressing issues such as the treatment of women, and the kind of anti-Semitism and the anti-Americanism that has become prevalent in Turkey. And we do see increased segregation between women and men, though the fact that the prime minister's wife is constantly with him is very interesting. We have never had that kind of visibility of any prime minister's wife in Turkey before. And yes, she wears a headscarf, and maybe this is a statement, but this situation is starting even to concern people who are traditional conservatives.

Now, what is the end goal? I think it is closer to the Malaysian model, which the AKP leadership thinks is modern yet Islamic, and not the Middle Eastern model. They are also following a Russian model, not in matters of religion but regarding having a top-down controlling society and very little criticism. And we have seen Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Putin develop a very close relationship and I think they both like to have a lot of power, very little criticism, and they are very much soul mates in the way they'd like to recreate some sort of a powerful, post-empire, major power status for their country.

The AKP's key concern is to stay in power as long as possible and that means of course, putting more of its own people in the bureaucracy and gradually making the population more comfortable with a more Islamic and Islamist approach. And for that, they have been showing a lot of pragmatism, and members of the AKP leadership have openly talked about it. They say, "On issues like headscarves or education, we push up to a certain point, but when we see resistance from the system, we take a step back because we don't want a confrontation".

From the experience of the Erbakan government, and from Erdogan's own experience, the AKP leadership has learned that a direct confrontation does not get them what they want. So they are pragmatic and also very much focused on economic independence to be able to do what they want to do in the broader region. Ironically, the European Union (EU) membership process and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been the key allies so far in achieving their goal--the EU opens up more of the democratic process, but also weakens the military.

What is the situation with the opposition? I would say it is really pathetic. They have no vision, and no strong leadership. So, because of that, we don't see really a very strong movement coming together. We have seen a shift in the media. They are much more openly critical of the government. Women's organizations are becoming more vocal; and civil society, to a degree, business to a degree, but I think everyone is trying to see if there is going to be some sort of a signal from America. There are a lot of questions as to where the United States stands in regard to the AKP government.

I think before the presidential elections, we are definitely going to see a showdown, and either there will be early elections or the military will step in some form. I think the opposition would use the inevitable crisis over Cyprus with the EU. No government could handle the approaching Cyprus crisis. I think with Cyprus and the economic instability that is starting, or at least concern from the international financial community, the opposition is going to be much more visible.

A final question is whether we will we see more of a military involvement in politics? We have not seen military act more in politics because General Ozkok has been very cautious and is really committed to democracy. He has had a difficult time, keeping in control some of the more hot-headed junior officers. I'm not sure if the next head of the military will be able to restrain the military as much. And because the opposition is so divided and weak, and because Turkish society has historically looked to the military to get rid of unwanted governments, I fear we may see the military become more active in politics. This could of course have a huge impact on Turkey-EU and possibly even Turkey-U.S. relations.

Prof. Barry Rubin: I agree with almost everything Zeyno said, but there are a couple of different emphases which lead to perhaps different conclusions. The first question, how well has the ruling party done, might be summarized as: not great but good enough. The key question here is: Will this government be a long-term hegemonic party for five, ten, and even fifteen years or will this prove to have been a transient period in Turkey's history. I think there are real signs that it may be a long- term ruling party.

It has benefited from two factors. The first is the improving economy. The second involves EU membership. Turkey has moved forward and while no one expects Turkey to become a member soon the government does not have to succeed completely to get credit for the progress.

The third is, as Zeyno indicated, they have advanced their program, but haven't gone too far, too fast. Certainly, they have alienated people, but they have not, I think, gone so far that masses of Turks are saying these people are Islamists who want to transform the country entirely and we must get them out of power by whatever means possible.

We are coming up to some crucial tests: parliamentary and presidential elections, the placing of AKP nominees into judgeships and other positions, and the direction of local governments. I think these are showing signs that this party is a long-term ruling party which is certainly the critical question for Turkish politics and policies.

I think that a long-term continuation of this government is a problem in U.S.-Turkish relations simply because, no matter how good they keep that bilateral relationship, it is going to be fairly disappointing from the point of view of where it is been in the past,

Regarding the opposition, Zeyno is completely right, it has been one of the worst political performances of any country in history. Faced with a total challenge to their interests, faced with being pushed into irrelevance, faced with a program which they don't like, five parties have not been able to appeal to the masses or to work together. It is remarkable. And no matter what happens in the election, the ruling party can always form, if it needs to, a coalition, dividing the opposition.

On the third point, clearly the military has moved up one notch. I don't believe they are on the point of intervening a year from now, precisely because the government has been careful not to push them too far; and even if there were people within the army who would want to intervene, the provocation is not so strong as to make them do so- maybe if they were to push further in three or four years, I don't see it in the short term, and there are a lot of factors militating against it.

One other specific point, I think that the Cyprus issue is going to be manageable by the EU; they are going to do what they need to do to resolve it. I would see the trend as very favorable to the people who are now ruling Turkey and I think they will continue to rule Turkey for some years to come.

Dr. Alon Liel: I would like to start with what is going on between Turkey and Israel. While relations have been damaged slightly in the last four years they remain very strong, including regarding economic relations, tourism, and the solid infrastructure of these links. There are short-lived mini-crises and then it is over.

At times over the years there has been talk of major projects. Now a new one is emerging: the idea of a corridor for gas, oil, and water pipelines. It looked like a dream until recently but now there is hectic diplomatic activity on this project. Russia is also an important player here because they are pushing hard since this would involve Russian gas and Azerbaijan oil. Of course, water is an old dream for such projects and this is all being very widely discussed, almost on a daily basis now.

We also have our on-going crisis on the Kurdish issue. There has been more information on Israeli activities in northern Iraq. I think it is very clear that Israel was massively involved, technically on a private level but with government knowledge. Turkish public opinion doesn't trust Israel on the issue; Israel, on some of the official level, but definitely a public level, is not aware enough on the sensitivities. And when things will deteriorate, if they will deteriorate, this wound can bleed again.

Another issue has developed since the election of Hamas and given the fighting going on after the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hizballah.
While the Turkish government quickly invited Hamas officials to visit, it is possible that Turkey could be a link between Israel and the Palestinians.

Prof. Amikam Nachmani: One interesting point concerning domestic politics is the growing risk of a rift between the ruling echelons and the masses over EU membership. The former are eager to advance Turkey's membership and for them success is the fulfillment of a dream. But if you look at certain trends in public and intellectual opinion, there is less enthusiasm. One author, of Metal Storm, said that whenever he asked his audience, who is in favor of Turkey getting into the EU, nobody raised his hand, in particular among young people.

Regarding foreign policy, Turkey has experienced one of the greatest transitions since the Cold War's end. From 1990 onward, practically all of Turkey's crises disappeared. Communism collapsed; the Soviet Union disintegrated; Iraq disintegrated; the PKK lost, and its leader was in a Turkish prison. In the case of Greece and Turkey's conflict with the Hellenic world, one of the causes of that problem's diminution is that Turkey now has no other crisis to confront apart from the Greek-Turkish one. For Greece's security, that development necessitated second thinking and, eventually, the opting for dialogue with Turkey instead of alienating it. The reason: Traditionally Greece counted on Turkey becoming embroiled in a number of conflicts at a time, something that was supposed to ease pressure of the Turkish-Greek disputes.

Despite these external changes, I think Turkey's foreign policy is very consistent. It has stayed out of wars, despite living in such a wild neighborhood. At this point, it should be added, that embroilment in any Middle Eastern or Central Asian conflict would also be seen as undermining Turkey's EU candidacy: As a country that aspires to become a Western, EU country, Turkey will not spend much energy on the Arab Middle East, neither in Central Asia. It seems senseless and futile to waste your energies on the Arab world while your aim is Brussels. This is a crucial point: If Brussels is your most sought-after haven, then you are not going to burn your fingers in the intermittent Middle Eastern conflicts, nor in Central Asia.

Yasemin Congar: One factor that should be mentioned, and it does affect Turkish-American issues as well, is the rising nationalist and populist sentiment in Turkey. Even AKP leaders complain that they have to be more nationalist than the nationalists to control this trend. The same situation exists in other parties. The public, which is not necessarily very educated and does not necessarily follow world events closely, is receiving everyday from its political leaders some version of the concept that Turkish nationalism is the only way we can defend ourselves against international changes and regional challenges.

Barry Rubin: A lot of it depends upon whether Turkey faces a foreign policy crisis, probably brought about by external forces. Let us consider what direction these might come from. First, it is possible the Cyprus issue will become a bigger crisis mobilizing Turkish nationalism vis-a-vis Europe. I think it is unlikely, but certainly possible. Second, will Russian ambitions grow to the point that it would also create a Turkish nationalist reaction concerning Azerbaijan or other places?

Third, Iran, by its growing influence, by getting nuclear weapons, appear to be posing more of a threat to Turkey, even though the current government wants to play down an potential problem. Fourth, will events in Iraq, having to do with Kurdish nationalism and the status of Iraqi Turcomans, push Turkey and create a crisis. And fifth, might a resurgence in PKK activity create Turkish-Iraqi problems and lead Turkey to examine who is sponsoring this group?

These are five potential crises, all possible but unlikely to lead to a major crisis that is going to involve Turkey in the next two or three years. In other words, Turkey may get through several years without being directly involved in a major international crisis which would mobilize the country and lead to major developments. I would say the last major crisis, of course, was Turkey's policy towards the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. I wouldn't take for granted that there is not going to be an external crisis to mobilize Turkish nationalism, and shift policy but if you look at other countries, you'll find more and bigger potential crises at a higher likelihood than for Turkey. Consequently, there might be a high level of continuity in Turkish policy.

Ambassador Marc Grossman: I do think that the increase in nationalism in Turkey is one of the most dangerous things happening currently in Turkish society. I think there is a fair chance that AKP is a long-term government for Turkey. The question is: do you see them as an ultimately tolerant or ultimately intolerant fixture on the Turkish scene? For example, it is one thing that a woman wearing a headscarf can go to the presidential palace, which is fine, but do you see a time when the AKP party says that only women in headscarves can go to the presidential palace?

Barry Rubin: That is a critical point. In terms of their domestic policies, clearly there are factions in the party; clearly there are people who want to go much faster and that would lead to a crisis. The current leadership is smart; they know they can't go too far. They sometimes miscalculate. So they continue to try to push the boundaries, but know there would be limits. So I don't think it would be a question of saying, 'No woman who isn't wearing a headscarf can come into the presidential palace or meeting.' And of course at this point the AKP does not even control the presidency. But their approach is more along the lines of: let us do things to encourage this cultural shift, so that more women will want to wear headscarves.

In the foreseeable future they are not going to go to a position of mandating Islamist behavior, but they are going to fight the culture war and try to encourage people to adapt it so it becomes more and more normal and the seculars are pushed to the boundary. The current leadership understands very well that it has a long-term project of 50 years to make Turkey an Islamic society, but they know that they can only go so far, so fast. And I don't think the more radical factions will take over the party. If they did, then either a) they would lose the election massively or b) the army would intervene. So Turkey has insurance against going too far too fast, but the longer term kind of project I think is under way.

Alon Liel: The AKP whose picture we see is a party supported by many nationalists in the last election, and I don't think it would be difficult for the AKP to position itself as a more nationalistic party. It is a kind of modular ideology; an ideology that is a work in progress, and I think for some leadership like Erdogan and Gul to turn and lead their parties to a more nationalistic direction would be almost natural. I think there is no conflict between the Islamic element and the nationalist element. It is not a kind of a party that is locked into an anti-nationalist corner. It is a party that can easily adjust its ideology close to the next election and to its needs.

Barry Rubin: The question would be though, what is the operational effect of a very strong nationalistic feeling in Turkey. I suggest three things. Number one, an attitude of anger that the EU isn't treating Turkey well enough, including regarding the Cyprus question. But I don't think this means the government would tear up its membership application. Number two, a desire to help Turkmen in Iraq or hit the PKK harder there. Again, I don't think that is going to lead Turkey into a war. And three--the easiest one because it is largely rhetorical--increased criticism of the United States, which in a sense is a relatively no-cost thing for Turkey. So what does it actually mean in terms of Turkish government behavior? Nationalist fervor is there but I am not sure whether in practice it is going to mean any major difference in how the country behaves in terms of foreign policy.

Amikam Nachmani: In Turkey's history, I think there were three topics that probably raised more nationalistic behavior than anything else: the conflict with Greece, the Kurds, and the Armenians. Today, of these, only the Kurdish issue could provoke such a reaction. The current government or any regime in Turkey could manage a crisis in a prudent way to avoid an eruption of nationalistic feelings that would exceed the normal level.

Marc Grossman: I would like to make a couple of points about the state of U.S.-Turkish relations. To begin, I can remember very clearly, sitting in Turkey in 1989 and 1990 and having Turk after Turk coming to visit us and saying "My goodness, the importance of Turkey is over. We're finished, no more Russia, no more NATO, and no more crises." And I can remember U.S. officials saying to the Turks, "Not so fast. It is possible that the way this may all play out you will become a more rather than less important country."

In Turkey's relations with its neighbors there are two important points to be considered. One is that there are issues in all of those areas that cause rational anxiety to Turks; and, secondly, Turkey is a great country that lacks a certain self-confidence. As a result, instead of looking at the world by saying, "Positive, positive, positive, positive," Turks tend to look at the world from a more pessimistic point of view and they see anxieties and challenges all around them. I think that applies absolutely to their relationship with the United States. The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report entitled, "How do you regenerate momentum in the US-Turkish relationship," and I think it is the right title for a couple of reasons. One, is it implies that there isn't much momentum at the moment; and secondly, that it is important that this momentum be regenerated.

I don't think that there is a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. What I think is that you have to keep putting things in the bank of U.S.-Turkish relations, so that when there is a crisis, you can draw down on some of that capital. And I think at the moment, in U.S.-Turkish relations, there isn't enough of that capital in the bank. There aren't enough things going on, so that small-ish things or even large-ish things loom large enough for people to talk about a crisis. If you look over the timeline since March 2003, you can see how this goes up and down. No question that the vote in March 2003 on not allowing U.S. troops to transit Turkey for the Iraq operation was a disappointment in the United States.

I think Turks have had a harder time getting over that vote than most Americans have. The prime minister said he would take this issue to parliament and he did. We always wanted more democracy in Turkey; we got more democracy in Turkey. I think most Americans believe that it didn't come out the way that we wanted but now it is time to move on to other issues. Turks are still focused on that event. No question that U.S.-Turkish relations took a serious dip after March 2003.

But when the prime minister visited the United States in June 2005 this laid the basis for a new U.S.-Turkish relationship. After that, things built up slowly. At that time, the prime minister's responsibility was really quite simple, which is to speak out in favor, in his own voice, of the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

I think what no one could foresee was the impact of an anti-American book and film and the impact of the invitation to Hamas to visit Turkey, which really struck people in the United States quite hard. It is interesting to note that Khaled Meshal of Hamas lives in Damascus, and there are those of us who remember that this is where Abdallah Ocalan lived. And I think people in Turkey who made these decisions didn't realize the impact it was going to have on the United States. Similarly, I think for strategic and for nationalistic reasons and for policy reasons as well, Turks have continued--and I believe very rightly--to wonder why the United States does not do more against the PKK in northern Iraq.

I think more is being done but there is no question that more can be done. So you have, it seems to me, a series of these issues, between the United States and Turkey, which have taken the momentum out of the relationship.

Of the things that will be on the agenda to regenerate momentum, first and foremost is Iraq. There has to be a conversation between the United States and Turkey about Iraq because no matter how Turks felt on March 1, 2003 they will a) be the biggest beneficiaries of a successful Iraq and b) Turks and Americans and everybody has to get Iraq absolutely right. And here I think there has to be a conversation certainly about Kirkuk, and I wouldn't even know how to begin to participate in such a conversation, but clearly, Kirkuk is going to be a symbol for getting Iraq right, for nationalism, for Kurdish aspirations, and that is something I think Americans and Turks need to have on the agenda.

Second is Iran, and that I think could be a positive or negative in U.S.-Turkish relations. I believe it could be a positive, because surely Turkey, in its strategic vision, doesn't want to have an Iran with nuclear weapons. I was kidding with Turkish friends a couple of weeks ago in Istanbul that anti-Americanism in Turkey will stay at a high level until the day after Iran sets off a nuclear weapon and then NATO gets more interesting and the relationship with the Untied States gets more interesting. But we need to talk about those things now, so that Turkey is clearly on the side of those nations working to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. If we don't do these things, I think the issue with Iran could be a real negative because of the energy relationship and neighboring status of Iran and Turkey.

For the United States, it seems to me two things going forward are important. First, that we continue to speak out for the success of a secular Turkey, and a democratic Turkey, and that we don't sort of drift into the easy way of talking about Turkey as an Islamic state, and sometimes you can hear that in the United States. I think for mostly Americans, it is just not a distinction they make, and it is a misuse of words. But I think for the American government and for Americans who talk about Turkey, it is important to talk about a secular, democratic, and Muslim society, and not an Islamist or Islamic society.

It is also important that the United States not consider that its responsibilities regarding Turkish candidacy for the European Union has ended. I think it is perfectly natural that Turks would be tired of being told what to do and how to do it. I do think it is important that the United States continue to press Europeans regarding this huge strategic decision to make Turkey a member and to keep Turks focused on what it needs to do as well.

Regarding Cyprus, maybe what we need over the next few years is a little less United Nations and a little more European Union. Maybe that is a way to generate some momentum on Cyprus, given the fact that an overwhelming majority of Greek-Cypriots voted against the Kofi Annan plan. Another is that I think this point about the army and civil-military relations in Turkey is really important. Among the greatest beneficiaries of a collapse in Turkey's aspirations to become an EU member would be those non-democratic forces in the military which I think have had to adjust themselves over the past few years to the project of European Union.

The same might apply to the undemocratic parts of Turkish society were this project to fail or be put on the backburner. I think that would be too bad for Turks and for the United States. So I think there is momentum to be generated by paying attention, and dealing in Ankara with the importance of the United States and Turkey, and in the United States recognizing that we have some work to do as well.

Yasemin Congar: I would like to look at the U.S.-Turkish relations from the domestic Turkish angle. I think that the problems we have been encountering in recent years in U.S.-Turkish relations are deeper rooted than AKP's own prejudices and even perhaps its agenda. I view these problems as a consequence of the change in the world and in the region, and I trace some of these directly to Turkey's own insecurities.

The Cold War and the pre-September 11 era in the region provided some sort of comfort for Turkey in that the situation was clearly defined. Afterwards, a vacuum emerged. This is less true today, but I think Turkey is still having a very difficult time in adapting itself to new definitions, and this is because of the basic lack of self-confidence of the Turkish society.

In this new era, Turkey is not only important for where it is, but also for who it is. Turkey is now important also for its Muslim identity: secular, democratic, modern, investment-oriented, but yet 99 percent Muslim. However, the fear of political Islam has always been a major factor in these discussions, and that is why the United States initially wanted to emphasize Turkey's identity as a "moderate Islamic" country, perhaps even a "model" for others. Now we all know that there is almost an allergic reaction to these definitions, because Turkey is not secure enough about its own Muslim identity.

In terms of identity and nationalism, the Kurdish issue is also a key factor. It has come to the forefront of the discussion especially after the Iraq war began, given the possibility of a Kurdish state in the region or a very loose federation where Kurds have more rights, freedoms, and much more say in the country's politics than they do in Turkey. This also is reflected on Turkey's view of its relations with the United States.

Many people in Turkey today, including some political leaders, many people in the media, policymakers, and other shapers of society believe that the United States has been using these issues--political Islam and Kurdish nationalism--to control and influence the domestic situation in Turkey. I don't agree with that, but that is the sentiment, and as long as you have that sentiment, that lack of self-confidence in Turkey, there will always be a problem in bilateral relations.

There is this belief in Turkey that the United States exerts much influence on domestic politics. There are people who believe that a politician who does not have U.S. support cannot become prime minister or president. There are people who believe that the United States is even influential on election results. This is naive, this is absurd, this is bizarre, but the belief is there.

So when it comes to domestic politics, you see many Turkish political actors are indeed try to conduct politics via Washington. That is why a meeting with the U.S. president at the White House is taken for its domestic political value more than its foreign policy value, more than its real importance in bilateral relations. That is also why you will see people coming to Washington from Turkey and asking that the U.S. government not give an appointment to the Turkish prime minister at this juncture.

It is a country where almost everyone in politics accuses each other of being pro-American, but then the minute someone wants to damage the image or the cause of a politician, he will say, "Oh, the United States is not supporting him anymore. The bridges to Washington are broken." As long as this situation exists, politicians will not be truly comfortable in conducting bilateral relations with the United States on their own merit.

What is worse, Turkey has, to a certain extent, become an anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Semitic country. Just look at the results of recent international surveys. Only 17 percent of Turks said they had a favorable opinion of Americans. Mind you, not the United States--the popularity of which is down to 12 percent, or President Bush who is down to three percent--but simply, Americans. As for Jews, their popularity is a mere 15 percent. For Christians, it is 16 percent. For Westerners it is also very low. There is a great deal of prejudice towards Westerners among Turks. If you look at the same surveys, Turks see the so-called Westerners as arrogant, selfish, and so on.

So you have such a public. This is a problem for Washington. This could be a problem for Jerusalem, but it is also a problem for Ankara. We have the lack of political leadership. There are politicians in Turkey, even within the AKP government, who truly believe the relations with the United States are important; who truly agree with the United States vis-a-vis Iraq now, or at least, who are willing to cooperate with the United States to keep Iraq together, in order to have a stable, modernizing, strong Iraq that will be a friend to Turkey. Turkey also certainly recognizes the danger of an Iran with nuclear weapons and has been cooperating quite actively with the United States and the EU on this matter.

But Turkish politicians do not take the time to go to the Turkish public and talk about these issues in depth--why the United States is important, why there should be cooperation against Iran with the United States and the rest of the world, why we really need the EU, what EU membership means for Turkey.

Thus, while it is important that the United States and Turkey have a joint vision, it will be a good idea to put this joint vision on paper only if Turkish politicians are willing to talk about it at length and in depth and defend it before the Turkish public.

Barry Rubin: The central theme regarding U.S.-Turkish relations is very important and clear: for 50 years, Turkey and the United States were two countries that had a close and strategic partnership. Now they are merely two countries that have good relations. And that is a big change.

We can talk about how you keep good relations or how to try and make them better. Yet this gigantic shift must be at the center of any discussion on this issue. What might change the relationship back closer to what it was in the past? The answer is: something that makes Turkey appreciate the United States more.

One such trend would be Turkey's disappointment with Europe and the prospects of EU membership. It has often been said that such a development would turn it in a more Islamic and Middle Eastern direction. I think it would turn Turkish leaders back to the importance of the relationship with the United States.

Another such trend would be a perceived threat from Russia or from Iran. I was the only non-EU speaker at a conference in Istanbul where people went on at great length about how great is the EU. I said, "We should remember that Europe shamefully betrayed its historic commitments to defend Turkey before the Iraq War, openly stating that if Turkey was attacked, they wouldn't help it." That was a shocking development. The question is: who is Turkey going to call if it faces a threat?

An EU official responded, "It is true we've never really been that concerned with defensive issues. We always left it to America." I suggested that it was very important to consider that statement's implication. As an illustration of Turkish nationalism, one person in the audience responded that the Turkish army didn't need anyone else's help to defend Turkey. Nevertheless, it is clear that on some very important contingencies there is no substitute for the relationship with the United States.

I agree that the situation is not just due to the AKP. But a very big and real shift has happened. What might shift it back is if Turkey feels that it needs the United States, which it does not feel today. There will come a day when American forces are out of Iraq. There will come a day when there is another president of the United States and any personal considerations no longer apply. But if Turkey feels it needs the US, because Europe isn't performing, or Europe doesn't want them, or there is another external threat, that relationship could build back to one of reliance. Short of that, I don't see any prospect for a major positive shift. Good relations are a good thing, but the United States has good relations with a lot of countries, it doesn't have strategic partnerships with that many.

Marc Grossman: In addition to the very good points that Professor Rubin made, about why there might be a return to strategic relationships with Turkey, we should add the energy factor. If you consider the kind of energy sources around Turkey, through Turkey, the possibilities of the Russians misusing their energy power, I think that is a place for dialogue as well. I hope that will be something that Turks and Americans can talk about.

Another aspect, and I will give percentages only to illustrate the point rather than as an exact measurement, is that today the U.S.-Turkish relationship is about 75 percent official and 25 percent private. I'd be happy if in five years you could reverse those numbers so that when something between the governments happens that the two governments didn't like, you still had a foundation of a relationship.

Zeyno Baran: I agree with what has been said on Turkish insecurity. This sentiment brings Turks and Russians very close together because both talk about when they used to have much more control over their backyard, when things used to be much better. I think there is a sense, perhaps mixed partly with nationalism, that when Turks were much more powerful or independent in their foreign policy, they did things much better. There is a sense that the EU and the United States are not really conducting effective foreign policy in the Middle East or the Black Sea region or Central Asia.

As for energy, I think that the United States has lost an important window of opportunity. Putin has been very aggressively locking in gas markets and infrastructure. Turkey is surrounded with Russian-dominated oil and gas pipeline networks. While Turkey is still officially supportive of the East-West corridor, it has taken steps that are going to weaken the corridor's viability, especially in terms of gas.

Yasemin Congar: I want to go back very briefly to an issue raised by Professor Rubin at the beginning, about AKP's possibly becoming a long-term hegemonic party in Turkish politics. The possibility is of course there, but I think that will only become true if AKP manages to hold on to the center of Turkish politics. When they came to power, they were supported by many moderates. They gained the center's backing because of their priority on EU membership. They were widely supported, because the Turkish public and Turkish businessmen were fed up with the corrupt politicians. They were also supported by the majority of the media.

The tides are changing. The majority of the Turkish media is not behind the government anymore. Turkish businessmen are also complaining, though they do not necessarily aim to bring down the government or see any reliable alternative. But I think this public pressure is very constructive, because it is aiming to bring AKP back to the center. If AKP redefines itself once more as a centrist conservative party, if the fear about a "hidden agenda" can be eased by AKP's own statements and actions, and perhaps if they can let go of the presidency and show the rest of the country that they do not seek to monopolize power, then I think they will have a long life in Turkish politics. If they go on to consolidate power, if they remain as keen on gaining the presidency for themselves as they are, I think they might be short-lived as the ruling party.


Zeyno Baran is Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy and Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. Headquarters, since April 2006. From January 2003 until joining Hudson, Baran directed the International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center. From 1999 until December 2002, Baran worked as Director of the Caucasus Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). For more than a decade, she has written extensively on Caspian oil and gas pipeline projects and frequently travels to the region. In recognition of her prominent contribution to the development of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline projects, she was awarded with the Order of Honor by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in May 2003. Baran was a C.V. Starr Distinguished Visitor at the American Academy in Berlin in January 2006. Baran received her M.A. in international economic development and her B.A. in political science from Stanford University.

Yasemin Congar has been a weekly columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet since January 1995. Ms. Congar is also the Washington Bureau Chief of the television news network CNN Turk and the anchor of its new political talk show, "Burasi Washington" (Washington Calling). Before coming to Washington, Ms. Congar worked as Vice President and Director of Political Research at the Strateji-Mori Research Group in Istanbul (1993-94), radio producer for the BBC World Service in London (1993), diplomatic correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet in Ankara (1989-92), and diplomatic correspondent and economic analyst for ANKA News Agency in Ankara (1984-89). Ms. Congar has a B.A. in Economics from Ankara University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University.

Ambassador Marc Grossman was the U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs from 2001 to 2005. Grossman has been a career Foreign Service Officer since 1976. He was Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources, from June 2000 to February 2001, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, from August 1997 to May 2000. From November 1994 to June 1997, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Prior to this, from January 1993 to September 1994, he was Special Assistant to the Secretary of State and Executive Secretary of the Department of State. Before assuming these duties, Grossman served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs. Grossman earned a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an MSc. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Upon retirement from government in 2005, he joined the Cohen Group, a global strategic consulting firm.

Dr. Alon Liel is a retired diplomat, and is outgoing Chairman of Israel-Turkey Business Council, Chairman of Global Code LTD, and a member of the board Gazit Inc. Dr Liel is a Lecturer in International Relations and Diplomacy at The Lauder School of Government IDC, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv University. He served the Israeli government in a variety of positions: Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2000-2001); Director General of the Ministry of Economy and Planning (1994-96); Ambassador to South Africa and non-resident Ambassador of Israel to Mozambique and Zimbabwe (1992-94); Consul General of Israel to the South Eastern United States Based in Atlanta, Georgia (1990-92); Spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1988-89); and many other positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1971-88). He has published several books on Turkey and South Africa. Dr. Liel holds a PhD in International Relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Prof. Amikam Nachmani is a Senior Research Associate of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He specializes in strategic affairs of Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus, and is an authority on the politics of water in the Middle East. He completed his M.A. in International Relations, Cum Laude, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford. He has written numerous books and articles in professional journals, and speaks frequently at Israeli and international conferences. His latest English book is Turkey: Facing a New Millennium Coping with Intertwined Conflicts (Manchester University Press, 2003).

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research for International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs MERIA Journal and of Turkish Studies Journal. His books include Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, The Tragedy of the Middle East, and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East. Among his 23 edited or co-edited books are A Timeline Encyclopedia of Terrorism; Political Parties in Turkey; and the Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. He has been a Fulbright and a Council on Foreign Relations/National Endowment for the Humanities International Affairs Fellow; a U.S. Institute of Peace, Harry Guggenheim Foundation, and Leonard Davis Center grantee; a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute (where he directed the program on terrorism funded by the Ford and the Bradley Foundations), and Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Cameron Brown, Keren Ribo, Yeru Aharoni
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.


*Serving Readers Throughout the Middle East and in 100 Countries*

MERIA Journal.

MERIA Journal

MERIA Journal V.10, N.3 (September 2006)

Panel: Turkey: Now and in the Future

Fri, 8 Sep 2006



MERIA Journal V.10, N.3 (September 2006)

Timothy N. Walters, Alma Kadragic & Lynne M. Walters*

The United Arab Emirates has combined government policy and the brute force of petrodollars to alter its economic landscape. Guided by the single-minded vision of the nation's leaders, the UAE has been transformed from seven small, impoverished desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living, an advanced educational system, and a cutting-edge infrastructure. This paper looks at the vision behind this economy, the symbols that it has created, the business model employed, and the social structure on which it is built and considers whether the UAE has a chance for sustainable development.


As the 2002 Arab Human Development Report suggested, the Arabian Peninsula is full of contradictions. On this peninsula, it is the best of times; it is the worst of times; it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness; it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair. It is also a time in which the news coming from the region is written in superlatives. Yet buried beneath the hyperbole is the grim reality--many of these countries face a daunting and uncertain future. Those who do not plan ahead, modernize their economies, reduce subsidies to their citizens, and get their ecological house in order will find the not-so-distant future especially bleak.[1]

Some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are victims of misspent windfalls and bad public policy. Other nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, appear to have made progress. During the lifetimes of the benevolent, but aging, leaders, the UAE has been transformed from seven small impoverished desert principalities to a modern state.

To his credit, much of this is due to the simple, clear national priorities set by late President His Highness Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who led the country from its formation in 1971 until his death in November 2004. Under his tutelage, the UAE developed a diversified economy with one of the world's highest mean standards of living. Many of its petrodollars have been used to build infrastructure and to broaden the country's economy.

From the early days, he had a clear sense of what should be done. "The first fundamental change, and the most important," Shaykh Zayed has been quoted as remembering was:

...the availability of drinking water. The bringing of water was ...important. After [water came] everything started changing. Housing became available when there was none before, then infrastructure and everything else. Our policy was first to concentrate all our efforts to develop this country and to develop its citizens.[2]

From those early days when fundamental choices were made, the United Arab Emirates has been transformed utterly. Fifty years ago, when the grandparents of today's college students were young adults, the county had no electrical grid, indoor plumbing, telephone system, public hospital, or modern school. As late as 1950, Dubai was a city of huts and unpaved streets. In 1970, literacy rates hovered just above 20 percent. Only a fraction of the mothers of today's college students graduated from high school, and that fraction is just slightly higher for their fathers. As recently as 1992, Dubai's Shaykh Zayed Road--now lined by glass-and-steel towers--was mostly desert as far as the eye could see from the lone skyscraper, the 39-story Dubai World Trade Center.[3] Today, that skyscraper is dwarfed by its near neighbor, the 56-story Emirates Tower. Tomorrow, the Emirates Tower will be dwarfed by the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai.

Modern high-speed highways now traverse a landscape that a generation ago had only rutted roads. Today, modern ports, including those that house container facilities and dry docks, dot the coastline. Dubai International Airport estimated that about 22 million passengers would pass through its concourses in 2006 and that 60 million will have done so by 2010.[4] The construction of Concourse 2 is currently the largest airport development in the world, employing as many as 18,000 people, and the municipality has begun construction on a new cargo and passenger airport at Jebel Ali.[5] Abu Dhabi's airport is currently undergoing a 25 billion dirham redevelopment, and expects to handle 20 million passengers by 2010.[6] As of September 2005, the mobile telephone penetration rate was more than 95 percent,[7] while the fixed-line penetration rate was just 28 percent.[8] Internet usage jumped from zero users in 1995 to about 1,300,000 in 2005.[9]

Published income figures reflect the fulfillment of Shaykh Zayed's vision. The country ranks in the top portion of the Human Development Index, and the economy had an estimated 2005 purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita of approximately $40,000.[10] These figures compare favorably to PPP income figures of neighboring countries: Bahrain, $23,000; Egypt, $3,900; India, $3,300; Iraq, $3,400; Kuwait, $19,200; Oman, $13,200; Qatar, $27,400; Saudi Arabia, 12,800; and Syria, $3,900.[11]

In growing this spending power, the federal government has invested heavily in tourism, airport infrastructure, re-export commerce, and, recently, telecommunications, making progress in shifting the UAE economy from dependence on oil and gas exploration and refining. In 1975, crude oil was about 68 percent of the total economy. By 1998, the figure for crude oil had fallen to about 22 percent. As oil dependence fell, manufacturing grew, climbing from less than one percent of the economy in 1975 to 12.4 percent today. Commerce, restaurants, and hotels went from about nine percent to about 14 percent, and real estate from 2.5 percent to 10.5 percent.[12] Current plans to develop master-planned entertainment and healthcare centers eventually will push crude oil's percentage lower still, despite rising oil prices.

In promoting their achievements, Emiratis have mastered the vocabulary of self-promotion, and hyperbole and superlatives have become a way of life. Ventures are regularly described not in terms of excellence but in P.T. Barnum's vocabulary of the "biggest," "tallest, "or "newest." The term "world-class" has been bandied about so often that it has lost meaning. Master-planned communities sprout up everywhere the royals will allow. During 2004 and 2005, the rapid-fire announcement of Dubailand, Health City, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Burj Dubai, and Falcon City waxed lyrical in local newspapers. Today, these have been joined by the world's longest hotel strip--a 31 hotel, USD $27 billion, 10 km project near Dubai land, labeled Bawadi.

The media have waxed lyrical about them all. Then Dubai Crown Prince General, now ruler, Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum was said to have topped "his previous visionary initiatives" with the 18.5 billion dirham Dubailand theme park, "the Middle East answer to Disneyland." To be built on two-billion square feet of land, Dubailand has been projected to attract 15 million more people a year to the area.[13] Falcon City in Wonders at Dubailand, which will replicate the "wonders of the world," is described as an ambitious 5.5 billion dirham project. "Shaped like a falcon, the city features structures based on ancient and modern wonders of the world," including the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria in which you can live, shop, and play. Dubai, of course, will do them better. "These structures," according to reports, "will be larger than the originals."[14] The 6.7 billion dirham Health City is scheduled to have a 300-bed university hospital, medical college, nursing school, center for life sciences research, up to 40 clinics and hospitals, and specialized laboratories. It will, the country's leaders say, help make Dubai a leading hub in the global new economy.[15]

The purpose behind the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) is to position Dubai as a universally-recognized hub for institutional finance and as the gateway to the region for capital and investment. DIFC expects to rival international financial centers in New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.[16] Finally, EMAAR properties announced plans for building the world's tallest skyscraper in 2004, the 160-story Burj Dubai, touting its "incredible views" of the Arabian Gulf and describing it as one of the "most prestigious" addresses on earth. The management contract has now been let, and the building rose about 50 floors above the landscape by fall of 2006.[17]

Such grandiose projects complement previous grand development zones, including those for technology. The Emirate of Dubai has been particularly active in developing these high tech zones, having already invested billions of dirhams. The great dream is that human capital, nurtured in institutions and industries in the UAE, can create income-yielding activities for the future.[18] To facilitate this progress the country has tried to create IT-friendly public policies. In no small measure, they have been successful in creating laws, government-to-consumer businesses, and infrastructure. According to the World Bank, the UAE has done better in this than its GCC counterparts.[19]

The UAE has also worked hard to develop new media. Launched in November 2000, multi-billion dirham Dubai Media City (DMC) was designed to make Dubai the regional center for media businesses and new technology workers.[20] Rising next to it, on 500 carefully manicured and watered hectares, are Dubai Internet City (DIC) and Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV).[21]

DIC was the region's first information technology zone, and Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, views this pet project as a benefit to Dubai's economy. By September 2001, an estimated 95 percent of the DIC area had already been spoken for by leading high tech firms, many of them moving from Europe to Dubai.[22] Today, more than 550 media companies, including global giants such as CNN, Reuters, Sony Broadcast & Professional, McGraw Hill Publishing, Bertelsmann, and MBC, along with regional companies and new start-ups, call DMC home. IBM, Compaq, Dell, Siemens, Canon, Logica, Sony Ericsson, and Cisco are just a few of the major companies housed at DIC. Together, the companies located in this high tech information corridor employ more than 5,500 well-paid knowledge workers.

Knowledge Village describes itself as a "connected learning community that will develop the region's talent pool and accelerate its move to the knowledge economy."[23] Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) is located in the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone with Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. By operating closely with its affiliate entities, DKV offers its "partners a huge opportunity to collaborate with the business community, to create a modern, vibrant learning environment."[24] When its doors opened in the fall of 2003, DKV had more than 50 educational and research institutions as partners.

The stated aim of the multi-billion dirham DMC, DIC, and DKV complex is to create a clustered economy comprising educators, incubators, logistic companies, multimedia businesses, telecommunication companies, remote service providers, software developers, and venture capitalists in one place. The publicly articulated hope is to create a critical mass for the new economy.[25] The other unpublished goal is to line the pockets of the ruling families and their friends. Licensing and fees make renting space at these centers more expensive than mid-town Manhattan. The operating model for DKV is less an educational center than it is shopping mall; the concept is based on name-brand anchor institutions drawing in customers, foot traffic, and smaller ventures.

Now rising on the outskirts of Dubai is Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO),

whose website describes as it as:

...the world's premier purpose-built high-technology park for the microelectronics and the semiconductor industry. DSO is an innovation-driven technology community, housing microelectronics- and optoelectronics-related enterprises, a state-of-the-art Microelectronics Innovation Center (MIC), fabrication plants, research and development centers and specialized academic institutions and residential areas.[26]

CERT, the Center of Excellence for Applied Research and Training of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), is part of a multi-college network operated by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the United Arab Emirates. CERT is the continuing education and applied research arm of a system serving more than 10,000 students throughout the UAE. CERT operates two technology parks, one in Abu Dhabi and another in Dubai. These parks are designed to encourage companies to develop educational tools, as well as business models, and to provide a total-solutions orientation to their core business activities through training, products, and consultancy services to improve the application and assimilation of technology in the region.[27]

Although the United Arab Emirates has made great progress compared to its near neighbors like Saudi Arabia, the country ultimately is living on borrowed time. Public policy encourages large families, many of which depend upon the governmental largess for their existence. Despite published 100-year figures for oil reserves in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, governments at all levels cannot sustain the welfare state forever. A little digging reveals that, after accounting for an annual inflation rate hovering around five percent, the standard of living has actually declined over the last decade. Worse yet, 2005 figures point to an inflation rate approaching 12 percent and housing costs that jumped 37 percent from 2004 to 2005 in Dubai.[28] Rent-related topics were so hot that Gulf News published over 2,016 on the subject between January 1, 2004 and August 31, 2006.

The forward-looking alternative to the public dole is to create a culture fostering the resources of the mind--creativity and innovation. Whether this culture can actually develop in the United Arab Emirates remains unclear. Despite a modernizing economy, kinship and marriage still count, and extended family networks wield enormous power in all aspects of life. This creates a system in the UAE that is antithetical to modern, transparent economies that generally require that the best--not the best connected--rise to the top in the major societal institutions.

The federal government points to far-ranging educational developments with pride. School is free at all levels. About 317,000 students were enrolled in 2003-2004 in 1500 public and private schools.[29] The country has 33 private universities and a national system composed of United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain, the 11 branch campuses of the Higher Colleges of Technology, and the Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses of Zayed University for women.

The glitzy facade masks a radically different educational edifice. Much of primary and secondary schooling has been based on knuckle-thumping rote memorization that does not develop higher-order thinking skills. Acknowledging failure, the authorities are now overhauling K-12 education. They needed to do so. The perceived divide between public or government schools and private schools is wide--and may be widening. The most current data show that those who can afford it send their children to private schools. Between school years 2000-2001 and 2001-2002, enrollment in public schools dropped by about three percent while enrollment in private schools climbed by about ten percent. Parents prefer private schools because they believe that these schools have better facilities and that private school students learn better and develop advanced English language skills.[30] It remains unclear, however, whether the parents actually appreciate the value of education. In today's United Arab Emirates, only about three in ten Nationals above age 24 have had any formal schooling.[31] Thus, the vast majority of the parents understand neither the power of the education their children receive nor the careers for which their children are preparing.

The education of women is another problematic issue in the UAE. Lip service is paid to the power of higher education, because the country's leadership wants to develop the UAE as the high-tech hub of the Middle East. Necessary to this vision are women who are valued, not just as wives and mothers, but as potential leaders in the workplace. If this country is to move forward, then, so too, must its women. Yet will a society based on traditional values let them become truly equal partners in modernizing the economy? Even if Emirati women can gain approval from the men in their families for their break with the past, it may be impossible for them to reconcile the conflicting expectations that they will both rock the cradle and rule the world. This is not surprising. More than three decades after their own "liberation," Western women have not found a happy compromise between home and work.

Although the under-25 generation attends school, many young people lack the motivation either to work hard or to excel. Students learn at an early age how to game the system, expending time and effort haranguing teachers or plagiarizing instead of studying. Males are a particular problem because many see little need for an education. Some, emulating male family members, merely aspire to be silent partners of foreigners who begin businesses in the UAE. Except in some "free zones," such partnerships are required by law. This makes for income without effort for young Emirati men and creates a debilitating anti-entrepreneurial torpor that is difficult to overcome.

Requiring an education and instilling the value of meritocracy are difficult in a country seduced by subsidies. Today's Emirati male sees a life of ease stretching out before him. Free education and medical care, high-paying government jobs, short working hours, lucrative pensions, and inexpensive housing loans sap the will of many. Despite a program of infusing nationals into the workplace called "Emiratization," few locals actually compete in the open marketplace. Emiratis who constitute about three percent of the total private labor force make up about 15 percent of the country's population. When they choose to work, college graduates tend to join family businesses or the public sector rather than the private sector.[32] None would do the physical labor required of Indian and Pakistani guest workers who dig the ditches or work the high steel; few would fill low-paying, low-status service jobs in the hospitality industry. Working your way up the corporate ladder does not seem a likely option; Emiratis expect to start at the top and stay there.

Whether the United Arab Emirates has begun an irrevocable journey to a modern, technology-based economy remains unclear. Recent studies demonstrate that members of the current generation do not have the skills necessary to create the intellectual property that is the keystone of a knowledge-age economy.[33] More disturbing are rough estimates that, between 1998 and 2003, few students graduated with degrees in computer science (633 students), computer engineering (109 students), and information technology (89 students).[34] Unfortunately, the typical "tier II" university in the United States has more patents issued to its faculty in a year than do all citizens and residents of the UAE combined. Thus, in the immediate term, the UAE remains dependent upon expatriate professionals to run the intellectual property and information technology economies.

The country will also continue depending upon an army of workers from India and Pakistan to build the infrastructure projects sprouting in the desert. Earning less than $300 per month, these workers labor long shifts in temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius, erecting the air-conditioned shopping malls, apartments, and luxury homes of the favored few. Due to what amounts to indentured labor, building costs are so low that a new mall in Sharjah Emirate projected an unheard of return-on-investment of more than 50 percent during its initial year of operation. Labor costs are so low in the airline industry that Emirates Airlines had a break-even load factor of 64.5 percent, compared to U.S. carrier Continental Airlines, which was hemorrhaging red ink with a load factor of 77 percent in 2002.

Laborers' lives are one of the dirty little secrets of the shining economy. Kept out of view, many live in poorly equipped labor camps. Some live in shanty towns connected to the building projects. Others sleep by night in the basements of the apartments they service by day. Even their meager wages are often withheld for weeks. Standard operating practice among infamous local builders is to withhold pay for periods that sometimes stretch to months. If workers complain to the authorities, they are told, under threat of summary deportation, to mind their manners. Newspaper stories about labor abuses often do not identify employers. They do not do so because the stories might, as one reporter has said, embarrass the company and prevent it from doing business in the future.[35]

In the November 10, 2003 issue of the Gulf News, the headline, "350 workers troop into labor ministry to get unpaid wages" and accompanying story, summarized the problem. "A crowd of 350 workers gathered at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs yesterday for a nine-hour vigil," the lead began. "The labourers," the story continued, "are working for a major contracting company involved in industrial pipelines said their sponsor had not paid around 1,000 employees for the last eight months..." They also complained about sanitation, food, and electricity in their labor camp. The best that they could do was secure the promise that they would be paid two months of wages before EID, and gradual payment of the rest over time.[36] If local newspapers are to be believed, this problem has grown over time, with workers becoming more aggressive and the government less tolerant. In 2005, the Gulf News printed 131 separate articles on unpaid workers. Titles included, "120 unpaid workers stage protest," "Unpaid workers survive on dates," "Construction company workers seek unpaid salaries and benefits," and "Workers troop into Labour Ministry over unpaid wages." The drumbeat continued in 2006, with 607 articles dealing with the same topic appearing the Gulf News from January 1 to the end of August.

Even highly paid intellectual-property workers are exploited. Contracts are written in two languages--usually English and Arabic. At times, contract terms vary; the English says one thing, the Arabic another. As Arabic is the language of enforcement, what it says on that side of the paper is what counts. Jet-lagged and tired, foreign workers are hustled into signing contracts without having a chance to solicit an opinion from an Arabic-speaking lawyer. So expatriates often unwittingly lose days of vacation, end-of-service pay, or other benefits. Stories about this kind of treatment do not make the news, but they circulate through the international business community, frightening knowledge workers who otherwise might be attracted to opportunities offered by employment in the UAE.

The unevenness of income distribution throughout the population exists not only between the wages of laborers and Nationals, but between the nation's citizens as well. While mean per capita income is high in the UAE, income distribution is skewed towards Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The latest available figures, which date from 2002, show that Abu Dhabi had a per capita GDP of $23,929 and Dubai's was $16,094; Sharjah's was $9,838; Ras al-Khaimah's was $8,076; Ajman's was $6,047; Fujairah's was $7,955; and Umm al-Quwain's was $7,154.[37] Dubai and Abu Dhabi may have slick residential areas and modern structures, but outlying Emirates, such as Ras al-Khaimah, have cows wandering in the not-so-modern downtown. The tale of economic development in the UAE is also the tale of its richest citizens. It has been said that fewer than two-tenths of one percent of the population controls 90 percent of the nation's wealth.[38]

Although the UAE has few official taxes, indirect forms of taxation support the benevolent National lifestyle. These include high prices for telephone service and airline tickets, with profits funneled into high-paying, short-hour jobs for its citizens. While there will be a second telephone company named Du, that company effectively will be a licensee of Etisalat, the current government monopoly telecommunications provider. There will also be no competition on price between them.[39] Housing is needlessly expensive and the rents are kept artificially high; it is standard for one year's rent to be collected up front. Money laundered from India and CIS has helped push up the price of newly created fee-simple housing for foreigners, as have hordes of local speculators who gobble up blocks of properties hoping to flip them to the next buyer. Some now wonder aloud if old developments will become slums as residents choose newer, more fashionable housing.[40] Others wonder why foreigners would purchase properties that have no title insurance or proper deed records in an environment in which speculation is encouraged.[41]

If this weren't sufficiently ominous, there are signs that the overheated housing market may be slowing down. Although local newspapers practice shameless growth-oriented boosterism, some experienced observers have been warning of what will happen when the fragile bubble bursts.[42] They also wonder if local government, which has let the good times roll for years, can manage a soft landing when the downturn comes.

The period of unrivaled growth during the last three decades has not come without a price tag. As air pollution has increased dramatically, the United Arab Emirates has become one of the biggest per capita air polluters on earth.[43] As the number of visitors and citizens has increased, strains have been placed on water resources and demands for energy have risen. Traffic jams and accidents regularly cause terrible congestion on the highways. The roadways already are clogged at peak hours, with legions of frustrated motorists grinding slowly from development to development along the crowded E11 highway corridor. Efficient public transportation remains but a distant hope on a far away horizon, perhaps two or three years away in the best of circumstances.[44]

Just a generation or so removed from their frugal Bedouin traditions, Emiratis now are listed in the top five per capita on several unflattering lists. They have joined four other nations in per capita fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.[45] They are the world's largest per capita water consumer and the second largest producer of expensive desalinated water after Saudi Arabia.[46] Water consumption is so high that it exceeds 378 liters per day, compared to an international standard of 189 to 265 liters per day.

Ground water levels have been dropping at the rate of one meter every year from the past 30 years.[47] This will only get worse. Governmental agencies predict that water consumption will increase by 44 percent by 2025. Others say that the growth rate is really along the lines of eight to ten percent annually.[48]

If the environmental damage done by poor management of water weren't enough, there is growing evidence that the unregulated growth is now causing extensive damage. A public volley between environmentalists and Nakheel, the government-controlled development agency in Dubai, produced charges that poor management of offshore developments is destroying the marine ecosystem, rerouting natural currents, and destroying nesting areas of endangered turtles. Though having done no environmental impact study, the developer argues that it is planning to build an artificial island and that the coral reefs there were not worthy of protecting anyway.[49]

Recently, the municipality of Sharjah blamed Nakheel's ongoing construction of The Palm, an artificial island development, for the tens of thousands of dead fish fouling the waters of Qanat al-Qasba, a canal bisecting the city of Sharjah. Sayid Abdul Aziz al-Midfa, Sharjah's director-general of environment and protected areas says, "the fish died because of construction work on sea where they are building Palm Islands."[50]

Eight years ago, the per capita waste generation was 725 kg; today that figure is 1,250 kg, making the UAE one of the highest per capita generators of trash in the world. Its energy consumption per capita is also among the highest in the world and is exploding.[51] This growing need has begun to have consequences such as occasional power failures.[52] More will be on the horizon unless governments build at an even more frantic pace.

The county has few of the cultural amenities--symphony, art museums, and walking neighborhoods--typical of the great cities of the world. Though a MOU has been signed to build Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, art exhibitions now are often mere mall attractions. On the drawing board for Dubailand is a "world-class" sports city, with a multi-purpose stadium with a capacity of 25,000, an 18-hole golf course, a 10,000-seat hockey stadium, a cricket academy, and a riding club.[53] The planned 500-seat theater will be in the "ginormous Mall of the Emirates, nestling next to the ski center, shops galore, and who knows what else."[54] That mall, which had a soft opening in September 2005, helped give the United Arab Emirates the most per capita square footage of mall space in the entire Middle East and the second most in the world. Battuta Shopping Mall is a "uniquely themed retail destination with five distinct shopping zones inspired by the travels of Ibn Battuta."[55] Named after the 14th century Arabian explorer, the "architecture within the mall's six courts reflects the most influential places Ibn Battuta traveled during his time, providing mall visitors an invaluable glimpse into the past."[56] The six courts are named Andalusian, North African, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, and Chinese.

Few places exist where local handicrafts can be seen or local musicians heard, as the country's culture and sense of history pride have begun to disappear into Westernized popular culture and the pornography of excess. Though the Emirates may have been "greened" with plants, the cultural environment remains desert-like. For many, the highlights of the season are not Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach but Summer of Surprises, Global Village, and Dubai Shopping Festival--all opportunities to spend serious money.[57] It seems that the United Arab Emirates risks becoming, to paraphrase one acerbic architectural magazine, a country without a soul.[58]


The government of the United Arab Emirates desperately desires that this federation of seven tiny emirates evolve into a knowledge-age hub. To advance its mission it has used a combination of "big" ideas, technology and media infrastructures, and public relations propaganda. While measurably better off than several neighboring Arab nations, the UAE suffers from critical flaws that could prevent it from ever becoming a knowledge-age country. Among those deficiencies are an education system focusing on training, rather than developing intellectual content or thinking skills, infrastructure schemes more concerned with selling real estate than developing a pleasing and convenient life style, an economic system that warehouses the "really serious" money offshore, and a country in which fantasy, sometimes rather than actual accomplishment, is admired and rewarded. Add to that a social structure that sometimes discourages young women from making an economic contribution and an economic structure that discourages young men from making a contribution to society, and there are problems that money--even the huge amounts available to the rulers of the UAE--may not be able to solve. Even diet and health have become problems as the population has become more sedentary, developed a smoking habit, and become a nation of overeating couch potatoes.[59]

In the United Arab Emirates, some growth has resulted from smart leadership; some has resulted from a lack of competition. Yet that competitive playing field is about to change. Looking forward, leaders in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait are pushing development and concentrating upon education. Loaded with its LNG billions, Qatar has hired universities, such as Cornell and Texas A & M, to run programs at Education City; Kuwait has hired Dartmouth College to build a world-class facility in Kuwait City. Bahrain is developing progressive educational facilities, such as Royal Bahrain University, an innovative educational institution meant for the traditionally underserved female population.

Capitalizing on the current forward momentum will become more difficult in the UAE because of growing competition both from within and without. Outlying Emirates such as Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) have hopped onboard the economy bandwagon, challenging front-runners Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The RAK government has announced plans for several mega projects, including the Cove. The Cove is scheduled to comprise more than 50 acres of beachfront property, including 134 Nubian-style furnished residences; and a new highway to Dubai, which is under construction, will connect this and other projects to major metropolitan areas.

Having seen the future through the kaleidoscope, countries from across the region have begun imitating the UAE's business model. Qatar, which has deeper pockets than the UAE, has invested billions of dollars in development, reworking the Doha airport and transforming the Doha bay. Construction work has officially begun on the new $5.5 billion Doha International Airport, which, when fully developed in 2015, is expected to handle up to 50 million passengers and two million tons of cargo a year. Added to that is the $2.5 billion Pearl-Qatar project, a string of artificial offshore islands with two circular harbors mirroring the famous Doha harbor's natural shape. There will be 8,000 residential units in total, ranging from 20-story towers to individual villas on substantial plots. Oman is developing master-planned residential communities. Oman's Port Shalala is undergoing a $262 million port development, and an estimated $700-million beachfront tourism and residential real estate project is being developed on a long stretch of beachfront near the Muscat International Airport.

Buffeted by the winds of change all across the region, the United Arab Emirates needs to make some profound choices. If the country is to move forward sensibly from where it stands today, serious thought must be given to making the social order more inclusive and favoring a culture in which character counts more than the content of the pocketbook. It also will mean a serious examination and reconciliation of the religious and secular spheres so that neither loses and both benefit.

In the end, the pathway to the future requires blending the best of the old and the best of the new. Such balance is admittedly difficult to create and sustain, especially in the Middle East where tribe and tradition have such a hold on society, and the pull of glitzy development and immediate gratification are stronger than that of measured growth. Yet if the shimmering glass-and-steel spires of the Emirati skylines are to be miracles, not mirages, the once and future leaders of the UAE must be wise, thoughtful, and circumspect. While the precious hours of the oil boom tick away, her leaders must put aside their glamorous playthings and plan for a future in which the UAE's people, not its petroleum, lubricate the economy.

*Timothy Walters is Associate Professor at the College of Communication and Media Sciences, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

*Alma Kadragic is Associate Professor at the College of Communication and Media Sciences, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

*Lynne M. Walters is Associate Professor at the College of Education, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.


[1] Stephen Quinn, Timothy Walters, and John Whiteoak, "A Tale of Three (Media) Cities," Australian Studies in Journalism, Vol. 12, pp. 121-49.

[2] United Arab Emirates Yearbook 1995 (London: Planet Publishing Ltd., 1995), p. 19.

[3] Timothy Walters, Lynne M. Walters, and Stephen Quinn, "Media Life among Gen Zeds," 8th Annual AUSACE Conference, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, August 12-15, 2003.

[4] Dubai International Airport,. October 11, 2005,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Saifur Rahman, "Abu Dhabi may outsource airport management," Gulf News online,

[7] "UAE's mobile penetration hits 95%." UAE Interact, September 12, 2005,, accessed October 23, 2005, p. 4.

[8] GII, United Arab Emirates Telecommunications Market Intelligence Report (October 2004),

[9] Internet World Stats, "United Arab Emirates: Internet Usage and Marketing Report,"

[10] Human Development Indicators. (NY: United Nations Development Program, 2005). Downloadable at:; CIA, The World Factbook (accessed 2006).

[11] CIA, The World Factbook.

[12] Mohammed Shihab, Economic Development in the UAE. Downloadable as a pdf file at:, p. 253.

[13] ME Info,

[14] Kokila Jacob, "Dubai's Falcon City Takes Wing with Wonders of the World," Gulf News online, September 11, 2005,


[16] Dubai Development and Investment Authority,

[17] Emaar Properties, "Emaar signs AED 3.216 billion Burj Dubai construction deal with Korean construction giant Samsung,"

[18] Gregory J. Walters, Human Rights in an Information Age (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 82.

[19] The World Bank Group, Data and Statistics,

[20] United Arab Emirates Yearbook 2000/2001 (London: Trident Press, 2000), p. 233.

[21] Quinn, Walters, and Whiteoak, "A Tale of Three (Media) Cities."

[22] Ibid.


[24] Dubai Knowledge Village, (accessed 2005).

[25] Quinn, Walters, and Whiteoak, "A Tale of Three (Media) Cities."

[26] Dubai Silicon Oasis, "Welcome to Dubai Silicon Oasis," (accessed 2005).

[27] CERT, (accessed 2005).

[28] Arif Sharif, "Property prices may rise 10-15%," Gulf News online,; Staff Report, "Dubai housing rents will stabilize after hitting peak, says report," Gulf News online,

[29] United Arab Emirates Yearbook 2005 (London: Trident Press, 2005).

[30] Kenneth Carr, An Evaluation of private schools in the United Arab Emirates. (College of Education, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates, 2003).

[31] Atlapedia online, "United Arab Emirates,"

[32] Zeinab Karake-Shalhoub and Lubna Al Qasimi, "Information/Knowledge Society: The Case of the UAE," Western Asia Preparatory Conference on the Information Society, February 4-6, 2003, Beirut, Lebanon.

[33] Quinn, Walters, and Whiteoak, "A Tale of Three (Media) Cities," p. 140; United Nations Development Report, The Arab Human Development Report (NY: United Nations Publications, 2002), p. 2.

[34] Carr, An Evaluation of private schools in the United Arab Emirates.

[35] Tim Walters, Interview with anonymous source #1, 2003

[36] Shireena Al Nowais, "350 workers troop into labor ministry to get unpaid wages," Gulf News, November 10, 2003, section 1, p. 4.

[37] Ali Tawfi Al Sadik, Evolution and Performance of the UAE Economy 1972-1998.

[38] Tim Walters, Interview with anonymous source #2, 2003.

[39] "Etisalat ready for competition - chief," Gulf News online, September 25, 2005,; Stanley Carvalho, "Etisalat gets competitor," Gulf News online, June 7, 2005,

[40] Anonymous, Interview by property development manager with Stephen Quinn and Tim Walters, 2002.

[41] Saifur Rahman, and Mohammad Ezz El Deen, "Property resale practices raise questions over legal ownership," Gulf News, October 25, 2005, p. 37.

[42] H. Tazzan, "Why reality prices in the region cannot keep on rising," Gulf News, October 9, 2005, p. 39.

[43] See or World Wildlife Federation, Living Planet Report 2004,

[44] Ashfaq Ahmed, "Light rail system will save Dubai from gridlock in the future," Gulf News online,; Ashfaq Ahmed, "Dubai's Dh 1.8b road network project to ease traffic problems," Gulf News online,; Mahmood Saberi, "Thousands crawl home amid huge traffic snarl," Gulf News online,

[45] Donella Meadows, "The World's Top Five Consumers in Many Categories," The Global Citizen, August 5, 1999.

[46] Mahmood Saberi, "Rolla Residents struggle as taps remain dry for third day," Gulf News, October 23, 2005, p. 3; Nissar Hoath, "Conservation strategies improve water table," November 30, 2003.

[47] Meena S. Janardhan, "Water conservation reaches the Mosque," Inter Press Service News Agency, May 24, 2005,

[48] Mahmood Saberi, "Rolla Residents struggle as taps remain dry for third day," Gulf News, October 23, 2005, p. 3.

[49] "Hakheel says coral reef damage claim is an exaggeration," Emirates Today, October 28, 2005, p. 4.

[50] Bassama Al Jandaly, "Palm development caused fish deaths, say officials," Gulf News, October 30, 2005, p. 4.

[51] World Resources Institute, "Country Profile - United Arab Emirates, 2005,"

[52] "Powerless... but Dubai powers on," Gulf News online, June 10, 2005,

[53] AME Info, "Dubailand to feature world class sports city," 2003,

[54] "Countdown to Culture," TimeOut Dubai (November 2003), p. 66.

[55] Nakeel Corporation, "Fact Sheet: Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall," 2005,

[56] Ibn Battuta Mall, "Six Malls, One Destination," 2005,

[57] Abdullah Arbab, "People urged to cut down on excessive buying," Gulf News, November 10, 2003, Section 1, p. 4.

[58] Khalid Mohiuddin, Tabloid, Education Section, Gulf News, October 1, 2005, p. 10.

[59] Shireena Al Nowais, "Heart disease causes more deaths in UAE, warns doctor," Gulf News, October 11, 2005, p. 5.

MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Cameron Brown, Keren Ribo, Yeru Aharoni
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.


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