Growing influence: A political and economic link between the West and the Middle East
Over the past decade, Turkey has experienced a number of important transitions that have led to demographic, economic and cultural transformation. These changes have made contemporary Turkey a regional focal point that many Turks regard as an extension of its influence in Ottoman times. Following the onset of a devastating banking crisis and severe economic recession in 2001, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide victory in national elections and set about reforming the country’s regulatory environment. A decade of stable AKP leadership has been largely responsible for the country’s economic success, though the political transformation of the country has been source of concern among Turkey’s traditional elites. Per capita GDP, which was $2905 in 2001, reached $10,576 in 2011. The young population is increasingly mobile and consumption-oriented, which has helped expand the nation’s service industries while also causing the current account deficit to triple. While the Turkey of today is vastly more affluent than that of a decade ago, the country’s conservative and family-oriented culture has seen few changes. Many unmarried men and women still live with their families, even in urban areas, and as a result the availability of resources among the under-30 demographic is quite high, fuelling consumption in everything from textiles to automobiles and cultivating the emergence of an investment culture. This demographic strength is among the most frequently cited reasons international businesses have given for entering the Turkish market.
FOREIGN POLITICS: The EU accession process has seen waning support from the population over the past six years. The relevance of Europe to Turkish experience has declined with both the economic recession and stronger political ties with non-European countries. As a result, the Turkish government is committed to balancing its regional and international interests with soft power and trade, while reducing the role of the West and NATO in setting policy. This has alarmed many observers, who have accused the country of “turning East”. Rather, Turkey has risen in prominence as a political and trade liaison for Western countries, many of which are isolated from the Middle East and North Africa as a result of their history of colonisation and imperialism. Thus, as Turkey’s ties with its Middle Eastern neighbours have grown stronger, its importance in Western politics has increased in kind.
POPULATION: As of December 2011 the population was estimated at 74.7m, with nearly 77% of Turkey’s citizens residing in urban areas. Istanbul, the country’s largest city, is home to an estimated 18.2% of the population, or 13.6m people, and is the second-largest city in Europe. Ankara, the capital, has 4.8m residents and the Aegean city of Izmir has 3.9m.
The country is young compared to other regional counterparts – 50% are under the age of 30. The 15-64 age group makes up 67% of the total population, indicating that the youth segment’s dominance of the country will continue for some time.
The populace is has a slightly disproportionate number of males, who comprise 50.2% compared to 49.8% females. Women account for 43% of university graduates and are well-represented in white collar positions, particularly in banking and academia. However, female workplace participation has declined overall, from 34.1% in 1990 to 21.6% in 2010.
EDUCATION: The country has 166 universities offering two- and four-year degrees, and the expanding youth population has seen the proliferation of private training institutes providing post-secondary vocational training. Despite improvements in the educational system, Turkey still lags in gender equality. Females are under-represented at all levels of education between middle school and post-graduate. Additionally, while the literacy rate was over 94%, illiteracy was four times more common among females.
INFRASTRUCTURE & TECHNOLOGY: Turkey has invested significant resources in the expansion of air and road infrastructure over the past decade and continues to expand and upgrade both commuter and inter-city rail options. Public transportation is readily available in most of the major cities and is steadily expanding, though the long history of habitation in Istanbul and Anatolia mean projects that require significant digging can be challenging given the likelihood of coming across historical artefacts.
The recent increase in per-capita income and eased access to credit have resulted in a rise in automobile ownership. Particularly in Istanbul, this has caused congestion, often leading to gridlock during peak commuting hours. However, less populated cities have been better able to cope with the increased traffic.
Turks are a technology-savvy people; around 25m households are served by the internet and over 33m Turks are Facebook users. While this penetration rate is only approximately 40%, usage rate are comparable to the UK, as users are engaged at home, in the office, in internet cafes and on their mobile devices.
LANGUAGE & ETHNICITY: The country is home to a vast number of ethnically distinct groups, though these distinctions are often subtle and are not officially quantified by the state. Most statistics estimate the ethnic Turkish population at 70-75%, with Kurds comprising roughly 18% and other minorities 7-12%.
Turkish is the official language of the state and the first language of more than 90% of the population. Kurdish, having been officially banned for decades, is becoming steadily more accepted and is even taught in some schools; however, societal challenges remain for Kurdish speakers and the language is not often spoken in public outside of the south-east. Arabic is also commonly used by about 1.6% of the population, particularly in the south-east of the country.
CULTURAL SENSITIVITY: Turkish people are generally fairly conservative and expect foreign visitors to respect national and personal values. It is wise to dress conservatively for business, and while in day-to-day life meeting times are less important, punctuality is a must in the business world. Turks are generally patriotic and proud of their nation, particularly given its economic growth and success over the past decade, and they are more comfortable with foreigners who demonstrate some knowledge – or at least curiosity – about the history and language of their country. In general, businesspeople and politicians regard Turkey as an important destination and do not feel that this is a “fly-in, fly-out” market. It is important to maintain eye contact, particularly in the business world, as this is seen as an indication of one’s honesty.
GEOGRAPHY & NATURAL RESOURCES: Turkey is bordered by eight countries and surrounded by four significant bodies of water. The Bosphorus Strait flows from the Black Sea into the Marmara Sea, dividing the city of Istanbul into two parts. The European portion of the country, comprising 3% of the country’s land mass, is severed again from Anatolia by the Dardanelles, which flows between the Marmara and the Aegean Sea. The country is also bordered by the Mediterranean to the south. In total, Turkey has 7200 km of coastline – nearly triple the length of its 2600 km of land borders.
The country is in a somewhat precarious political situation given the diversity and varying dispositions of bordering nations, but it has for the past decade maintained a “good neighbour” policy that has seen fairly positive bilateral relations with surrounding countries: Greece and Bulgaria in the west and north, Georgia and Armenia to the north-east, Azerbaijan and Iran to the east, and Iraq and Syria to the south-east.
ECONOMY & CONTRIBUTING SECTORS: While there are some hydrocarbons resources, the country is still heavily dependent on imports for electricity generation and motorised vehicles. Energy spending accounts for more than 50% of the nation’s current deficit. Increasingly, the government is exploring opportunities in on- and offshore exploration, particularly in the east, and in the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
Despite the dearth of accessible hydrocarbons reserves, Turkey is a major producer of a number of valuable minerals. It has more than 70% of the world’s boron reserves and is also home to significant reserves of coal, copper, gold, iron ore, limestone and marble.
Approximately 30% of the country’s land is arable and agriculture accounts for roughly 10% of total GDP. The agriculture sector also accounts for 30% of employment; however, the scale of the sector’s contribution to GDP has been reduced by the expansion of both the energy generation and manufacturing industries. The country is a net importer of energy and finished goods, but has a thriving manufacturing sector, the output of which is predominantly directed to exports.
Europe is the nation’s primary trade partner, with the EU importing 52% of Turkey’s output. This has exposed the economy to very real risks of a slowdown. As of end-2011, however, the Turkish economy has still recorded unexpected growth due to high demand for the country’s exports following the devaluation of the lira. The country suffers from a current account deficit of roughly 10%, given the deflated value of the lira, which hit a low of €.39 in December 2011. This decrease can be partly attributed to oil and natural gas imports.