ABDULLAH BOZKURT

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ABDULLAH BOZKURT
February 25, 2013, Monday

Why is Jordan special for Turkey?

Turkey and Jordan are two countries in the Middle East that were unlucky in terms of vast oil and gas reserves. That may be a blessing in disguise, however, as both economies have had to rely on developing human potential via entrepreneurship, innovative skills and educational investment in order to grow in a turbulent region. Good stewardship is required as well for the leadership teams of both countries to navigate the troubled waters often stirred up by the waves of sectarian rifts, extremism and territorial issues. Both Turkey and Jordan long for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli problem and the successful conclusion of the Arab Spring revolutions. They fear the looming threat of a region-wide Shiite-Sunni confrontation simply because they have a vested interest in stability to continue trading and to keep the price of energy and food staples in check.

Unlike Turkey, which has a growing economy with robust macroeconomic indicators and a well-functioning democracy, Jordan has recently been challenged by economic difficulties from rising food and energy prices as well as demands for political reform on the home front. That makes it even more important for Turkey to link up strongly with Jordan to maintain peace in what has proved to be an island of stability in a tough environment. Jordan is a small Arab state but offers great opportunities for Turkey, one of the three non-Arab countries in the Middle East in addition to Iran and Israel.

Why makes Jordan so special to Turkey? Well, first of all, both Turkey and Jordan share common concerns over Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, which has successfully exploited Shiite ideology and the Palestine problem to advance Persian national interests. The mullah regime has hijacked issues that are deemed very sensitive to Muslim communities across the region without offering anything substantial on the constructive resolution of any of these issues. Ankara and Amman have a stake in seeing Iran put a stop to the proxy battles that it has been waging to destabilize countries.

Secondly, the two-year-long Syrian crisis has really been testing both countries with a number of problems that are not so easy to tackle. In contrast to other countries, both Turkey and Jordan have received hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the violence in the Arab country. The number is expected to climb further, costing the economies of both countries. But more importantly, as the Syrian crisis is lingering longer than originally anticipated, the social fabric of both countries, especially in areas bordering Syria, is increasingly exposed to security risks, unsettling the fault lines in the respective societies. It is not surprising to see that both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Jordan's King Abdullah II have huge disdain for US President Barack Obama at the moment because they feel that the US shied away from its regional responsibility and abandoned its allies in the region to handle the Syrian crisis alone.

Thirdly, both Turkey and Jordan, sharing borders with Iraq, are interested in seeing a stable Iraq free of sectarian strife. As the Iraqi economy is reeling from years of occupation and civil war, both Turkey and Jordan have helped the Iraqi government rebuild the country's infrastructure while supplying much-needed goods through their territories. King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to pay a visit to Baghdad in 2008, followed by Erdoğan a year later. However Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sharp turn towards sectarian policies after the last elections have marginalized the country's Sunni and Kurdish groups as well as Shiites who are not aligned with the pro-Iranian policies of Maliki. This was met with great concern by both Ankara and Amman.

Fourthly, the impact of moderation in Turkish and Jordanian societies in the Middle East is immensely important as a bulwark against the spread of fanaticism and radicalism that exploit the religious sensitivities of the people. Turkey has proven to be successful in bringing its own model by emphasizing the centuries-long tradition of a spiritual Sufi interpretation of Islam. Since this experience emphasizes that Muslims should focus on improving themselves with an inner-oriented approach, this stands in contrast with the radical Wahhabi/Salafi ideology which most Turks greatly loathe.

Jordan's rulers, coming from a prominent Arab Muslim dynasty called the Hashemites, who were the protectors of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina until the Wahhabis captured Western Arabia in the early 20th century, are the traditional enemies of Wahhabis. If the Hashemites still ruled these places, we would probably not have witnessed the destruction of the rich Islamic and Turkish cultural heritage in and around these holy sites. A significant portion of Jordanian society has a huge dislike for Wahhabis/Salafis as well. It is no wonder that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations do not like Turkey and Jordan, the two Muslim countries that have good relations with the West and a working relationship with Israel, albeit bumpy at times. Jordanian intelligence services have considerable experience in cracking down on al-Qaeda cells and can really help Turkey improve its capacity in fighting against these groups in places where Turkey has invested a lot in, from Africa to Central Asia.

Turkey may return the favor by spending some of the political capital it has earned in recent years with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose branches in Jordan pose some challenges for the authorities there. It is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood elements in Jordan have been emboldened by the political developments in Egypt and the civil war in Syria. The question remains whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will subscribe to moderation and show a willingness to compromise. The Egyptian experience raises many question marks in the minds of many in the Middle East.

Having thrown a $2 billion lifeline to the battered Egyptian economy, Turkey may channel some of its influence on the Brotherhood through President Mohammed Morsi. Ankara has also cultivated some ties with Hamas in recent years in an effort to drive a wedge between Hamas and Iran. It has strong relations with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. To what extent Turkey can exert influence, if any, on the Jordanian Brotherhood through these external channels is an open question. But Ankara may very well try to deliver some results on behalf of King Abdullah II.

How the Muslim Brotherhood will shape the policies in the region in general and in Jordan in particular is the main concern in the king's mind at the moment. In an interview with Turkish Policy Quarterly academic journal in March 2012, King Abdullah said that the people in the Arab Spring countries are more concerned that the values of moderation, respect for liberties and pluralism be upheld than they are with supporting any particular political party. If it is any indication, the endorsement given by Ankara to the Jordanian parliamentary elections held on Jan. 23 despite the decision by the Brotherhood to boycott them must be read as Ankara's support of the king. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' statement underlining the importance of economic and political reform in Jordan is perfectly in line with the king's position.

The fifth point in bilateral relations touches on economic cooperation between Turkey and Jordan, which has important regional ramifications. Since both governments signed a free trade agreement while scrapping visa requirements at the same time in December 2009, trade ties have flourished. Trade volume between the two countries stood at $838 million in 2012, an increase of 53 percent over 2011's figure, which was $549 million.

Jordanians see Turkey as a success story in economic growth and want to replicate the Turkish experience. For Turkey, Jordan is important for the diversification of its trade routes. Jordan's Port of Aqaba, the second-largest container port on the Red Sea, may be an important hub for Turkey to gain access to markets in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as well as other markets through the Indian Ocean using this route.

Lastly, there are a significant number of Circassian communities in both countries, and many officials in public administration on both sides, especially in the military and security fields, are Circassian. They are loyal and hardworking people with a keen interest in maintaining their cultural heritage. This can serve as a common social link between the two countries.

All in all, Jordan is an important Arab country that has always maintained good relations with Turkey. Ankara should invest political, economic and social capital to protect this island of stability in the Middle East. King Abdullah's upcoming visit to Turkey in March should be utilized to turn what seem to be excellent ideas of cooperation into concrete action plans.

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