Gaziantep: Story of an economic boom on the historical Silk Road

Gaziantep: Story of an economic boom on the historical Silk Road

November 27, 2011, Sunday/ 12:10:00/ BJÖRN FINKE

If İlker hasırcı wants to show how his business is doing, he does not have to walk far. The production hall with its huge, loud machines is in the same building as the company owner’s office.

Colorful yarn for carpets is wound on bobbins, while employees with ear protectors move between the machines to monitor them. The firm, Hasırcı Textile, can produce up to 14,500 metric tons of yarn each year in its facilities in one of the four Gaziantep industrial zones. And the business is going well, İlker Hasırcı told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview. His group, which is also active in the construction industry and trade, had 180 million euros in revenues last year.

Gaziantep is the center of Turkey’s carpet industry. But the southeastern anatolian city, only 200 kilometers from the biggest Syrian city, Aleppo, and 120 kilometers from the Turkish Mediterranean port of İskenderun, is also attractive for other reasons. While the Turkish economy grows at a record speed, this region is developing even faster. The city’s volume of exports almost doubled from 1.5 billion euros in 2006 to 2.9 billion euros last year.

This year the local chamber of commerce expects a further steep increase to 3.8 billion euros. This makes the city, which is known among gourmets predominantly for its baklava and pistachios, an important player in Turkish industry, too.

The country’s eighth largest city with 1.7 million inhabitants is the sixth biggest economic powerhouse behind İstanbul, Bursa and Kocaeli in the Marmara region, İzmir and the capital, Ankara. Besides carpets, baklava and pistachios, the city now exports machinery -- for instance, for textiles and plastics. Furthermore, almost two out of three plastic bags produced in Turkey come from Antep. Thus, Gaziantep exemplifies the economic rise of Anatolian centers and businessmen in recent years -- a rise that ended the almost sole reign of cities in western Turkey and traditional business elites, a rise that was due to a number of factors.

The region’s growth becomes manifest in all the building cranes rising in the sky -- outnumbering by far the number of minarets in the city. Four industrial zones already exist, and a fifth one is being constructed. These areas are equipped with ready-to-use-infrastructure for production companies, such as natural gas supply and waste-water treatment systems. Since these firms need workers, Gaziantep is attractive for job seekers from other parts of the country, and the unemployment rate is low at 2 percent. The employees require accommodation: Thus, new apartments are rising in the suburbs, and under the name Antepia a small city is being built around an artificial lake.

If Alper Dede walks to his office windows he looks upon a construction site. He is a member of the faculty of economics and administrative sciences at Zirve University in Gaziantep, and the building work at his university, founded two-and-a-half years ago by local businessmen, has not been finished yet -- a growing university for a growing city. “During the last two decades Gaziantep’s population has roughly doubled,” the political scientist said. “Because of that boom the region faces a shortage of construction workers.” Strong economic growth in Anatolian cities like Gaziantep, Kayseri, Konya or Denizli, which are trying to catch up to traditional industrial centers like İstanbul and İzmir, has occurred for several reasons, he noted: Economic liberalization, the expansion of education, the successful search for new markets and political support were crucial.

Dede gives much credit to Turgut Özal, Turkey’s prime minister from 1983 to 1989. He liberalized the state-centered economy, created room for new entrepreneurs to maneuver and privatized many state-owned companies. Anatolian businessmen invested in some of these privatized, firms or they used the opportunities of a liberalized market with their own companies, the scientist explained. In this way conservative and religious Anatolian entrepreneurs entered the playing field, which had been dominated by an old, secular business elite from western Turkish cities. Hasırcı agrees that the late Özal played a significant role. “Under Özal the government started to help companies to develop export businesses,” he says.

A further important factor was education, Dede added. While the old secular business elite used to send its children to excellent universities, often abroad, religious Anatolians had long been hesitant because they feared negative influences on their children, according to the scientist. But the establishment of schools and universities in Turkey, which combined a good education with a conservative religious framework, overcame these reservations and hence helped create a reservoir of well-trained conservative Anatolian managers, engineers and politicians.

But when the new entrepreneurs from Anatolia entered the playing field, important sectors were already occupied by the old secular Turkish business elites: Their conglomerates concentrated on established markets in the West. The challengers made a virtue out of necessity and searched for new emerging markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as Dede noted. Looking at neighboring markets in the Middle East was an obvious choice because Anatolian cities like Gaziantep are located conveniently close to these destinations.

In the early 1990s, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (Tuskon) was founded to support these small and medium-sized companies trying to enter new markets with conferences and field trips. The still significant but nevertheless comparably low dependency on the European and US market allowed these Anatolian companies to weather the 2008 world financial crisis better than competitors. Gaziantep is a good example for the importance of emerging markets: The city’s most important export destination in 2010 was Iraq, followed by Saudi Arabia, Germany, the US and Syria. Ancient Gaziantep was a station on the Silk Road; nowadays, the city serves as trade hub for Iraq and Syria.

A further ingredient in the Anatolian recipe for success is political support. According to Dede, “Former governments have ignored the needs of the Anatolian entrepreneurs.” But for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in power since 2002, the new Anatolian bourgeois is the electoral backbone. Thus, the AK Party caters to their wishes. And since business with emerging neighboring markets is important for them, the government lifted visa and trade restrictions for these states and generally started to pursuit a so-called zero-problems-policy aiming at improving foreign relations in the region.

Hasırcı is satisfied with the government’s policy. And he is optimistic that Gaziantep’s growth will continue in spite of the turmoil in Syria and the European debt crisis. “Of course the problems in the EU affect us, but we are experienced with slumps in Turkey,” he said. “We have to tackle a crisis every few years, and we are still growing.”

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