Vying for global markets, Konya business circles tired of clichés about their city

The conservative tendencies of Konya, a center of culture and politics from as early as the period of the Seljuks, will continue to attract public debate around the city and pollsters interested in the city to assess whether its conservative residents apply a sort of ‘social pressure’ on others who have a different way of life.

November 29, 2010, Monday/ 17:20:00

Everybody is talking about the change that is taking place in Turkey but to what extent that change is being felt in the cities across the country and to what degree is the most basic question one should ask.

Winds of transformation in Ankara, the capital, or in İstanbul, the most populous industrialized city, may not blow in the way the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government wishes for. In fact the tales of cities as reported by our own correspondents on the ground tell quite a different story that what one might anticipate. You will be reading tales of these lesser-known cities over the course of the next five days and they will give you a glimpse of the perception of change beyond the Turkish capital.

Sometimes the change is far more visible and goes well beyond the scope of narrow understanding of it that exists in the Turkish capital everyday. Take Konya for example. The city residents have moved on from the debate over conservatism and are much more focused on entrepreneurship and business. The people are simply fed up with classic black and white clichés. Once described as “the grain storehouse” of Turkey because of its agriculture-based economy, Konya is recently being labeled as an agricultural center-turned-industrial boom city with four organized industrial zones around the city and an annual export of goods valued at approximately $1.3 billion, which is about the same as the annual export in nominal terms for the whole of Turkey during the 1970s.

Yet the change is not that progressive in other cities like Balıkesir and Çanakkale, the western cities in the Marmara region. The fear of non-locals, especially Kurds, are still being felt strongly in this very nationalistic city of Balıkesir whose history showed the first organized defense was set up during War of Independence against occupier Greeks. The city went through major infrastructural work, the biggest ever since the establishment of Republic, and reaped the benefits of recent economic change in Turkey.

Nevertheless the fear of immigrants at times results in the perception of Kurds as potential terrorists and this very thing forced the successful AK Party Mayor from office in last year’s local elections. The Nationalist candidate secured the win, interestingly enough, with the help of leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Çanakkale is the scene for the major Gallipoli campaign of WWI and the city is overwhelmingly populated by those coming from other parts of the country , mostly retired public servants. It is the stronghold of the CHP. People praise Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s accomplishments and do not pay heed to regime change allegations voiced by the CHP. Yet they do not want to shift their allegiance from the CHP to the AK Party, voting along the same party lines as their fathers and grandfathers. Unlike Balıkesir, the city is welcoming to immigrants even ANZACs from Australia and New Zealand who visit their ancestors lying in the hills and coastlines of Çanakkale.

Rapid industrialization in cities like Manisa and Uşak did not bring the expected social change in these cities as the traditional agricultural industry continued to exist alongside with booming factories. Investors and factory managers mostly chose to live their lives in the nearby metropolitan city of İzmir rather than blend in with the locals in these cities. In the southern city of Adana, people are still reeling from the economic losses the city suffered in 90s. As the manufacturing plants moved away from the city, the crime rate went up tremendously. In the northern city of Trabzon, which made a name for itself with first league football team, the major land, sea, and air transportation projects are connecting the city to the rest of the country and the world.

Immigration created rapid inner-city developments, albeit unplanned and in an unorganized way, and the mayor is now tasked to correct past mistakes. Sinop, another Black Sea province, is still recovering from the negative impacts of the US army base closure in early 90s  which supplied a steady stream of jobs to locals. But tea harvesting is coming back strong and supplying another source of revenue for the residents.

Neither conservative tendencies among this central Anatolian city’s people nor the way these conservative tendencies have been constantly labeled are new. No matter how these epithets change according to political conjuncture, Konya’s people have long been tired of such clichés.

Until almost only a decade ago, Konya was associated with “reactionaryism,” a term no longer included in the National Security Policy Document, otherwise known as the “Red Book,” as a threat to Turkey according to a National Security Council (MGK) decision approved by the Cabinet in late November. Still, the conservative tendencies in this city, a center of culture and politics from as early as the period of the Seljuks, will continue to attract public debate around the city as well as pollsters interested in the city to assess whether its conservative residents apply a sort of “social pressure” -- a well-known debate in Turkey -- on others who have a different way of life.

Business circles in this city in particular are not interested in such debates. There is an obvious entrepreneurial spirit prevailing in the city, which until recently was described as “the granary” of Turkey because of its agriculture-based economy. Konya recently earned a reputation as an agricultural center-turned-industrial boom city with its four organized industrial zones around the city and an annual export at approximately $1.3 billion, a figure which is equal to annual exports for the whole of Turkey during the 1970s.

While a popular expression refers to the entrepreneurs of Anatolia, including those of Konya, as “Anatolian Tigers,” highlighting their ability to compete with the state-led established elite of İstanbul, a 2005 study by an international think tank termed these same entrepreneurs “Islamic Calvinists.” “Economic success has created a social milieu in which Islam and modernity co-exist comfortably,” the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI) said at the time. The study called the political philosophy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in power since 2002, “democratic conservatism,” while noting that “democratic conservatism embraces many goals reminiscent of centrist political parties across Europe.”

Ali Akın has worked as a pharmacist for 25 years, but also wears other hats as he works as an active exporter and investor. Akın, 48, only replies that he has respect for all kinds of views when reminded of the phrase “Islamic Calvinists.” “What matters is how we describe ourselves. People of Konya are, in general, pious people. We know ourselves and we don’t have an issue with this,” Akın tells Today’s Zaman.

Akın is the head of the Konya-based Active Businessmen and Industrialists Association (AKTİSAD), which has around 490 members, most of whom are in the export business while around 250 of them are industrialists. “One of our members who joined the association only three years ago is now exporting his goods to 103 countries. I reckon that now there is no single country to which there are no export from Konya,” Akın says, stressing that young businesspersons have a strong appetite for achieving business growth.

During the 2001 financial crisis, when the lira lost half its value when overnight interest rates shot up 4,500 percent and, due to the aftereffects of this domestic turbulence, 11 banks went bankrupt, Konya businesses survived with surprisingly few scars. Many argued that Konya business people’s hesitance to use bank loans due to religious proscriptions on interest was the main reason their businesses had been protected from the negative effects of the crisis.

“Konya business people came out of the 2001 crisis without debt since they didn’t use bank loans. They mostly try to sort out their finance problems by dealing with interest-free financial institutions. As a result, they haven’t faced the major problem of unemployment or bankruptcy and their businesses soon began growing,” Akın explains. “Konya’s people are venturous but don’t like to be indebted.” Tahir Büyükhelvacıgil, 52, is another Konya business figure who wears more than one hat. Büyükhelvacıgil is the president of the Turkish Standers Institute (TSE) and the head of the Konya Chamber of Industry (KSO). He is the third generation of a family involved in the vegetable oil business and owns the Zade vegetable oil refinery facilities in Konya where the fourth generation of his family is also involved.

According to Büyükhelvacıgil, the habits of the people of Konya in dealing with financial matters definitely added to their strength during the crisis.

“Konya is active in around 80 different industrial sectors, such a diversity of sectors is rarely seen in other cities and Konya has not been affected dramatically by the economic crisis. When you ask business people, they say they are concerned about how they can conduct business in foreign countries in accordance with their Islamic beliefs. Alternative finance models should be established here in Turkey, too,” Büyükhelvacıgil says.

Özal’s legacy

Hüseyin Üzülmez, head of the Konya Chamber of Commerce (KTO), believes economic growth sustained through appropriate measures by the government is also reflected in the social and political life of the country.

“During the crisis, we invested in closed economies rather than the global market in line with our government’s economic policies and we have entered markets in Africa and Asia that were neglected in the past,” Üzülmez, also a board member of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), explains and adds that this is how Konya achieved growth despite the financial crisis.

Both Akın and Büyükhelvacıgil appreciate the current government’s economic policies, but they also highlight that credit should be given where it is due as they recall late President Turgut Özal initiated the institution and introduction of liberal economic principles in the ‘80s. “The country’s growth seems like an issue of last five or six years, thus related to the AK Party government. It is true that the AK Party made a significant contribution, but the foundation for these developments was laid by the late Özal who encouraged people to open up to world markets. The AK Party paved the way for these people,” Akın says, while Büyükhelvacıgil adds that Özal’s moving Turkey’s economy towards a free market since 1983 changed the entire economic composition of Turkey.

“The changes that have taken place since 1983 have created a new type of aspiring elite, the elite promoted by the late President Turgut Özal. In my opinion, the ruling AK Party is the political representative of a new aspiring social and political elite. The new elite have a certain economic base and they have also developed economic networks,” sociologist Ayhan Aktar said in an interview with Today’s Zaman.

In the past, with an apparent sense of humor, the people of Konya had an anecdote about themselves that suggested that a person from Konya leaves the town only twice in his life: when fulfilling the customary military service somewhere in the country, and when travelling to Mecca for the hajj. “This is not the case anymore. Konya business society is everywhere in the world,” asserts Akın.

Aksaray eyes breaking out of its shell

Representatives of business circles in the central Anatolian province of Aksaray constantly point to growth in the cities of Konya and Kayseri, saying the development of these agricultural centers-turned-industrial boom cities is a good example for other cities.

Surrounded by Ankara, Nevşehir, Konya, Niğde and Kırşehir, Aksaray is a central city in the literal, geographical sense, but has been unable to sufficiently make use of this location’s advantage in the way Konya and Kayseri have done. What business people here explain is that the city needs a trademark to catch up to these other cities, while improving its agricultural and industrial production through industrial transformation in both sectors.

There are apparently three key dates that can be regarded as milestones of development in the central Anatolian city of Aksaray. In 1986, German motor vehicle manufacturer Daimler’s subsidiary Mercedes-Benz started manufacturing trucks in the city. In 1989, the city’s status of province was restituted after being a town under Niğde for 66 years. And, finally, in 2004 the adoption of Law No. 5084 led to an increase in investment and employment. Law No. 5084, simply know as “5084” by the Aksaray business community, provided tax, energy, land and insurance incentives for potential investors in 49 low-income provinces -- including Aksaray, Ordu, Kars and Erzurum.

Reha Güven has been the head of the Aksaray Young Industrialists and Businessmen Association (AGİAD) since April 2009. Güven, 41, worked as a commissioned officer with the Turkish army for five years after an eight-year long stint at military school. After deciding to leave the army in 1995, Güven begun to work in the production of office furniture and in the sale of construction material. “Aksaray is a city that is still in [the middle of a] transformation process and is trying to break out of its shell,” Güven explains.

AGİAD’s Secretary-General İsmail Abalıoğlu likens the way Aksaray seems today to a picture he once saw of Konya. “Around 1995, Konya was like a construction site, like how Aksaray is today,” Abalıoğlu asserts. “Yes, it is true, we have to pass a certain threshold and continue on our way to creating an added value like Konya did,” Güven adds.

AGİAD recently initiated a new service for its 150 members via what it called a “foreign trade club.” “Now companies in Aksaray will have the opportunity to reach 180 countries around the world and export their products to these countries through the guidance of this club,” Güven says.

“Agriculture and stockbreeding is as important as it was in the past, although industrial investment is on the rise. We have to open up to foreign markets by achieving industrial advances in both agriculture and stockbreeding,” he added.

After being declared a province again in 1989 and with the employment opportunities created by foreign investment in companies, Aksaray has seen an upsurge in immigration from its smaller towns and villages. Although Aksaray University was officially established in 2006, the city was earlier host to several faculties of other universities established in neighboring provinces.

The factors above have wrought a considerable change in the composition and diversity of the population, citizens of Aksaray say; however, they still note that the two factors didn’t lead to the desired level of change in terms of urbanization. Thus, Aksaray is in a period of transformation in terms of urbanization as well.

The ‘5084’ pill and the railway vitamin

According to Himmet Karadal, a professor of business administration at Aksaray University, in order to grow, Aksaray must first determine the fields in which it is strongest and has the power to compete in and draw a roadmap accordingly.

“Superiority of agriculture and stockbreeding is obvious but let’s say, for example in the milk sector, there is need for research and development studies carried out jointly by entrepreneurs and the university,” Karadal suggests. In early November, Bursa-based Sütaş opened a new integrated milk plant with an annual production capacity of 400 million liters of milk. Yet, according to what both Güven and Karadal explained, there are doubts that it will be able to fulfill all of Aksaray’s demand for milk.

Ali Öztürk, head of the Aksaray Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that a non-populist approach to emerging cities like Aksaray would make everything easier since entrepreneurs in the city are already able to stand on their own feet. “We appreciate the stability maintained in the past decade and thanks to this stability, we are about to break out of our shell,” Öztürk says, while urging the government to pay closer attention to the functioning of development agencies. Development agencies are analyzing each region’s potential individually in order to provide investors with a comprehensive understanding of the area and are also aimed at convincing leading global companies to invest in Turkey -- especially in east, southeast and central Anatolia.

Like Güven, Abalıoğlu and Karadal, Öztürk maintains that building a freight railway linking Aksaray to ports to the south of the city and to emerging economic centers -- for example as Gaziantep is an “export gate” at the Syrian border -- would significantly help Aksaray’s economy since it would reduce production and transportation costs.

“This is what we say to the government: ‘You have prescribed us a medicine via [Law No.] 5084, now you should prescribe a vitamin to us so that we can be actively involved in exporting our goods and, thus, creating more employment for the people of Aksaray’,” says Öztürk.

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