Turkish Airlines: a foreign policy tool by Orçun Selçuk*

December 17, 2012, Monday/ 18:47:00

In recent years, there has been an increase in the visibility of Turkish Airlines (THY) both in Turkey and around the world.

 It is not by accident that the rise of THY as a high quality global airline coincides with Turkey’s willingness to integrate more fully with the Middle East and Africa. Though THY is no longer a public entity since a majority of its shares are now traded on the İstanbul Stock Exchange (İMKB), the Turkish state retains the golden share (49 percent), which strongly influences the company’s management. Similar to other state-affiliated national airlines, those following the development of Turkish foreign policy will agree that THY is openly used by the government as a tool to buttress the expansion of its foreign policy.

In the Middle East, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s ideals of zero problems with neighbors and regional peace and stability through a liberal visa regime and free trade agreements is complementary to THY’s route openings. Since 2006, five cities in Iraq and three cities in Iran have been added to THY’s list of destinations. A closer look into Turkey’s bilateral relations with Iraq and Iran demonstrate that THY’s route openings are guided by Turkey’s political and economic considerations.

For instance, the opening of the Arbil route in April 2011 can only be understood in the context of Turkey’s developing political and commercial relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Also, the airline’s increasing number of destinations in Iran is a phenomenon not independent from Turkey’s preference of a policy that emphasizes cooperation rather than confrontation when dealing with the regional power. Considering that Iran is a large market for Turkish exporters and that the number of tourists entering Turkey from Iran is the highest among the Middle Eastern countries, the availability of THY flights contributes to Turkey’s commercial and tourism potential.

THY is also one of the main pillars of Turkey’s engagement with the African continent. The increasing presence of Turkish diplomats, businesspeople and schools on the continent is complemented by the opening of direct air routes by THY to countries once considered remote. Today, THY flies to numerous cities in Africa, including Addis Ababa, Lagos, Cape Town, Nairobi, Dakar and Mogadishu. Thanks to THY, Turkey is connected to countries in Africa more than ever. In addition, Turkish entrepreneurs in search of new markets have more access to the countries that THY serves.

The political factors influencing THY’s Middle East and Africa strategies are met by increasing demand for THY among the people in those geographies. As Turkey’s flag carrier airline, THY benefits economically from Turkish foreign policy activism in the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, the coordination between THY board members and Turkish foreign policy makers facilitates the latter’s attempts to increase its influence both in political and economic terms.

In addition, with İstanbul Atatürk Airport as a major transfer hub for THY’s international flights, more passengers than ever are using Turkey to connect with the rest of the world.  This adds to the perception of Turkey as a globally central location in the minds of THY passengers. Moreover, THY’s sponsorship deals with world-famous sports teams and players contribute positively to Turkey’s image as well as THY’s rise among other global airlines. In this sense, we can also consider THY as a tool of soft power aimed at increasing the attraction of Turkey among foreign publics.

*Orhan Selçuk, M.A., is freelance writer.

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