The World Economic Forum (WEF) held one of the most original and strategic meetings of its history in İstanbul on June 4-6.
With the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia as the focus, the WEF convened for the first time ever in its 41-year history outside of Davos with such a comprehensive agenda. Turkey was represented by the prime minister and six ministers at the forum, which brought together 1,100 participants from 70 countries. Leaders from 20 countries discussed a wide spectrum of issues, such as the economy and finance, employment, women’s participation in the workforce, the Arab Spring and the Syria crisis. This diversity in terms of the subjects taken up shows that the forum was not exclusively an economic forum but was a meeting dealing with developments related to all aspects of regional order and disorder. The primary aim of the İstanbul meeting can be seen as initiating a process for setting up a new order in Turkey’s region.
Why the forum was held in İstanbul has reasons each more important than the other and each inter-related, too. The first and most symbolic reason was the attitude Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displayed in Davos in 2009 with his famous “one minute” reaction, which culminated in his stern statement that Davos was over for him once and for all. Since then, Prime Minister Erdoğan has boycotted the annual Davos meeting and has sent his economy ministers in his place. Although it is most important for Turkey to be represented at Davos by the economy minister, the prime minister’s refusal to personally participate in those meetings aroused doubts as to whether Turkey was going to distance itself from Davos altogether. Turkey -- a country strategically important in terms of its economic power and location -- giving the Davos meetings a wide berth is likely to arouse concerns regarding economic and political systems and regional balances. That is why the WEF administration opted for a formula whereby the Davos meeting goes to İstanbul if the prime minister does not want to go to Davos.
We cannot say that the move of the WEF to İstanbul has been the result solely of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s attitude. So, the second reason why it was organized in İstanbul has a lot to do with Turkey’s economic performance. As has been acknowledged by the authorities, rankings show that Turkey was surprisingly among the countries least affected by the global economic crisis which started in 2008. Though the Turkish economy had its stumbling blocks in economic development, pursuing at times a wobbly path, its rally was swift and its growth continued. China and Turkey were two of the top 10 largest growing economies in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) in the world in 2011. The striking nature of Turkey’s economic performance comes across more markedly especially when compared with that of European countries. It is known that the EU countries, both as a whole and individually, are experiencing an economic slowdown. The financial and economic collapse of Greece -- seen in its inability to even pay the salaries of its state employees -- has deeply shocked Europe and the rest of the world. The failure on the part of Brussels to resolve Greece’s crisis has even caused certain circles in the union to argue for getting the country out of the eurozone. That crisis, we can say, has already spiraled into a dangerous place with the dimensions of an alarming political conundrum.
Turkey’s rising economic power
Turkey, which has aspired to pull even with the EU countries’ economic power since the 2000s, is now rising to a level envied by some EU economies -- another reason behind the Davos meeting’s move to İstanbul. It would be an exaggeration to say that Turkey has caught up with EU standards and has become a center of power in the world economy. However, it may well be said that Turkey has reached the level where it can firmly stand on its feet and is as such a country that can play a favorable role in the global and regional economic landscape. Turkey having become part of the G-20 is strong proof of that argument.
Viewed from this perspective, we can say that Turkey’s economy is more developed than the countries lying to its east rather than those to the west. That is why the forum in İstanbul has understandably chosen to focus on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia. The participation in the forum of countries from the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans was no surprise. The İstanbul meeting brought together, in a way, the advanced Western economies and Turkey and the countries around it. The meeting not only helped Western economies open out to the East via İstanbul but also promoted Turkey, already a country with a market economy, as a model for regional countries. Already cited as a model for negotiating the Islamic divide, Turkey has advanced this role in the economic realm.
The İstanbul meeting also gave an opportunity for the entire region, and the Arab Spring countries in particular, to integrate with the world economic system. If we acknowledge that the WEF is based on the principles of the capitalist, liberal and democratic market economy, we can say that the İstanbul meeting could be a tool for the process enabling those principles to spread to the East. When viewed from a wider angle, the forum is interested not only in economic and financial matters but many other subjects involving social, cultural and even political issues. While the Davos agendas typically have aims concerning the entire world system, the İstanbul meeting’s agenda has developed a vision on a regional scale. We are still at the beginning of that process and may well presume more advanced developments will emerge in the years to come.
*Dr. Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Yıldırım Beyazıt University.