US, Saudi and Qatari Money Behind Erdogan and Islamist Rise in Turkey

One of the great ironies of our time, is that we find Donald Trump chastising and sanctioning Erdogan’s Turkey – the very regime the U.S. and its allies put in power. It is a long and sordid history, but the bottom line is that without this support the Islamists in Turkey would NOT have the power and prominence they have today!

Sounds familiar? Ask the Afghans who supported the Taliban? Ask Iranians who brought Khomeini to power. These Islamists were ALL funded, supported, sponsored and trained by the West. And are now enemy number 1!

It Turkey, it all started in 1980. (Sounds familiar? Almost the same time when the Taliban came to prominence and the Mullahs came to power in Iran.)

Following the 1980 military coup, Turkey’s state ideology shifted to the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis”. With especially Saudi support, this ideology flourished during the Ozal administration who made no secret of his Islamist sympathies.

In a detailed book on the subject, the author Mamcu, explains that left-wing bureaucrats – especially within the security and intelligence apparatuses – who were concerned about Islamization had become sidelined and eventually became a minority. Mumcu who shared their essential worldview as these left wing bureaucrats, was the victim of a mysterious assassination car bomb on January 24, 1993.

In his book, Mamcu exposed islamist networks – linking politics, Islamic capital, and the cemaats – and revealed a striking fact about present-day Turkey: that the individuals and firms in question were ones that would later achieve prominence during the current AKP/Erdogan era.

The following are some of the individuals involved with the Saudi-financed organizations and foundations listed by Mumcu in 1987: Eymen and Mustafa Latif Topbaş of the Topbaş family, which has a share in BİM supermarkets, is part of the Erenköy cemaat (a branch of the Nakşibendi religious order), and has close ties to Erdoğan; Hasan Kalyoncu, the founder of Kalyon İnşaat – which was awarded a contract for Istanbul’s third airport and is one of the owners of the pro-AKP media outlet Sabah-ATV – along with its current president, Cemal Kalyoncu; Sabri Ülker, the founder of the Ülker Group (which has long supported Islamist publications and foundations) as well as former prime minister Davutoğlu’s high school classmate Murat Ülker; former AKP finance minister Kemal Unakıtan; and Abdullah Tivnikli, who joined the board of directors of Türk Telekom following its sale to the Saudi firm Oger Telecom. 27 Having formed deep ties to Saudi capital during the 1980s, these individuals entered the limelight during the AKP era, receiving lucrative construction tenders and becoming an increasingly powerful force in the media and politics.

Saudi and Qatari capital steadily increased their presence in Turkey beginning in 2002, when the AKP came to power. As companies like Digiturk, Finansbank, and Türk Telekom were purchased by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Qatari capital became a crucial component of Turkey’s real estate and construction sectors. Many skyscrapers built in Turkey’s big cities in recent years count Persian Gulf companies among their owners. Turkish bureaucrats with close ties to Saudi money typically rise quite speedily through the ranks. Take, for instance, the case of Efkan Ala, who served as minister of the interior between 2013 and 2016. Prior to becoming minister of the interior, Ala served as undersecretary of the Prime Ministry; in 2012, he was appointed a member of the Audit Committee of Türk Telekom, to represent the Saudi company Oger Telecom. Without a doubt, the Saudi firm viewed Ala as someone it could trust and as the one who would best represent Oger Telecom. One could also mention Murat Çetinkaya, the governor of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey since April 2016, who has long held high-ranking positions at Gulf-controlled, Turkey-based firms such as Al Baraka Türk and Kuveyt Türk. But this influx of Gulf – and especially Saudi – capital into Turkey is highly problematic. For one thing, such money is not subject to normal accountability mechanisms, meaning that its entry into Turkey suffers from a lack of transparency. Moreover, every sum of money invested in a country comes with an attached ideology, so to speak. Investors from Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, are the product of an anti-democratic monarchical system, with a totalitarian worldview shaped by Wahhabi doctrine. It would be surprising if they did not seek to alter the political and economic makeup of Turkey in line with their own interests. Visiting Saudi Arabia in 2010, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan declared “whatever the EU is to us, Saudi Arabia is, too”; nonetheless, in the seven years since that time, Riyadh has achieved far more cordial ties with Ankara than Brussels has. Turkey created the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) in Syria in partnership with Saudi Arabia; Turkey also partnered with the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) in Syria under Saudi leadership, and in February 2016, Saudi fighter jets were deployed to İncirlik Air Base.


By the 1990s, Islamism had become a redoubtable economic force in Turkey, consisting of a network of cemaats that had evolved into holding companies, and with a presence in all state institutions. Rather than share political power with anyone, it sought total power for itself. Around the same time, Turkey’s judiciary and military bureaucracy had also begun to perceive political Islam as a threat. Thus the “reformist” wing of Islamism spearheaded by Erdoğan and Gül reckoned there would have to be a purge of the judiciary and military, and that for this to happen, they would need support from Turkey’s foreign allies, particularly the US and EU. In the run-up to the February 28 coup and the subsequent closing down of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the founding of the AKP, this reformist wing distanced itself from the Millî Görüş (National Vision) line espoused by Erbakan and began to climb the rungs of power by forming strategic alliances with the West.

As scholar İlhan Uzgel has remarked, two of the AKP’s most prominent politicians, Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, underwent “a significant cognitive learning process” starting in the mid-1990s, realizing that the West, and the US in particular, played an indispensable role in their “coming to power, and staying in power, in Turkey”: “Therefore, the young generation [reformists] of the National Vision preferred to rise to power not in spite of the West, or the US, or the Jewish lobby, but with the full support of all of the above, using them as a means by which to bargain for more and more power.” And indeed, during their visits to the US in 2002, both before and directly after the elections, Gül and Erdoğan delivered important messages regarding the course to be charted by the AKP. In January of 2002, for instance, Erdoğan met with Graham Fuller (a CIA Middle East expert and one of the architects of the “moderate Islam” project sponsored by the RAND Corporation) as well as former US ambassador Morton Abramowitz; at a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an important think tank, described the US as “Turkey’s natural partner.”  Erdoğan’s statement regarding his contacts in the US – “they are keeping track of us” – is quite telling.  Undoubtedly, Erdoğan was aware that high-ranking members of the US political establishment sought to use the AKP model to turn the tide of post-September 11 Middle Eastern religious fundamentalism; Erdoğan viewed this as an invaluable resource in the power struggle about to erupt in Turkey. The following lines, written by journalist Derya Sazak in January of 2002, are a striking reflection of the relationship the AKP leadership established between domestic and foreign policy: “Making references to the ‘moderate Islam’ of his electorate, Erdoğan has declared that the political model found in Turkey, based on the principle of ‘coming to power and departing from power through elections’ within a democratic, secular state order, can set an example for every country in the Muslim world.” 34 As early as November of 1999, Abdullah Gül visited the US together with Recai Kutan, the founder of the Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party, FP). During their visit, he stated, “We have learned our lesson from the experience of the Refahyol government” [the short-lived coalition government between Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the center-right Doğru Yol Partisi (True Path Party)]. Gül went on to explain that he “was in favor of EU membership” rather than an “Islamic Common Market.”

This policy of rapprochement with the US, which Uzgel described as “pragmatic change,” along with the AKP’s in-person messages to Washington that it had embraced democratic principles, did not represent a fundamental shift resulting from a process of profound introspection. Rather, it represented a pragmatic search for a foreign ally that would strengthen the AKP’s hand at home. Erdoğan himself effectively admitted as much, stating, “I have never used the expression, ‘I have changed.’ If saying that one has changed means a renunciation of one’s values, then using such an expression is impossible. We have merely shed our old skin in response to worldwide developments.” This image of “shedding one’s skin” – i.e. adapting to present conditions without altering one’s true nature – well captures the AKP’s trajectory between 2002 and 2011, both in domestic and foreign policy. In a 1993 interview, Erdoğan, then serving as the Istanbul chairman of the Welfare Party, famously stated, “We hold that democracy is only a vehicle. It is a vehicle to choose whatever system you wish to arrive at.” Considering such statements from Erdoğan, one should hardly be surprised at the current state of the rule of law, separation of powers, and freedom of the press in Turkey following 15 years of AKP rule.

Around the same time, Fethullah Gülen, who moved to the US in 1999, and was a close ally of the AKP from 2002 to 2013, also advocated establishing close ties with Washington. Gülen’s own Cold War-era anti-communist discourse owed much to Said Nursi, the leader of the Nur Movement, within which Gülen was raised. In the 1940s, Nursi urged the CHP government of the time to oppose communism – which he likened to “the invasion of the terrible dragon from the Northeast [the USSR]” – and to “embrace the Quran and the reality of belief.” According to Nursi, it was necessary to side with the US in this conflict: “It is possible for a devout Muslim to become good friends with a mighty state like America, which is earnest in its defense of religion.” In 1997, Gülen publicly expressed the pro-US stance he had inherited from Nursi, stating, “Fanatical communists harbor antipathy towards America without any rational or logical basis.” He added, “It is important to follow the US closely – along with whatever parts there to which we feel an affinity – and to avail ourselves of it properly. In this way, one can raise a ‘golden generation,’ a young generation which will represent science and technology throughout the world.”

During that same period, others began to find fault with Turkey’s unilateral dependence on the West, arguing that a Cold War-style alliance with the West would ultimately be untenable, and that new approaches to foreign policy were necessary. İsmail Cem, Turkey’s foreign minister between 1997 and 2002, argued that Turkey needed to align itself with the East, not just with the West; Cem aimed at turning Turkey into a “world power” by developing independent policies towards the surrounding regions. In ulusalcı (leftist-nationalist) circles and among certain high-ranking army officers, a new foreign policy approach known as “Eurasianism” emerged, which questioned the validity of Turkey’s relations with the West. This outlook reached its zenith in 2002, when the secretary-general of Turkey’s National Security Council, General Tuncer Kılınç, declared that Turkey had not received the slightest benefit from the EU, stating, “I view it as advantageous for Turkey, if possible, to adopt an approach which would also include Russia and Iran, without neglecting America.” With the AKP’s coming to power in 2002, these trends in foreign policy came to an end, while the era of unconditional rapprochement with the US and EU began. Following the September 11 attacks, the US settled on the AKP as a “model” for Middle Eastern countries, as a means of countering the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world. The US viewed the AKP as suitable because it was a standard-bearer of neo-liberalism, having embraced free-market economics, and because it had come to power by free and fair elections. In 2004, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Iraq with the example of Turkey, stating that in Iraq, “there will be an Islamic republic, as there are other Islamic republics – Turkey and Pakistan.” Thus, the West supported the AKP as a model of moderate Islam; Erdoğan, for his part, was quick to turn this to his advantage in domestic politics. The AKP believed that a purge of the military and judicial bureaucracy and, more broadly, the country’s Republican secular elites – who, in any case, had begun to question the nature of Turkey’s relations with the West – would be inevitable to reinforce its own power. It waged a fierce campaign against them, not hesitating to resort to show trials when necessary; in all of this, it had the full support of the West. In the resulting struggle for power – which included such events as the 2007 presidential crisis, the 2008 closure case against the AKP, and the subsequent Ergenekon and Balyoz operations – political Islam emerged triumphant.

Thus, the AKP’s domestic policy began to drift towards authoritarianism, while in foreign policy its relations with the West grew increasingly more awkward. Cultivating ties with radical groups in the Middle East following the Arab Uprisings, the AKP diverged significantly from the moderate Islam the US had come to associate with it. Notably, debates in the US about Turkey’s political drift and its distancing itself from the West began in earnest after 2009. Especially following 2011, the AKP supported Muslim Brotherhood parties in the Middle East, taking sides in the internal chaos and clashes in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya. One could also cite the AKP’s misguided approach to radical groups like the Nusra Front in the Syrian Civil War and its use of the refugee crisis as a means of threatening the EU. At present, the US and the EU have a problematic relationship with Turkey’s Islamist government. Ankara, for its part, is aware that the West has considerable leverage over the AKP. The AKP views the US’s close ties to the Gülen Movement, the July 15 coup attempt, and the prosecution of Reza Zarrab (who is alleged to have overseen the flow of billions of dollars through Turkey to circumvent the embargo against Iran) as attempts to overthrow Turkey’s government. One could cite, for example, the following statement from none less than Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ: “It is unclear whether the person on trial is Reza Zarrab, our Honorable President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or [his wife] Emine Erdoğan.”

Behind Turkey’s tensions with the US and EU lies a paranoid fear that the methods, which the AKP (along with the West and the Gülen Movement) once used against its opponents from 2002 onwards, are now being used against the AKP itself. In 2004, when negotiations regarding Turkey’s EU bid officially commenced to great fanfare, the country’s economy and politics seemed firmly tethered to the EU, allowing foreign capital to flow into Turkey in abundance. Now, in 2017, the situation could not be more different. The rule of law has been suspended in Turkey, corporations have been taken over by the government, pro-AKP trustees have been appointed as mayors in numerous municipalities, opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested, and the country has become increasingly authoritarian as it leaves the orbit of the EU. As a result, Turkey’s economy is in utter turmoil. Many, not least the AKP, are aware that these problems have reached a boiling point and that a solution is unlikely to materialize. There is no doubt that this sense of desperation induced Erdoğan, the leader of a NATO country, to state, “If Turkey joins the Shanghai Five, things will go much more smoothly.” In short, Turkish Islamism, which rose to prominence in Cold War-era Turkey as part of the struggle against an ascendant Left, is now transforming a secular democratic republic into an authoritarian far-right Islamic polity, in line with its own world view. Turkey’s Western allies, especially the US, are trying to determine a framework and a set of principles on which to base their relationship with the Islamists. Turkey was once a secular republic and – for all its flaws – a functioning democratic polity. The alliance, which was formed to put an end to that polity, in the name of defeating authoritarian Kemalism, has now been dissolved.

The relationship between Turkey and the West exists, for the moment, on a transactional basis. Yet at a time when Turkish democracy has been shaken to its foundations, such a pragmatic relationship is unlikely to last for long.

For now, Erdogan blames the failed coup in Turkey on the U.S. and its allies. And, for now, Erdogan blames the rise in Kurdish independence on their Western backers. Erdogan blames Turkey’s inability to join the EU as another failed engagement with the West. And most recently, its failure to topple Assad on others on failed Western policies. In essence, Turkey feels like a loser in associating with the U.S. and its allies. More so today, with its currency under Western attack.

What is next is anyone’s guess. Like the Taliban, and the Ayatollahs – it seems Erdogan might foregoing his connections with Trump and his allies for the sake of survival.  And so, in walks China, Russia and Iran … to Erdogan’s rescue.

The question is, who will prevail and endure longest? East or West? (Would you bet on a lame duck, soon to be gone U.S. president or President for life Xi or Putin??)

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