Turkey certainly has much to offer the region. It is more democratic than any country in the Arab world and boasts the 16th largest economy in the world. The din of various Arabic dialects spoken by Egyptian, Libyan, Saudi, and other tourists at passport control at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport or in the famous Grand Bazaar speaks to Turkey’s regional pull.
However, a little more than a year after Mr. Erdogan’s regional tour, Turkey’s popularity – while still strong – is softening. In a recent poll, the respected Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation uncovered a creeping ambivalence among Arabs about Turkey’s regional role.
For example, across 16 countries surveyed, 69 percent of respondents reported a positive impression of Turkey. But the number of Arabs who regard Turkey as a model fell to just over half from the year before. Approval of Turkey’s regional influence was 60 percent, also lower. In the abstract, these are all enviable results, but they represent a slide of eight to nine percentage points in just one year – a significant drop.
Deteriorating relations with Iraq and alignment with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Syria are taking a toll on Turkey’s regional standing. It is true that the Turks are helping the Syrians free themselves from a brutal dictator, but few in the Arab world trust the Qataris, and especially the Saudis.
Ankara’s approach is also fueling suspicion – if only by circumstance – among Arabs that the Turks are pursuing a sectarian strategy that will sow conflict in the region, which in some ways has already begun in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.