A visit to the bustling city of Istanbul captures the essence of Turkey’s evolving role in the world.
The Bosphorus strait divides Europe and Asia. The giant bridge of the same name that crosses it links the two continents together.
Beyond the symbolism of the bustling city, Turkey is currently experiencing an expansion of its role as a bridge builder -- largely due to the new occupant in the White House.
It is very symbolic that Barack Obama chose Turkey as his first port of call in a Muslim country during his first 100 days in office.
Turkey remains secular, continues to knock on the European Union’s door for membership, and has a handful of relationships in the Middle East that could be vital in the peace process.
During an exclusive interview in Brussels, Turkey’s President Abudullah Gul provided more than a few glimpses into the shuttle diplomacy, with Washington’s blessing, that is now underway.
President Gul recently met with the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- it was no accident that it was just days before President Obama reached out with his message to Iran.
"I was able to speak in a very free and sincere atmosphere. I am sure they are listening, they are deliberating and I am sure that at the end when they are convinced that all these messages are sincere, then we can see action," said Gul on the sidelines of the European Business Summit.
Asked whether the elections will need to pass before there is a response to President Obama’s olive branch, Gul said, "The politicians before the election, they have to be populists. So, therefore after the election maybe these serious issues can be handled better."
In the meantime, Turkey is sustaining its shuttle diplomacy with Israel and Syria.
Gul, it is fair to say, is very positive about the change in leadership in Washington and the gestures overall to the Middle East.
"[Middle East leaders]should not miss this opportunity because President Obama is saying we are going to listen to you. We are not going to enforce our own policies on you. This is a good starting point."
While Middle East politics evolve, Turkey is filling another role for the West -- as an energy transport hub to counterbalance the inconsistent gestures from Moscow on supplies to Europe.
Washington was a big supporter of the BTC –- the Baku, Tbilisi, Ceyhan oil pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey’s south-eastern coast.
The next goal is the potential building of the Nabucco gas pipeline that will deliver energy from Central Asia to Austria via Turkey. There is some good old fashioned wrangling behind the scenes over transit fees and local supplies for Turkey, while Russia is busy trying to tie up the gas supplies through its network.
But the fact is Turkey will play a bigger role on this front in the next decade.
"It is a bridge between East and West," says Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. "In the energy sector it certainly contributes as a very important bridge of resources of the Middle East to the West."
According to the Center for European Reform, Turkey is near 70 percent of the world’s proven reserves of natural gas. Neighboring Iran and Iraq have still not exploited their natural gas exports.
President Gul calls Turkey position in this geo-political game "a unique role."
"You have to diversify the sources. If you have the sources you should secure transportation."
This sounds simple but, of course, it is not. With Turkey eager to see accession talks to the European Union move at a more rapid pace, there are concerns in Brussels that the Turkish leadership is playing the energy card.
Turkey can help deliver energy to the West, especially Europe, but expect a price tag to be attached.
As the former President of TUSIAD, the powerful Turkish business association noted, "There are some powers, there are even some companies, that take Turkey for granted. That there is a particular role for Turkey to play and that is it. I don’t think that it will evolve that way, in that simple manner."
No one ever said straddling both sides of the fence is easy; straddling two continents is even more complicated and yes more interesting.
ABOUT THIS BLOGJohn Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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