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Erdogan is MENA’s most popular leader, Arab Barometer finds

Turkey's promotion of cultural heritage, including through its tourism and entertainment sectors, is one reason for Erdogan's popularity. However, the perception of the Ottoman legacy is gradually shifting from one of praise to one of condemnation toward Turkish policies.
In this handout picture released by the Turkish presidential press office, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and invited guests attend Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque during the building's first official prayers after being reconverted into a mosque on July 24, 2020, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains MENA's most popular leader, according to new survey data released by the Arab Barometer this week to Al-Monitor.

In an email to Al-Monitor, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, senior research specialist at the public opinion research network, explained that Erdogan’s popularity among surveyed countries can be explained across several reasons including Turkey’s electoral legitimacy, increasing accessibility and Erdogan’s revival of the Ottoman heritage.

“Erdogan’s supporters overlook his authoritarian tendencies and his persecution of political and ethnic minorities in Turkey, to say nothing of his colonial practices in Syria, and believe him to be a positive representative of the global Muslim nation as he revives Islam’s imperial past and seeks to reconstitute its narrative of hegemony,” Kayyali wrote in November for Al-Jumhuriya.

Since 2006, the Arab Barometer has partnered with institutions across the MENA region to conduct public opinion surveys asking residents what they feel about issues such as religion, foreign policy, women's rights, healthcare and migration. 

The latest wave of survey data by the barometer interviewed 20,000 citizens between July 2020 and May 2021 (some surveys are still ongoing) and included dozens of studies. In its regional leadership study, six countries were included: Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

Respondents said Erdogan was more popular than his regional rivals including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was voted the least popular. Despite these findings, though, less than half of respondents said they thought Erdogan's foreign policies were any good.

One reason for the results, Kayyali says, is that Erdogan holds a transnational claim on leadership over the broader Muslim nation.

“Turkey has invested heavily in cultural production geared at reviving the Ottoman imperial heritage,” Kayyali wrote in the study. “While this has been contested in Turkey, it has been much better received in the Arab world where there is an exacerbated and sustained leadership crisis and where Islam’s imperial legacy is sorely missed.”

Some of the most obvious ways Turkey promotes this heritage are through its tourism and entertainment sectors. The number of visitors to the country rose sharply in 2016 and has continued to rise. The country accepted over 51 million international arrivals in 2019, according to the World Tourism Organization Yearbook of Tourism Statistics. Compare that to the next highest countries in the region of the United Arab Emirates (21.6 million) and Saudi Arabia (20.3 million).

Turkey has also promoted commercial, cultural and touristic exchange with its neighbors. The Turkish-Arab Chambers of Commerce announced in 2019 that trade between Turkey and Arab states increased by 250% over the past decade. 

The promotion of its cultural heritage was most evident in the 2000s, said Nicholas Danforth, senior non-resident fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. However, residents in the region have gradually shifted their position on this legacy.

“In the 2000s when Turkish foreign policy was effective, the most common use of Neo-Ottomanism as a term was in regard to Turkish outreach to the region and in regard to Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its ties with regional governments,” Danforth said. “Now, you more frequently hear Neo-Ottomanism as an accusation by people in the Arab world toward Turkey as a way of condemning Turkish policies.”

There have been growing calls to dispel the Ottoman legacy in the region. Last year, Saudi Arabia removed the name of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from one of its main streets in Riyadh. And last month, the former Egyptian Minister of Culture Helmy al-Namnam called for the need to amend the names of some titles and streets that are from the Ottoman occupation of Egypt.

Erdogan's most overt claim to the Ottoman legacy came last July when he announced that the Hagia Sophia museum, one of Istanbul's most famous landmarks, would convert into a mosque. The site was built as a church in the sixth century and converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 before being declared a museum in 1934. The decision was largely condemned by the international community but praised by Erdogan supporters. Converting it again to a mosque was seen as a step to reconnect Turkey with its Ottoman history.

Despite these cultural maneuverings, the president's popularity has less to do with cultural heritage and more with his political ideology, said Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey program coordinator at The Project on Middle East Democracy.

“For many people in the region, Erdogan represents a pious Muslim populist leader who defies a secularist, pro-Western establishment in Turkey and who defends Muslims on the international stage,” Tahiroglu wrote to Al-Monitor. “This image earns him a lot of street cred, particularly among dissidents and Islamists in the Arab world.”

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