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An illusionary ‘power of seduction’: an assessment of Turkey’s soft power capacity in the Arab World

This paper aims at exploring Turkey’s soft power capacity in the Arab world/Middle East region. The author first focuses on the concept of soft power as perceived and understood by Turkish policy-makers: through an in-depth analysis of the public discourse of key officials (Gül, Erdoğan, Davutoğlu) and the theoretical works of A. Davutoğlu (specifically his book “Strategic Depth”), the author explains the vision Turkey has of its role and soft power capacity in the world. Having discussed the theoretical framework, the author will then examine the implementation of Turkey’s soft power in the region. In particular, the paper will analyze three specific instruments used by the AKP and various civil society actors to boost Turkey’s influence in the region: a) the practice of public diplomacy and strategic communication to promote a civilizational” discourse and a new narrative about Turkey as a role model; b) the emphasis on education through the Yunus Emre Institutes and the Turkiye Burslari program; c) the use of media instruments, in particular soap operas and TRT Arabic channel, to conquer the “hearts and minds” of Arab populations. The paper will then assess the real impact of these initiatives: by examining the Arab societies’ perceptions of Turkey before and after the Arab Spring, the paper will analyze the extent to which soft power has allowed Turkey to become a regional power. The author argues that soft power has -so far- produced limited outcomes and had few tangible effects as to Turkey’s regional acceptance and its agenda-setting capacity and structural power in the Arab world. The author argues that, beyond “soft power”, Turkey is in need of “smart power” to face the challenges of the “new,” post-Arab Spring Middle East. The paper will be based on a review of available literature on the topic, as well as various interviews and polls conducted by the author in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates between 2011 and 2013.

Jana Jabbour is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Sciences Po Paris. Her research focuses on Turkey as a rising power in the Middle East since 2002.