Turkish infrastructure projects reflect vision of future outside EU
Dubai - The Syrian war, Kurdish separatism, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), growing distance from NATO and a coup attempt have been cited as threats to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his vision to radically overhaul Turkey’s infrastructure and transform the country into an economic powerhouse.
The Turkish presidency was imbued with greater power through a referendum in April, about nine months after a failed coup against Erdogan, but Erdogan’s relationship with key EU partners has deteriorated, making Turkey’s prospects of attaining EU membership increasingly poor.
To think that Turkey’s economic future depends solely on EU membership, however, is to overlook the groundwork the country has been doing. Given Turkey’s geographical position linking Asia, Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East, an independent economic future for the resurgent Eurasian power may be within reach.
Turkey recently completed a series of megaprojects centred on connectivity, such as the $4.5 billion Marmaray project, an underwater rail tunnel connecting Europe and Asia; its $1.3 billion sister project, the Eurasia Tunnel, connecting Europe and Asia for vehicles; and the $3 billion Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the third across the Bosporus Strait.
The under-construction $3 billion Canakkale 1915 Bridge — the world’s longest suspension bridge — over the Sea of Marmara will form part of an upgraded motorway network spanning more than 350km.
Ahmet Arslan, Turkish minister of transportation, maritime affairs and communications, said investment in highways has been overshadowed by Erdogan’s greatest focus — high-speed rail infrastructure.
This year’s budget for rail infrastructure is $3.2 billion and, by 2023, Turkey will have spent $42 billion to build 3,500km of high-speed and 8,500km fast-track railways, more than doubling the mainly conventional rail network and drastically cutting travel times across the country.
A total of 1,213km in high-speed rail lines have been completed and 3,000km more are under construction with benefits already being felt. Take the Ankara-Istanbul express line, for example, which connects Turkey’s two most populous cities and has halved journey times for the 32 million passengers it has served since 2009 — and usage is increasing 18% a year.
Turkey aims to extend the high-speed, modern connectivity exemplified by the Ankara-Istanbul express line across the country and realise its vision to become a trans-regional trade gateway and corridor.
Under its middle corridor plan, Turkey is collaborating with Georgia and Azerbaijan on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project. Next year, Turkey hopes to complete the Ankara-Kırıkkale-Yozgat-Sivas high-speed rail project, forming part of a continuous rail network from Beijing to London that will eventually allow Chinese goods to reach Europe in as little as 15 days.
Turkey is building a third airport for Istanbul over an area larger than Monaco at a cost of $10 billion. It is planned to have six runways — Dubai and London Heathrow, the world’s busiest airports, have two each — with capacity to park 500 aircraft. The first phase is to be operational next year and the project completed by 2023 to mark the 100th anniversary of the republic.
Another historic project Turkey plans to have completed by then is the $15 billion Istanbul Canal, an artificial waterway to connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, creating an alternative for vessels to passing through the busy Bosporus Strait.
Approximately 3% of global oil supplies pass through the Bosporus Strait, which makes Turkey a crucial player in global energy security. Building on projects such as the Iraq-Turkey and Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan crude oil pipelines and the Trans-Anatolia and TurkStream natural gas pipelines will make Turkey an indispensable energy gateway for energy supplies from Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Russia heading to southern Europe and Mediterranean countries.
Whatever the success or failure of Turkey’s plan to join the world’s top ten economies by 2030, it will not hinge on Erdogan’s popularity in Brussels, Berlin or on EU membership-centric policies for Ankara.
Containing ISIS, Kurdish separatists and threats to the political process in Turkey will be more crucial for Erdogan as his master plan evolves to prioritise Turkey’s relationships with its northern, eastern and southern neighbours together with infrastructure building to deliver high-speed connectivity.