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The Pet Projects of a Sultan: Turkey’s Mega Infrastructure Projects

Turkey- Istanbul New Airport
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s (L) pictures are seen during the opening ceremony of Istanbul’s third airport, the Istanbul New Airport, in the Arnavutkoy district on the European side of Istanbul on October 29, 2018. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ BULENT KILIC

In 2017, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, claimed that six of the ten “megaprojects” of the past ten years were underway in Turkey. He touted the projects as a measure of Turkey’s stability, as all but one have been built in a public-private partnership that requires millions of dollars of foreign investment. Others argue that the megaprojects of the Erdogan era have been at best a dangerous, if successful, political strategy while at worst may just constitute a series of phenomenally expensive ego projects.

Many of these projects stem from plans published in 2011 to bolster Turkey’s GDP, which in 2017 stood at $851 billion, to $2 trillion by 2023. President Erdogan himself boasted of these projects as being “crazy”. The projects have been as grand in diversity as they have been in scale. Many have centred around Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and where President Erdogan served as mayor during the 1990s. They include a third bridge spanning the Bosphorus, a three-storey tunnel for road and rail transit under the Bosphorus, a tripling of the length of Istanbul’s metro system, the world’s largest airport and a canal to rival those at Suez and Panama.

The Economic Cost

Instability in Turkey, even during the iron-grip rule of President Erdogan – who has staved off every challenge to his power since 2002 – has plagued the economic outlook of Turkey in recent years, but especially since the attempted coup in 2016. Ankara responded to the ensuing wariness among foreign investors by implementing a stimulus package. This package, combined with the series of mega infrastructure projects and generous pre-election giveaways, has been criticised as undermining Turkey’s budgetary discipline as well as stoking inflation of the Turkish Lira.

President Erdogan prides himself on having transformed the country’s infrastructure since taking charge, and during his 2018 election campaign he promised a slew of infrastructure projects to celebrate the 2023 centenary of the Turkish republic, all funded by a $200 billion government decade-long investment plan. However the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has expressed concern at the spread of these projects, urging a “strict selection” for such expenditure in 2018.

Among the projects is Istanbul’s 1.4-km-long Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge, the third to span the Bosphorus waterway and the largest in the world in its class. The $3 billion bridge offers an eight-lane route for the Istanbul-Izmir highway to skip past the city’s infamous traffic. While its hefty price tag may leave some questioning its worth, for a growing city troubled by congested traffic, the economic benefits that any new crossing of the Bosphorus bring make it a price worth paying.

In late 2018, as Turkey’s economy struggled with US sanctions and staggering inflation, President Erdogan signalled that Turkey would review existing investment plans. Even so, the nearly-completed projects would still be finished and their future looks assured. There is no cost too great, it seems, for these monsters of modern infrastructure.

Turkey mega projects
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The Human Cost

Most expensive among these projects has been Istanbul’s third airport, which was officially opened on 29 October 2018. Costing a whopping estimated $12 billion, it is billed as the world’s largest airport (once completed), with an estimated $20 million eventually estimated to pass through its doors each day.

It replaces Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, a long-loved gateway to the world for the city. However, the airport may not just be a transport upgrade. Doing away with one of the country’s most prominent monuments to the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it is highly unlikely that the new airport will bear his name again. Instead, the project offers Erdogan’s Islamist party the chance to dedicate the site to another Ottoman-era hero of theirs, subtly reshaping the Turkish identity map. Already the city’s third bridge is named after ‘Selim the Grim’ an Ottoman sultan infamous for his murderous campaigns. While the airport has not yet been named, Abdul Hamid II – the Ottoman sultan who is revered as a forefather of political Islam in Turkey – is viewed as a frontrunner.

The airport is expected to boost Turkey’s economy by 5%, further cementing Istanbul’s – and Turkey’s – place as a hub in the global economy. The construction of the project has obviously been an enhancement to the city’s economy, providing vital economic boosts in a period of broad commercial belt-tightening and economic strain. But at the same time, this economic boom has been shadowed by dark clouds around the conditions of labour on the airport’s construction. Dozens of employees have died during the construction process and protests have repeatedly been called in anger at working conditions, late payment of salaries and even the quality of food provided to workers. While the new airport has been the centrepiece of this new collection of Turkish mega infrastructure projects, it has also been a figurehead for the problems that have beleaguered most, if not all, of its cousins.

The Environmental Cost

Criticisms of the infrastructure-building spree has not been limited to the human cost. Perhaps the most controversial project slated for construction by the Turkish government is the 45-km-long Istanbul Canal.

When a shipping vessel crashed into the bank of the Bosphorus in 2018, the need for an alternate shipping route was all too clear for some. However, such events are a rarity, even if traffic in the Bosphorus is on the rise – in 2017, some 53,000 ships passed through the straits, making it one of the most crowded waterways in the world. Only 18,000 ships traversed the Suez Canal in the same year.

In a bid to fast-track the development of these projects, environmental concerns have fallen by the wayside; the canal is the best example of this. Environmentalists have said that the canal will destroy water basins and ever-shrinking green spaces around Istanbul, as well as altering oxygen levels in the sea, which can have serious consequences for marine life. The Istanbul Canal will run through 350 hectares of prime forest, whose role in mitigating the city’s air pollution has earned them the nickname “the lungs of Istanbul,” and will displace more than one million people. This is all a cost that Ankara deems worth paying.

The airport and canal seem set to disrupt the water basin that feeds Istanbul’s taps, including aqueduct systems put in place by 17th century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Questions have also been raised over the viability of the canal project, as a 1936 treaty guarantees free passage for ships via the Bosphorus. The Turkish government has yet to publicly address how it would convince shipping companies to pay for passage through the new canal.

But not all the projects are necessarily bad for the environment. Turkey is inaugurating a series of large solar power plants, the largest ever planned in the country. As of 2018, the country is well on its way to reaching its target of deriving 30% of its energy from solar energy by 2023 as part of Turkish Republic’s centenary construction initiative. Even so, renewable energy initiatives, while essential for the planet’s well-being, will not remedy the damage that Turkey’s new concrete love affair is doing.

A Concrete-Lined Future

“When man dies he leaves behind a monument,” President Erdogan told the thousands of Turks who came to see the bridge opening. Despite – and perhaps because of – the costs, this string of megaprojects has cemented his place in Turkey’s history and on the Turkish landscape.

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