Like Father, Like Son-in-Law: Meet Turkey’s Ruling Family
As Turkey enters a new era of one-man rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has named his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as finance minister, a move that has worried international observers at a time of troubling economic signs in the country. In 2018 alone, the Turkish lira has lost 40 per cent of its value.
Albayrak’s new position is a real opportunity for him to define his political identity and value. However, Erdogan is known to prize loyalty, now more than ever in the current climate of fear and suspicion following 2016’s attempted coup. Rather than being impressed by the political potential of his still-relatively young son-in-law (1978), Erdogan has likely decided to shore up the ranks closest to him with highly trusted and reliable figures.
Shortly after his appointment in July 2018, Albayrak held a call with foreign investors, 3,000 of whom registered for the call. This high number is testament to the level of interest in the future of what until recently was one of the strongest performing developing economies as well as to the fears around a potentially autocratic and poorly thought-out economic policy leading to recession.
Some investors on the call complained that Albayrak refused to engage with them, hinting at the aloofness of a man promoted to the upper echelons of Turkish society and government thanks to his family connections.
Even so, Albayrak has made some positive initial moves. He has said no to capital controls, promised improved fiscal discipline and cut targets for growth, which had seemed far too optimistic in the election campaign that saw Erdogan win a second term in June 2018.
At the same time, his comments about Turkey being under economic attack from abroad, as well as a somewhat ridiculous statement that “the dollar has lost all its credibility”, are understandably worrying for outside investors or business interests. His comments also reflect the rhetoric Erdogan uses, raising suspicions that Albayrak is little more than a puppet of the man at the top.
Although the timing was perhaps coincidental, US President Donald Trump’s tweet announcing a doubling of steel and aluminium tariffs on Turkey – an apparent retaliation for the continued detention of American citizen Andrew Brunson – was posted as Albayrak was making these comments.
Ascent to Power
Nicknamed damat (son-in-law or groom) after he married Erdogan’s daughter 14 years ago, Albayrak has his own family connections that have given him access to Erdogan’s inner circle for much longer. His father Sadik was an MP for the now-defunct Islamist Welfare Party and is an old friend of the president.
Albayrak’s life and family connections have drawn comparisons with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House apparatchik. Albayrak earned his first degree in business administration from Istanbul University before going on to study for a master’s degree in the same field at New York’s Pace University. He returned to Turkey to complete a PhD in finance at Kadir Has University before a brief stint lecturing at Marmara University.
However, it appears to have been his 2004 marriage to Esra Erdogan, rather than his academic qualifications, that cemented his future. The ceremony was attended by several world leaders, including the rulers of Jordan, Pakistan, Greece and Romania.
Two years later, aged just 29, Albayrak became chief executive of Calik Holding, a private company known for its close government links. His rapid rise can almost certainly be attributed to his father-in-law, who was in the early years of his reign as prime minister at the time.
After becoming an MP for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2015, Albayrak was appointed as energy minister the same year, in a major reshuffle that saw former prime minister and long-time Erdogan ally Ahmet Davutoglu removed from power. Davutoglu’s opposition to Albayrak joining the cabinet supposedly played a role in his ouster. Nevertheless, Albayrak’s experience with sustainable energy projects, which he had gained while completing his PhD, heralded a raft of new renewable energy infrastructure projects. He also led Turkey in the oil rush in the East Mediterranean, where he initiated prospecting along the sea bed in what could be energy-rich territory.
However, his image in political circles was less stellar. He gained a reputation for encroaching on other ministers’ briefs, perhaps buoyed by his familial protection in the cabinet. The animosity from his days in a junior cabinet post were made very public when he was caught pushing Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu after a ceremony in the capital Ankara. While the two have been key members of Erdogan’s inner circle, Albayrak’s promotion to finance minister suggests that family ties bested Erdogan’s fondness for Soylu.
Such is Albayrak’s proximity to Erdogan that he has become a geopolitical target himself. In November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border, Moscow accused Albayrak of involvement in illicit oil smuggling from Syria, no doubt aware of the indirect pressure this would put on the president.
At the same time, he has also been entrusted with some of the more sensitive tasks of government. In 2016, he met with his counterpart at the Israeli Energy Ministry in the first high-level meeting between Turkey and Israel after years of frozen diplomatic relations.
Erdogan is extremely reluctant to increase interest rates, which he sees as the ‘mother of all evil’. However, many economists consider such a raise as essential for bringing rampant inflation under control. Indeed, the president’s hatred of raising interest rates aligns with the views Albayrak espoused in the years prior to his political ascendance when he wrote economic columns for pro-AKP newspapers, namely Sabah. He used these columns to call repeatedly for interest rate calming – a poor precedent for a man who many hope will walk a more independent path on economic policy.
Past economy ministers such as Mehmet Simsek and Ali Babacan were largely seen as figures trusted by the markets to steer Turkey along more orthodox economic lines. If Albayrak cannot inspire confidence at a time when Turkey is staring down the barrel of a currency crisis and increased US sanctions, then there seems little chance that he will ever be able to do so.