Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Building a Better Turkey

Anatolia is booming, but some Turks are finding that their country’s new model for prosperity is rigged.

USACE Europe District
USACE Europe District
USACE Europe District

Even by Turkish standards, Antepia is a show stopper. Once finished, the 125-acre housing development growing 10 miles south of the city of Gaziantep will boast 19 high-rise apartment buildings, dozens of five-story mansions, 23 waterfront villas, and a manmade lake covering an area of 14 football fields.

Fatih Ozhelvalci, one of the project's main architects, ticks off one amenity after another: a shopping mall, hotel, nursery, tennis courts, swimming pools, bowling center, and paintball field. "With all this," he says, beaming beneath a white hardhat, in front of the vast construction area, "you can go a year without having to go to Gaziantep."

If it's the antiquities you miss -- Gaziantep, an hour's drive from the border with Syria, is one of the world's oldest cities -- Antepia tries to compensate with plenty of knowing winks to the past. The extravagant waterfront villas, known in Antepia parlance as yalis, take their name from the posh, near-extinct 19th century houses that dot the shores of the Bosphorus straits in Istanbul. The complex's main meeting place, within a stone's throw of the mosque, is called the Agora. Just to the west of it sits the main entertainment venue, a vast amphitheater.

Even by Turkish standards, Antepia is a show stopper. Once finished, the 125-acre housing development growing 10 miles south of the city of Gaziantep will boast 19 high-rise apartment buildings, dozens of five-story mansions, 23 waterfront villas, and a manmade lake covering an area of 14 football fields.

Fatih Ozhelvalci, one of the project’s main architects, ticks off one amenity after another: a shopping mall, hotel, nursery, tennis courts, swimming pools, bowling center, and paintball field. "With all this," he says, beaming beneath a white hardhat, in front of the vast construction area, "you can go a year without having to go to Gaziantep."

If it’s the antiquities you miss — Gaziantep, an hour’s drive from the border with Syria, is one of the world’s oldest cities — Antepia tries to compensate with plenty of knowing winks to the past. The extravagant waterfront villas, known in Antepia parlance as yalis, take their name from the posh, near-extinct 19th century houses that dot the shores of the Bosphorus straits in Istanbul. The complex’s main meeting place, within a stone’s throw of the mosque, is called the Agora. Just to the west of it sits the main entertainment venue, a vast amphitheater.

Asked if he is afraid for the project’s future should the Turkish housing bubble eventually burst, Fatih responds with a chuckle. Whatever happens, he says, Antepia is too splendid to fail. "Here, you’re not only buying an apartment, but a lifestyle," he quips.

Business is booming. Inside Antepia’s administrative center — which features elevator music, brightly-colored faux Ottoman furniture, an elaborate fountain, footbridges, and an abundance of plants — Antepia’s sales team receives an average of 150 potential buyers per week. Most of the first flats and villas scheduled for use by summer 2012 have already sold. As an employee helpfully points out, if the only thing that stands between you and the yali of your dreams is a loan, "there are bank branches upstairs."

Housing developments like Antepia are mushrooming across Turkey. Like some of the Turkish government’s more pharaonic projects — a third bridge over the Bosphorus, an underground tunnel connecting Europe and Asia, and a 30 mile-long canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas — Antepia is a telling sign of the country’s breathtaking economic boom. Since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first electoral victory in 2002, Turkey’s economic output has tripled, and GDP has expanded at an average clip of 5 percent per year. In the first six months of 2011, the economy surged ahead at more than 10 percent — the fastest among G-20 nations, exceeding even China.

Yet if the building boom is one of the symptoms of growth, it is also one of its causes. According to the Turkish Contractors Association (TCA), the construction industry contributes about 6 percent to the country’s economy. Add to that all the services and sectors linked to construction — steel, cement and iron production, as well as construction equipment and transport — and the figure, by the TCA’s own estimates, comes to a staggering 30 percent, or roughly $220 billion.

Turkey’s energetic construction crews have also found themselves on the front lines of Erdogan’s ambitious foreign-policy agenda, which has prioritized business and commercial links with neighbors. In a recent survey of international contractors, Turkey placed second worldwide — in terms of the number of companies cited in the top 225 — behind China. In the process, it has become the world’s fourth largest exporter of cement, trailing only China, India, and the United States.

In war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkish construction companies have made a name for themselves with ambitious reconstruction programs, and are often more successful than their U.S. competitors. From August 2002 to the end of 2010, Turkish companies completed $2.8 billion worth of projects in Afghanistan alone. In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, they have practically cornered the housing market. They have also made inroads elsewhere: One Turkish company built Sudan’s first and only shopping mall, another is helping construct a new metro line in Warsaw, and a third has just inked a $387 million contract to expand Cairo airport’s second terminal.

But the building boom has also come at a price. As Turkey’s economy thrives, influential businessmen connected to the political elite have tussled for their slice of the pie — often at the expense of ordinary citizens, who have found themselves at the mercy of a rigged system.

Tarlabasi, a ramshackle neighborhood adjacent to Istanbul’s shopping and entertainment district, stands as a monument to the pitfalls of Turkey’s runaway growth. Throughout a nine-block area, entire rows of buildings — their doors and windows removed, their insides gutted, debris and litter spilling onto the sidewalk — gape out onto silent, deserted streets.  You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but an urban renewal project — intended, the local municipality’s website says, to make the neighborhood "safer, cleaner and livable" — is under way.

Tarlabasi may not have been safe or clean, but it always seemed livable, at least to most of its residents — including destitute Kurds, many of them uprooted from villages in the southeast during the Turkish state’s long war against Kurdish insurgents there. Although it acquired a reputation for crime — it is the address of choice for many drug dealers and transgender prostitutes — the neighborhood retained a certain charm, recently attracting a trickle of hipsters, artists, and foreigners.

In 2006, following the adoption of a controversial eminent domain law and a request by the municipality, the Turkish government labeled Tarlabasi an urban regeneration area. In April of the following year, a private development company, GAP Insaat, won a government tender to rebuild the neighborhood. It proposed to turn Tarlabasi into an upscale housing development with luxury flats, shopping centers, restaurants, and hotels. Though the project’s focus was ostensibly on regeneration and preservation of cultural heritage, a quick look at the developer’s prospectus reveals that the new Tarlabasi will have precious little in common with the neighborhood of old.

To many locals, the deal stank from the get-go. The municipality is run by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the company that owns GAP Insaat is Calik Holding, whose CEO, Beyrat Albayrak, is Erdogan’s son-in-law. Those searching for evidence of the symbiotic relationship between Turkey’s business and political elites do not have to look far.

The roughly 3,000 residents of Talabasi never had much of a choice. It was certain that they would have to abandon their homes once the construction began — the only question was where they would live in its aftermath.

The municipality offered the area’s tenants a chance to purchase apartments in a housing project 20 miles from the city center. Property owners, meanwhile, were given two options: They could sell their houses to the developer, or they could exchange them for business space or an apartment inside the new project area. Those who opted for the former soon found that Calik had priced their homes at well below market value. Those who chose the latter complained that the properties offered to them in exchange were far smaller in size.

Akif Burak Atlar, the secretary of the board at the Turkish Chamber of Urban Planners, pulled no punches about the deal. The prices offered by Calik Holdings were anything but fair, he wrote in an e-mailed response. In cases like Tarlabasi, wrote Atlar, citing similar development projects around Istanbul, "powerful construction companies are mostly the [ones] who leave the table with a bigger piece of the cake."

According to the municipality, most homeowners eventually reached an agreement with the developer, either directly or through the courts. Until this summer, however, many people simply refused to leave. Shortly after the AKP’s victory in the June 12 parliamentary elections, the long-feared eviction process finally kicked into gear. Booted out of their homes, residents took with them whatever they could carry, including doorframes, windows, and furnaces.

Today, the affected area, comprising a total of 278 buildings, is literally a shell of its former self. Inside one of the few houses still left intact, a middle-aged man, who asked not to be named, stands by the window of his living room clutching a cigarette with one hand, and using the other to point around the flat. He said that he is reconciled to losing his house but is holding out for a decent deal. Letting go will be hard. "We’ve lived here for three generations," he says. "Every part of this house comes with a memory." 

Despite record growth, the divide between haves and have-nots in the new Turkey persists — as does the authorities’ tendency to prioritize the interests of construction companies over the dangers of uncontrolled development. While most Turks are enthusiastic supporters of a newly prosperous vision of their country, others can only wave as it passes them by.  

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.

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