Erdogan’s Flying Carpet

Istanbul’s massive new airport fits with Turkey’s grand neo-Ottoman ambitions, but it may be too big for its own good.

(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images/Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images/Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has big plans. With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan recently inaugurated construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. He plans to build a 28-mile canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, allowing ships to bypass the busy Bosphorus Strait, and a tunnel beneath the waterway’s narrowest point for pedestrians to cross from the European to the Asian side of the city, as well as a $1.2 billion waterfront tourism destination. Turkey is launching a new domestically made automobile. It is building massive new mosques and museums, as well as shopping malls, bridges, and dams.

This year, in perhaps its flashiest new project, Turkey will unveil what it describes as the world’s largest airport, near the southern edge of the Black Sea almost 30 miles from the city’s commercial center. The terminal, now more than 85 percent complete, measures half a square mile, or the size of 265 football fields, at the center of facilities sprawled out across former wetlands and mines measuring 26 square miles, an area larger than Manhattan.

But on April 13, the day when the ministry of transportation and the national press office bused more than 100 journalists to the site, little of the airport could be seen. A thick fog had descended, tarnishing visibility in what some workers whispered was a consistent problem. It added to mundane worries about the site that urban planners, meteorologists, economists, and ecologists had warned about that include a location too far outside the heart of Istanbul, bird migration patterns that could interfere with airplane traffic, and passenger numbers that don’t add up.

“Authoritarian governments are not known to be very rational,” says Tuna Kuyucu, a social scientist at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. “The Soviets were obsessed with gigantic structures. Romania’s [Nicolae] Ceausescu built the largest palace in the world. The new airport is trying to make Istanbul the most important hub of Europe. But there’s a certain amount of gigantomania through these kind of show-off projects.”

Erdogan’s government has been widely criticized in the West for undermining Turkey’s strong secular traditions by promoting Islamic piety. Since coming to power in 2002, the government dominated by his Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP) has built hundreds of mosques across the country, poured resources into religious schools, supported Islamic charities, and backed Islamist-leaning political groups in North Africa and the Levant.

But the ongoing massive construction drive that includes airports, bridges, and luxury shopping malls as well as mosques suggests that Erdoganism is as much about piety as a vision of Turkey predicated on great works that make the leader stand out in the context of both Turkish history and the region’s. It is also about rewarding powerful allies and creating patronage jobs with large-scale, and many say ill-conceived, public works projects.

“The mosques are seen sort of as this separate religious politics but, in a way, that is all part and parcel of this same building spree. They go together as a celebration of this Islamic modernism,” says Nicholas Danforth, a Turkish history specialist at Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, who lived in Istanbul for several years. “These megaprojects are aimed at serving as P.R. for Turkey, to show that Turkey has arrived in the world,” he says. “They’re aimed at showing Turks they’re entering the modern world. And they’re also an opportunity to deliver lucrative contracts to their cronies, binding the business community to the AKP.”

Turkey’s megaprojects are loaded with symbolism. The Camlica Mosque, a signature Erdogan project, towers over Istanbul on its highest hill. A new opera house being built on Taksim Square is being planned by the son of the architect who designed the cultural center it is replacing. A controversial new Ottoman-style mosque is near complete on the opposite side of Taksim. The Yildiz Palace, once the residence of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, has been designated Erdogan’s residence in Istanbul.

The transit hall of the new airport is said to be shaped like the inlets of the Bosphorus. The control tower resembles a tulip, which evokes Allah in Islamic iconography. Istanbul’s new airport has no name yet, though some officials have hinted they would like to name it after Erdogan. It will replace the main Istanbul airport named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey as a secular republic.

“This is as much about modernization and improving the infrastructure as making a mark on the landscape of Istanbul and Turkey by the current government and even about the president’s personality,” says Heghnar Watenpaugh, a specialist in Middle Eastern art and architecture at the University of California, Davis. “All these projects are associated with his personality. These projects signal geopolitical ambition.”

At a cost of $12 billion, the new airport will include robot assistants, a state-of-the art baggage-handling system, and eventually grow to include six runways. Once a second phase of the airport is complete, it will have a capacity of 200 million passengers a year — surpassing Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, now considered the world’s busiest air hub, which handles just over 100 million — and flying to 350 cities around the world, more than Frankfurt, which currently leads the world in destinations served.

The airport aims to challenge to Persian Gulf states vying to become the premier transit center for Eurasia, competing against Gulf hubs such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, as well as European hubs such as Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, and London. All seek to capture the growing transcontinental air traffic market, especially passengers traveling from the Far East and Australia to Europe and the Americas.

“We are ambitious, but you need to put your words into action,” Ahmet Arslan, Turkey’s transportation minister, told reporters during a press conference during the airport visit. “Of course, other airports have their own strengths — they benefit from specific advantages. The location of our airport and the shift in the world toward the East work to our advantage. We’re going to build on that advantage. We don’t need to say anything about our competitors. Our passengers will have the final say.”

Reporters peppered Arslan with questions, noting that Ataturk Airport only draws about 60 million passengers per year and the growth rate has slowed. The engineer, specializing in shipbuilding, responded without losing his cool: “When 15 years ago Ataturk was at 20 million, and we said the number would be 60 million, people said it was fantasy.”

An employee looks toward the control tower of the Istanbul New Airport during a press tour April 13. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Istanbul’s new airport is located far from the city center, perhaps an hour-and-a-half drive in normal traffic. A single highway leading to the facility has been completed, and others are under construction, along with a metro line. The third bridge over the Bosphorus should eventually ease the airport trip for those on the city’s Asian side — but it comes with a heavy toll some may be reluctant to pay. While the airport’s location may be irrelevant to transit passengers seeking a bargain flight from London to Bangkok, it could be a nightmare for Istanbul residents struggling to fight their way out of the city’s congestion.

“The big question is how is this going to impact the citizens of that country or city?” Watenpaugh says. “Is this going to improve their lives, or is this government-directed project creating an image of Turkish power at the expense of the citizens of Istanbul?”

Istanbul’s master plan, originally adopted in 2009 as a blueprint for the city for the next quarter century, did not include the new airport, the third bridge to the north of the city near the Black Sea, or the canal project that would transform the European side of the city into an island. Urban planners say none of the megaprojects have been properly vetted for their impact on traffic or ecology and they don’t make sense for a city in need of affordable housing and adequate public transportation.

“These projects are meant as proof of how powerful our era is, proving to Turkey and maybe Western rivals how powerful Erdogan is,” says Akif Burak Atlar of the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners. “As an urban planner, I ask, ‘Why this airport?’ Urban planning has rational tools. You have a population, and you have the needs of the population.”

Turkey’s rulers have long been drawn to signature public works projects, and Erdogan is no different. But at least Ataturk’s Taksim Square — the site of major protests in 2013 — was a big showy project that doubled as a public space. Projects by Erdogan — as well as those by other leaders such as Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman — tend to be highly controlled spaces under tight surveillance.

“They appear to be public spaces, but they’re not a place that’s going to allow public speech and political speech to flourish,” Watenpaugh says. “They’re going to be highly securitized spaces. These are not going to be places where demonstrations can take place, where people can express their thoughts, where a gay pride parade can happen.”

Workers mill about in the Istanbul New Airport terminal building, still under construction, on April 13 during a press tour in northern Istanbul. The inauguration of the airport, a Grimshaw design in collaboration with an international architectural team, is planned to to take place in October. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

A consortium of five large Turkish firms — Limak, Kolin, Cengiz, Mapa, and Kalyon — won the contract for the airport on a build, operate, and transfer model. The contractors are huge, well-connected firms that frequently take on Turkish projects. Critics have long argued that the powerful Turkish firms serve as a lobby that generates its own megaprojects in a symbiotic relationship with the government that began after the financial crisis a decade ago but intensified as Erdogan and his party sought to consolidate political control.

“They needed to find some way of creating economic growth,” says Kuyucu, the social scientist. “The Turkish government owns a lot of land. There are a lot of contracting firms closely connected to the government, and they started to get the bids.”

The projects generate jobs that keep the economy going while ties between the government and elite businesses strengthen. The airport construction employs 35,000 people directly, many of them construction workers from poorer parts of Turkey housed in camps on the airport site. Arslan, the transport minister, predicted that the airport would create 100,000 jobs and perhaps as many as 225,000 once the second phase of the airport is complete and perhaps as many as 1.25 million additional jobs indirectly, accounting for 4.8 percent of Turkey’s GDP by 2025.

But that’s if the airport takes off, and passenger numbers grow well beyond the 60 million a year at Ataturk. The country’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, shows signs of slowing growth — and continues to face big losses.

London, the world’s largest commercial aviation port, handles 170 million passengers per year at five different airports; meanwhile, Atlanta is straining to handle so many passengers through one facility. One Arab airline has already begun complaining that the size of Istanbul’s new airport means that passengers and personnel will have to walk a more than half a mile from its sales office to its check-in counters, according to a diplomat.

There are also worries about security. Turkey remains part of a volatile region, and though it appears to have gotten terrorist violence under control, with the number of attacks in decline, perceptions of insecurity persist, especially after the 2016 attack by alleged Islamic State militants on Ataturk Airport.

“Depending on what happens in Syria and the impact of domestic terrorism and internal political upheaval, there is no escaping the fact that Turkey sits on a delicate precipice,” says Saj Ahmad, a chief analyst at the London-based StrategicAero Research.

While megaprojects may give their hosts bragging rights, they rarely generate riches. “It is possible in my view for an airport to get to be too big and to reach a point where there are operational negatives, prompting for example air traffic control difficulties,” says David Bentley, a London-based airport analyst at the Centre for Aviation. “It is possible that such a size is actually too great for existing technologies to handle.”

Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years. Twitter: @borzou