Most of the passengers passing through Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Turkey’s second largest and one of the world’s busiest single-runway airports, do not realize that the airport is neither owned nor managed by the Turks. The airport is named after a Turkish historical figure, one of the country’s female aviation pioneers, yet it is owned and managed by a company from Southeast Asia: Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. In 2018, 34.1 million passengers moved through the airport. While the number of passengers passing through is on the rise, the airport also occasionally hosts prominent visitors as well, most recently Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir spent three days in Turkey. He met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visited not only the Malaysian-owned airport but also a number of industrial facilities, and met with the executives of major Turkish conglomerates. There are two major takeaways from the visit. First, Turkey and Malaysia have a significant interest in improving their relationship, and they want to do this through long-term economic investment, focusing on defense industry. Second, as both countries are predominantly Muslim — and led by leaders known for their vocal rejection of the Western-dominated world order — they appear poised to voice calls for joint action. During this particular visit, it came in the form of an appeal for Muslim unity.
There is a strong geopolitical rationale for the two countries to deepen cooperation. Experiencing severe turbulence in relations with its Western allies, Turkey aims to diversify its foreign policy portfolio, hence establishing partnerships with countries like Russia and China. Turkey’s aim is not to replace one dominant partner with another dominant partner, but to avoid excessive dependence on any one party; this is why it makes sense to have more friends in Asia, instead of relying only on China. Malaysia is also one of Turkey’s three major trade partners within ASEAN (the others being Indonesia and Thailand), and as a sectoral dialogue partner of the organization, Turkey sees an interest in having close friends inside ASEAN. For Malaysia, on the other hand, Turkey offers not only a large market, but also a gateway into Europe and a strong foothold into the Middle East.
While shared Muslim identity is certainly a catalyst for bilateral relations between Turkey and Malaysia, it is the economics that sets the stage for further growth. The two countries have had a free trade agreement since August 2015, however so far increases in bilateral merchandise trade have principally worked in Malaysia’s favor. According to data by the Turkish Statistical Institute, in 2018, Turkey’s exports to Malaysia totaled $365.4 million, while its imports from the country amounted to $2.13 billion.
From a Turkish point of view, this imbalance can be recovered to a large extent by joining forces in areas where both countries have a competitive advantage, such as halal food and Islamic finance, and also, and perhaps more crucially, by attracting more investment from Malaysia. Here, Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport sets an important precedent, and so does IHH Healthcare Bhd’s 90 percent stake at Acıbadem Sağlık Hizmetleri, which is the world’s second largest healthcare chain. IHH Healthcare Bhd is partly owned by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, making the Malaysian government officially a stakeholder in the Turkish corporate sector.
During his meeting with Turkish businesspeople in Istanbul, Mahathir mentioned three sectors as priority areas for collaboration between Turkey and Malaysia: aerospace, automotive industries, machinery and equipment. At the intersection of these three sector lies the defense industry and this is precisely the area where the past record of cooperation provides positive signals for future prospects. Turkish defense industry companies have been active in Malaysia since the early 2010s, supplying armored vehicles, remote controlled weapon systems, undertaking shipbuilding projects. Moreover, at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition held in March earlier this year, Turkish companies have concluded a total of 10 deals with their Malaysian counterparts. In the meantime, while in Ankara, Mahathir took a tour of the Turkish Aerospace Industries campus, having a look at the locally built attack and reconnaissance helicopters, trainer combat aircraft, and medium-altitude long endurance UAVs. Both Turkey and Malaysia are making efforts for improving their defense capabilities, and cooperating in this field makes sense as a way to avoid dependence on not only Western suppliers, but also Russia and China.
Can this improvement in relations between Turkey and Malaysia lead to something larger? There was a strong pan-Islamic tone during the meeting between Erdoğan and Mahathir in Ankara. Both statesmen emphasized the “need for Islamic unity,” Erdoğan underlined Turkey’s common stance with Malaysia with respect to “the Palestinian issue, the Rohingya crisis and Islamophobia,” while Mahathir remarked “it is crucial to relieve the Muslim ummah from being subjugated by others.” Turkey and Malaysia, together with Pakistan, have launched a trilateral coordination mechanism at the level of the minister of foreign affairs, which held its inaugural meeting at the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Saudi Arabia in May. Erdoğan and Mahathir both made references to this mechanism.
Whether the trilateral coordination between Turkey, Malaysia, and Pakistan can go beyond rhetoric and lead to greater unity in the Islamic world is a difficult question to answer. The historical clues are not promising. These three countries were among the founding members of the D8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, which remains far from living up to the pan-Islamic ideals of its founders and is currently preoccupied with smaller scaled initiatives such as business delegations and social programs. Moreover, despite its economic weight and geographical coverage spanning both ends of the Asian continent, the Turkish-Malaysian-Pakistani initiative is likely to find it difficult to resonate with the preferences of the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
Greater coordination and integration between predominantly Muslim countries is an often mentioned yet difficult to achieve ideal. The partnership between Turkey, Malaysia, and Pakistan cannot work miracles to that end, but it is nevertheless an important alliance to watch at a time when the post-Western world is taking shape.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations of Koç University in Istanbul.