ASTANA (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul likes to walk, and where he goes, businessmen often follow.
Gul likes the idea, probably more than his bodyguards, that the leader of a country whose foreign policy goal is to have no enemies and do business wherever it can is an unlikely target for anyone other than Kurdish militants back home.
On a midnight stroll with his entourage along the peaceful boulevards of Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, he recalled a trip to Afghanistan in 2007.
“I was walking in Kabul without anyone bothering me,” Gul told Reuters. “On the same day, (U.S. vice-president) Dick Cheney was stuck at the air base after a bomb attack there that killed over 20 people.”
Who knows whether the Turkish road builders and construction contractors will ever make it big in Afghanistan, but the Turks’ “go anywhere” attitude has paid off elsewhere.
Encouraged by their government’s diplomatic offensive to cultivate relations outside the West, they have made inroads in the Middle East and Africa, the Balkans and former Soviet bloc.
Success-hungry entrepreneurs from the boondocks of eastern Turkey have been dubbed the “Anatolian Tigers,” and their ambition has helped Turkey become the world’s 17th largest economy, with a GDP of $780 billion (516 billion pounds).
They have prospered under the pro-business policies of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, a socially conservative party that sees itself as a Muslim version of Europe’s Christian Democrats and has led Turkey since 2002.
Nowhere is there more concrete evidence of Turkish presence than in the energy-rich former Soviet republics stretching from the Caspian Sea to Central Asia, the ancestral lands of nomadic Turks who invaded Anatolia a millennium ago.
Visiting Astana to mark the 70th birthday of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Gul enthused over the astonishing architecture in what some people jokingly call a “Lego city” on the steppe.
His pride stemmed from the fact that Turks built most of it.
A dramatic shopping mall designed in the style of a giant nomadic yurt and called “the King of Tents” was opened on Nazarbayev’s birthday, courtesy of Turkish hotelier and construction magnate Fettah Tamince and his partners.
Tamince chairs the Rixos hotel chain, operator of the six-star hotel where Gul stayed in Astana.
Nazarbayev asked Tamince if he could open it in time for a regional summit in 2005.
“I told the president: ‘Give me your word that there’ll be no bureaucracy, and we can do it’,” Tamince said. “He saw what we could do and kept us. I’ve done a lot of investment here.”
Aside from the mall and hotel, Tamince’s Sembol Construction has built a university, a sports stadium, a convention centre and an outlandish pyramid that contains an underground opera house and hosts a congress of world religions every three years.
Tamince says his firms now generate $1.6 billion annually, including $1.1 billion from construction, most of it abroad. He is currently building hotels in Dubai and Vienna.
Just 38, fit and shaven-headed, Tamince says he’s reading the autobiography of flamboyant British tycoon Richard Branson. But his own odyssey could fill a book too.
At 14, he says, he left his poor home town on Turkey’s border with Iran, where “it snows for eight months, rains for two and is summer for two,” and went to the Mediterranean resort of Antalya, where he sold carpets to tourists.
When he was 18 he bought a car and drove to Switzerland. Later he moved to Germany, where he made enough money to go into real estate back in Turkey.
A listening diplomat says he knows of dozens of success stories among Turkish businessmen in the ‘Stans, where people speak different strains of the Turkic family of languages.
Today, Turks account for 60 percent of the construction market in Kazakhstan, and in Turkmenistan the figure is 90 percent. It is a similar story in Azerbaijan, Gul’s aides say.
They cite surveys showing that, in terms of revenues generated abroad, Turkey’s construction and contracting industry has overtaken the United States’ to stand second to China‘s.
Turkish firms expect the value of projects they are involved in to exceed $25 billion this year.
While Tamince belongs to a new generation, Turkish businessmen who arrived in the 1990s helped to fill an entrepreneurial void left by decades of communism.
Turkish businessmen stole a march in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, thanks to the foresight of then-president Turgut Ozal, who swiftly put up money for trade with the newly independent but almost bankrupt states.
“It was the first oxygen to the economy,” recalled Ahmet Hamdi Ayan, who arrived in Kazakhstan in 1992. He remembers foreigners arriving in the old capital Almaty without a decent place to stay or eat. “You were lucky if you got black bread.”
Ayan’s answer was to build and run the Intercontinental hotel. Today his Ahsel Group has a turnover of close to $400 million, employs 6,000 people, mainly in construction. He has won contracts in Astana to build the parliament, a 22-storey business centre, and a stunningly designed national library.
Swapping stories over a barbecue dinner in the gardens of the Rixos hotel, Ahmet Calik, billionaire chairman of Calik Holding, struck a common theme.
“Turkish companies played a huge, positive role in these countries,” he said. “Now they have made big progress ... and we’re grateful to the governments who trusted us.”
Saparmurat Niyazov, the late Turkmen autocrat, trusted the quietly spoken mogul so much that he made him a minister.
“Our group had done more than 100 projects in Turkmenistan,” Calik recounted. “We built all the power plants in Turkmenistan. As a group we built eight gas-fired power plants.”
Having arrived in Turkmen capital of Ashgabat in the 1990s looking for deals in cotton, Calik has wound up with a business empire spanning energy, telecommunications and finance.
Calik, who took over the pro-government Sabah media group and ATV television channel in Turkey in 2007, says his group employs 20,000 people in a dozen countries. He says half its revenues come from outside Turkey.
Calik Energy is now building a $4 billion trans-Anatolian pipeline, along with Italy’s ENI, to take oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The oil is expected to be supplied by ENI’s holding in Kazakh oil fields.
Editing by Kevin Liffey