By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Although since presenting his credentials to President Enrique Peña Nieto back in August 2017, Turkish Ambassador to Mexico Tahsin Timur Söylemez has at times come off as aloof and offish, during his national day reception on Monday, Oct. 29, he was the epitome of conviviality and diplomacy as he graciously welcomed guests with smiles and handshakes to his stately Lomas de Chapultepec residence.
Söylemez also displayed extraordinary decorum and tact during his national day speech by expressly avoiding touching on the volatile topic of the alleged murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 3.
For his part, the always charming and jovial Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Mexico Hammad al-Rowaily, who showed up at the start of the reception and stayed through the speeches, was equally prudent regarding the sensitive topic that has spurred deep bilateral tensions and has threatened to destabilize the delicate relations between Turkey and the Persian Gulf kingdom.
Both ambassadors apparently felt – wisely – that the job of defrosting the current chilly relationship between the Middle East’s two key powers was best left to those in higher positions and with more direct involvement in the red-hot Khashoggi affair (a riff only exacerbated by Ankara’s coddling of Egypt’s post-Mohammad Morsi Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, Riyadh’s undermining of Turkey’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2014, and the polar division between the Saudi Arabia and Turkey during the 2017 Qatar crisis).
And so, as international diplomats, Mexicans politicians, multinational business tycoons and the occasional journalist mingled with one another on the embassy residence lawn, munching on stuffed grape leaf dolmas and sipping on anise-flavored raki, Söylemez stuck to a politically neutral script, first underscoring the unprecedented growth in bilateral ties between Turkey and Mexico, and then highlighting the importance of the official celebration, which marked the 95th anniversary of founding of the modern Turkish republic.
Speaking in fluent and flawless Spanish (bear in mind, he has only been in Mexico for a little over a year, and part of that time he spent recovering from a serious bicycle accident that left him with major fractures in both arms), Ambassador Söylemez specifically outlined areas of binational cooperation over the last 12 months.
“For the entire last year, we have been working arduously to increase our bilateral relations and finalize several important projects,” the envoy said.
“Among those, I would like to make special mention of the establishment of direct cargo flights between Istanbul and Mexico City.”
Turkish Cargo – the freight division of that country’s flagship carrier Turkish Airlines – has been operating twice-weekly 777F flights between the two cities since the start of October, and, if all goes well, Turkish Airlines is hoping to establish direct passenger flights for the same routes in 2019.
Söylemez also noted that Turkey and Mexico have been working together to boost bilateral cooperation in the areas of politics, development, culture, tourism and commercial exchange.
Last year, combined two-way trade between Mexico and Turkey surpassed $1 billion, according to Mexican government sources.
In addition, the number of bilateral joint-venture investment projects is on the rise, with Turkish companies currently having about $500,000 in holdings in Mexico and Mexican firms having investments of roughly $600 million in Turkey. (Turkish investment in Mexico is primarily in the automotive and metal industries, and Mexican holdings in Turkey are in the cement, food and agro-industry sectors.)
Mexico and Turkey have also been trying to iron out the details for a bilateral free-trade accord for several years, but with very little progress.
In the apparent hope of jumpstarting talks on that agreement and spurring greater mutual awareness in general, Söylemez said that his embassy has been working with Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE) to organize a series of cultural events to mark the 90th anniversary of the establishment of binational diplomatic ties, including a magna exhibition on the two countries’ common history and two Turkish food fests slated for November.
Söylemez made a point of both acknowledging the efforts of Mexico’s current president, Peña Nieto, in helping to foster the two-way friendship, and congratulating incoming-president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is due to take office on Dec. 1.
The ambassador said that he was very confident that the close bilateral relationship between Turkey and Mexico would continue to grow in the months ahead.
“We are quite certain that, in the coming period, our political dialogue, as well as our bilateral trade, will increase significantly, and relations between Turkey and Mexico will reach a higher level,” he said.
Although Turkey lost much of its territory at the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the country reunited on Oct. 29, 1923, to establish what is now one of the oldest republics in the region.
Under the leadership of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an altogether unique and modern nation emerged with a parliamentary system of government that continues today. (That may soon change to a presidential system.)
Nonetheless, Turkey has endured a spotted history of military interventions, political strife and ousted governments (including a failed coup attempt against it current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in July 2016).
Straddling two continents and religious cultures, Turkey has long maintained an ambiguous relationship with Europe, applying for European Union membership back in 2005 only to be met repeatedly with a Kafkian labyrinth of inconsistent requisites and changing goal posts.
As a result, under the staunch leadership of Erdoğan, Ankara has since 2014 moved further to the East in political terms and has adopted a more rigid Islamic stance socially.
Also, in the last the last three years, the strain of housing the world’s largest refugee population – more than 2 million Syrian and Iraqi exiles – has negatively affected Turkey’s once-booming, largely free-market economy, leading to inflation of more than 25 percent and a currency devaluation of 40 percent in the last 12 months.
Nevertheless, with a $2.1 trillion GDP, Turkey still ranks as the world’s 14th-largest economy.