By: Alister Bull and Daren Butler
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday chided Arab leaders who restrict freedom of expression and warned nations cannot thrive when people are not allowed to think for themselves.
“Democratic revolutions, like the ones in Tunisia, in Egypt and Libya, and the ones still unfolding in Syria and Yemen are imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Biden told an Istanbul summit to foster private sector success in the Arab world.
“It is hard to think different if you are not free to think and openly express what you are thinking,” Biden said, citing the advice of the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers, to ‘think different’.
“Those who think the same do not hold the promise of progress.”
Biden is on an eight-day trip began in Iraq and will end in Greece on Monday. He visited Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday at his home in Istanbul, where the 57-year-old Turkish leader was recovering from keyhole abdominal surgery on November 26.
The United States regards Turkey, a NATO partner, as a vital ally in an unstable region, and wants Ankara to adopt tougher sanctions against Iran.
The meeting with Erdogan, the dominant force in Turkish politics, had been seen as the centerpiece of Biden’s three-day visit, but was closed to the media.
It lasted roughly two hours, about twice as long as had been indicated by the vice president’s schedule, but there was no initial indication from U.S. officials about what was discussed.
Erdogan’s office released photographs of the meeting, showing the Turkish prime minister smiling and wearing a dark suit with an open-necked shirt as he sat with Biden.
According to state-run Anatolian news agency, they discussed cooperation in fighting terrorism, and regional issues including Iraq.
The Turkish government issued a statement on Monday saying Erdogan, who was elected for a third term in June, had had an operation and was in good health, but inevitably there will be speculation should he remain out of the public eye for too long.
Both nations are worried about Syria, where a bloody eight-month crackdown on pro-democracy protestors has fanned fears of wider regional instability.
Pledging support for the people in Syria, Erdogan has ditched his friendship with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has bluntly told him to quit.
Non-Arab Turkey’s democracy is often cited as a role model for other Muslim nations, as the region copes with tumult from the Arab Spring that toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and could eventually oust Assad in Syria.
Erdogan, whose AK Party has Islamist roots, is regarded as one of the most popular leaders among Arabs in the Middle East, though critics question his democratic credentials, notably regarding the independence of the judiciary and press freedom.
While welcoming planned constitutional reforms in Turkey, Biden has raised concerns with Turkish officials over both the judiciary and the detention of journalists, a senior U.S. official said.
“The true wealth of a nation is found in the creative minds of its people and their freedom and ability to bring those ideas to life,” Biden said. “None of this can happen without governments that guarantee the right to think differently.”