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Turkey’s ever-controversial Istanbul Airport is back in the eye of a political storm, sparked by opposition claims that a plan to sell its operations to Gulf investors is behind a government decision to demolish the city’s iconic but now-idle Ataturk Airport.
The sprawling Istanbul Airport became operational in 2018 amid simmering criticism over its financial merits, location and environmental impact, coupled with allegations of cronyism regarding the companies involved in the project. The posh facility, launched with an initial capacity to handle 90 million passengers per year and plans for further expansion to 200 million passengers, led to the closure of the historic Ataturk Airport, becoming the sole airport on Istanbul’s European side.
Senior opposition figures claim that plans are underway to sell IGA, the company operating the Istanbul Airport. And in order to please potential buyers from the Gulf, they claim, the government has decided to demolish the Ataturk Airport’s runways to preclude any revival of the facility in the future as a rival to the Istanbul Airport. The decision, they argue, is driven by concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) could lose the next elections, due in June 2023 at the latest, to an opposition that pledges to review all major public projects under the AKP over allegations of corruption, nepotism and malfeasance.
The Good Party’s Ali Kidik, a member of the Istanbul municipal assembly and a veteran watcher of the aviation sector, was the first to raise the claims last week after heavy machinery was lined up at the Ataturk Airport. “The real reason why they want to hastily demolish the Ataturk Airport is the negotiations for the sale of the Istanbul Airport,” Kidik told Al-Monitor. He said he had learned that the Emirati operator of the Abu Dhabi Airport was “the most serious” potential buyer. “In order to buy the Istanbul Airport, it wants to physically see that no other airport could operate on Istanbul’s European side. That’s why heavy machines were hastily amassed there,” he added.
Kidik argued the potential buyer was likely to follow up with a move to acquire the majority stake of Turkish Airlines, the national flag carrier, because “investors operating such airports wish to operate also that country’s local airliner.”
Founded in 2013 to build and operate the Istanbul Airport for 25 years, IGA was made up of five partners with equal shares — Kolin, Kalyon, Cengiz, Mapa and Limak, all construction companies close to Erdogan, which the opposition calls “the gang of five” over their controversial omnipresence in major public projects under the AKP. Kalyon and Cengiz, which took over Kolin’s 20% stake in 2019, have reached a deal to acquire also the shares of Limak and Mapa, according to media reports in late March. Once the acquisitions are formalized, Kalyon and Cengiz will own respectively 55% and 45% of the company.
As Kidik noted, the partners appear to be in a quest to disengage from the airport, perhaps at Erdogan’s prompting, mainly because of concerns of a potential government change in the next elections. Selling IGA to a foreign investor, the argument goes, could be a relief, but potential buyers — say, companies from Gulf countries with which Erdogan has been mending fences in recent months — need to be reassured that the Ataturk Airport is out of use for good.