GaWC Project 9

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Istanbul: Gateway between East and West under Conditions of Contemporary Globalization?

Funded by HEFCE (dual support system) including Loughborough University International Recruitment Budget (1999-2000)

Researchers: D.R.F. Walker and P.J. Taylor


For some two millennia, Istanbul (in its various guises) has been one of the great cities of the world. It has owed its success to its location on the Bosphorus where it has been a cultural and economic cross-roads both between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and between Europe and Asia. For some two centuries, Istanbul has been in relative decline as world political changes have not been conducive to cosmopolitan centres in traditional empires. First, the rise of the nation-state created homogenous cultural spaces thus demoting cities as cultural melting pots: in the case of Istanbul, its Ottoman inheritance was replaced by a national Turkish state with the capital far away in Ankara. Second, imperial rivalries culminating in the Cold War created homogenous security spaces thus demoting cities to strategic locations: in the case of Istanbul, Turkey's NATO membership converted much of its hinterland, its Black Sea neighbours and central Asia, into enemy territory. No wonder Istanbul has found it difficult to maintain its historic role as the bridge between East and West.

In the last decade these two impediments to Istanbul's world city status have themselves come under attack. With the end of the Cold War there are new opportunities for resuming connections which had previously been out of bounds, or at least been highly constricted. With the coming of globalization, new transnational processes abound in which cities can exploit opportunities beyond their own state's boundaries. In short, the time is ripe to reassess Istanbul as a bridge between East and West.

Research contexts

(i) Istanbul in the GaWC Inventory of World Cities. We propose an investigation into Istanbul's current, and possible future, status and role as a world city within the GaWC research programme on the geography of advanced producer service offices. Following the literature which identifies advanced producer services (banking, law, accountancy, advertising, management consultancy, etc.) as the distinguishing feature of contemporary world cities (Sassen, 1991, 1994), this research programme studies the office networks of producer service firms in terms of their locations and, in particular, their linkages. One of the early outputs of this work has been the 'GaWC Inventory of World Cities' (Beaverstock et al., 1999) which provides the first roster of world cities based upon a comprehensive empirical analysis (263 cities and 74 producer service firms). Fifty-five such cities are identified, and Istanbul is one of them. Although classified as only a 'Gamma' world city (as opposed to 'Alpha' and 'Beta' world cities which have more office connections), Istanbul is noteworthy because there are no other world cities identified for the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

(ii) Istanbul as a regional gateway world city. Below the great 'global cities' such as London, New York and Tokyo, other world cities have developed niches which articulate a sector of the world-economy into the larger whole by servicing global capital locally (Friedmann, 1995). The most common form that this takes is in the articulation of major national economies, for instance by Sao Paulo, Madrid, and Seoul. Certainly Istanbul has developed this role for Turkey (Ankara hardly figures at all in GaWC Inventory research) . However, other world cities perform a more regional role such as Singapore as gateway to South East Asia and Miami as gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. The question arises, therefore, whether Istanbul might have or be developing such a regional gateway role. Obviously this is relevant to the dearth of other rival world cities in Istanbul's hinterland reported above. There are four possible regional articulations which Istanbul might perform: (a) in a Turkic central Asian region in the former USSR and thus replacing Moscow; (b) in a Balkan south east Europe region; (c) in the eastern Mediterranean region; and (d) in the Islamic Middle East region. Any combination of the above is conceivable but, of course, highly contingent on the strategies of local and global producer service firms. It is these firms which we concentrate upon.

(iii) Istanbul's advanced service sector. The service sector is Istanbul consists of two basic categories: branches of major foreign service firms and domestic service firms. Obviously these have to be treated differently. The foreign branches are part of a global location strategy for specific services devised outside Turkey. The domestic firms are less specialised, usually family-owned conglomerates with services such as banking operating as an adjunct. For instance, only 125 of Turkey's top 500 firms are listed on the Istanbul stock exchange (the country's only one). Furthermore these firms have traditionally been closely associated with the state (e. g. banking and government bonds) so that Ankara has been a necessary location for much of their corporate activities. However with economic liberalisation, opportunities for profits associated with the state are beginning to be rivalled by new opportunities outside the state in the world market. In this latter situation Istanbul and not Ankara is the place to be.


There are three stages to the research.

(i) Constructing an inventory of Istanbul advanced producer service firms. Using a variety of sources including web sites of firms and business organisations, local directories and city planning documents, and informal investigations, a directory of leading advanced producer service firms with branches in Istanbul who do business outside of Turkey will be constructed. These will be divided by service sector, by foreign/domestic ownership, size of operation, and locations of foreign business. This provides the background information for the project.

(ii) Semi-structured interviews with local professionals with knowledge of contemporary developments in Istanbul's city economy. University business school researchers, financial journalists, city government planners and economists are the types of independent experts to be quizzed on the trends of international firms coming to Istanbul and Turkish firms moving from Ankara to Istanbul with particular reference to overall strategies.

(iii) Semi-structured interviews with senior personnel in Istanbul-located advanced producer service firms. From (i) and (ii) a small number of key firms will be selected which epitomise contemporary change especially with respect to extra-Turkish activities. For each firm we will ascertain current patterns of links (business conducted outside Istanbul) and future plans for development. Although the focus will be on looking for the regional articulations mentioned above, it is also relevant to find Istanbul's links with other world cities. We know from our previous work on London that this city has important links with Istanbul. For each foreign firm we will ascertain the role of their Istanbul branch currently and in the future.


There are two opposite findings which this research can produce. First, we may find clear evidence of Istanbul becoming a regional articulator within the world-economy. Second, it could be shown that, in this age of electronic communication, cities like London can service Istanbul's potential hinterland with little need to use Istanbul as a world city. The first finding would suggest that Istanbul is developing as a regional information (as data and culture) centre, a necessary location for those firms wishing to become serious players in the region. The second finding would suggest that such an information/knowledge role is not really necessary, firms in a major world city can operate in the region by having a 'regional desk' in, say, London (we have some evidence for this from an earlier project). Of course, the actual results will not be so clear-cut. We can expect mixed messages with different patterns for different services for instance.

Whatever the findings, the research will contribute two important new results. First, there will be a unique empirical description of the external relations of a world city below the top rung. Second, we will provide important insights into a current theoretical issue in world city studies: the nature of hierarchical relations between cities under conditions of globalization (Taylor, 1997). Finally, of course, we should not forget that, given its illustrious history, Istanbul is a particularly interesting case study for world city formation.


Beaverstock, J V, Smith R G, Taylor, P J (1999) 'A roster of world cities', Cities, 16, 445-58

Friedmann, J (1995) 'Where we stand: a decade of world city research' in P L Knox and P J Taylor (eds) World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

Sassen, S (1991) The Global City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

Sassen, S (1994) Cities in a World Economy (London: Pine Forge Press)

Taylor, P J (1997) 'Hierarchical tendencies amongst world cities', Cities, 14, 323-32

For results of this project, see GaWC Research Bulletin 14.