Pro-Turkish government businessman’s close ties to Trump

With the relationship between the U.S. and Turkish presidents under the spotlight this month, the name of one Turkish businessman, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, has come to the fore on both sides of the Atlantic as a figure with close links in both Ankara and Washington.

In 2012, the Dogan Media Group, belonging to Yalçındağ’s father-in-law, was involved in a bitter struggle with then prime minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yalçındağ stood in an office in the newly opened Trump Towers in Istanbul and called for the Doğan conglomerate to foster good relations with Erdoğan’s government.

“If we’d worked with him rather than fighting him, we’d be the richest people in Turkey,” Yalçındağ is reported to have said. 

Those comments sparked widespread rumours in the media and business worlds that Yalçındağ’s ideas had caused him to be banished from the Doğan family. Yalçındağ’s wife Arzuhan is the daughter of Aydın Doğan, the owner of one of Turkey’s largest industrial conglomerates and owner of one of the country’s main media groups, until it was sold to a pro-government business in 2018.

Nowadays, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ’s name has come up frequently in U.S. press reports for his close business ties to the family of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump’s tacit approval of Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria has caused many U.S. media outlets to question why the U.S. president’s decisions appear to consistently favour Erdoğan. Yalçındağ has helped Trump foster business interests in Turkey, and many wonder if the U.S. president has forsaken his country’s interests in favour of those of his businesses.

The Turkish businessman came from a relatively modest background, and started working in a low-level position at the Doğan Group after completing his education in London. Just one year later, Yalçındağ was appointed as the deputy chief of Milliyet, one of Turkey’s best-known newspapers.

Whether this appointment was a result of Yalçındağ’s talent or his relationship with Doğan’s eldest daughter is still debated in Turkey.

The Doğan Media Group in the 1990s and early 2000s managed to outstrip almost all its competition, coming close to achieving a monopoly in the sector. It used its domination of the media to its advantage in the other sectors the conglomerate was involved in, and Yalçındağ frequently stamped his name on the group’s success stories.

Given time, these successes in the business world brought Yalçındağ a share of influence at the summit of politics, albeit largely behind the scenes.

The businessman’s current place in international relations started perhaps as a coincidence. Official records show that Yalçındağ has had business relations with Trump since 2008, and it was he who persuaded the billionaire to licence his name to Doğan Group to buıld Trump Towers in Istanbul.

Yalçındağ is also known as the man who introduced Trump to Erdoğan at the opening ceremony of the Istanbul towers in 2012.

Of course, at that time nobody dreamed that Trump would be the next president of the United States.

But the unexpected happened, and as Trump assumed office in the White House, Yalçındağ’s star shined brighter.

The U.S. president calls Yalçındağ a friend, and their relationship goes deeper than just talk. When Trump won the presidential election in 2016, the Turkish businessman was noted as the only foreigner who followed the election night with him in his hotel.

And, when Trump made his first official phone call to Erdoğan, he reportedly referred to Yalçındağ as “a close friend, and a big fan of yours”. With suspicion high that the U.S. president is mixing his business interests with his official station, these comments added fuel to the fire.

But Trump’s phone call appears to have done no good for Yalçındağ’s father-in-law, who was forced by Erdoğan to sell his major media holdings, including Hürriyet, the highest-circulation newspaper in the country, and television news channel CNN Türk.

This was the end of Aydın Doğan’s journey in Turkey’s media sector. With various lawsuits filed against him and the possibility of jail time, the businessman has left Turkey.

This has not stopped Doğan’s son-in-law from achieving prominence in Erdoğan’s administration. Last year, he was elected president of the government-linked Turkish-U.S. Business Council. This is the association that masterminded and has been leading the initiative to increase U.S.-Turkish trade to $100 billion.

Just six months after this success, Yalçındağ was appointed to the newly created Science, Technology and Innovation Policies Foundation, which is directly linked to Erdoğan’s presidency.

Before succumbing to pressure in 2018, the Doğan Media Group had been the last major, mainstream media group critical of Erdoğan’s government. But Yalçındağ would consistently take the government’s side within the group, according to a journalist with years of experience managing pro-government outlets.

“He went beyond being a mediator. In fact, he would complain to us about the those in (Doğan Media Group) who insisted on taking a stance opposing Erdoğan,” the journalist said.

The close links shared by Yalçındağ and Erdoğan’s government were clearly exposed in 2016, when the Turkish hacker group Redhack released emails it said belonged to Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.

At the time, Yalçındağ was heading Doğan Media Group, while Albayrak’s brother Serhat Albayrak was in charge of Sabah newspaper and the television channel ATV, two of the main pro-government outlets in Turkey.

Among the emails released by Redhack was one from Yalçındağ to Serhat Albayrak, in which he complains about Deniz Zeyrek, a Hürriyet writer known as a critic of the government.

“Deniz Zeyrek is an enemy. I’ve done what I can. I’ve lowered his appearances on CNN Türk from five a week to twice weekly,” Yalçındağ said.

At the same time, Yalçındağ is known to have close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s technology tsar, Arkadiy Volozh, the billionaire founder and CEO of the internet search company Yandex. In 2012, Yalçındağ was appointed the board chairman of Yandex’s Turkish subsidiary.

Under the Turkish businessman’s leadership, Yandex quickly grew in Turkey, while also attracting investment from many businessmen linked to Erdoğan.