Interview with Fazli Corman, Turkey’s Ambassador to Yemen

National Yemen

Turkish Ambassador to Yemen Fazli Corman

By Fakhri al-Arashi

On the occasion of the Republic of Turkey’s 89th National Day, the National Yemen’s Editor-in-Chief sat down with His Excellency Fazli Corman, Turkey’s Ambassador to Yemen, to discuss the past, present and future potential for strong relations between the two nations.

Q:  Would you please tell us about yourself?

A:  I am a diplomat by profession, and this is my first ambassadorial position. Before Yemen, I was in New York as Turkey’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Before that, I served in countries like Canada, Japan, the Sultanate of Oman, Greece I was in many other positions while I was in Turkey, including being responsible for the Iraqi file, and I was Turkey’s Deputy Special Representative to Iraq. Reaching an important stage in my professional carrier, I found myself in Yemen. I should say that this is the place where I am really happy and most challenged, because I am in Yemen at a very special time. I arrived exactly when Yemen entered its transitional phase.

Q:  You accepted being in Yemen during a hard time for the country; how did you receive the news of your appointment here?

A: There is of course a choice of accepting or declining such appointments. In my case, I never thought of refusing this appointment, as I knew how important Yemen was for Turkey – and the same was true of our high-ranking officials and my minister, who actually made the decision about my appointment. My Prime Minister and my President nominated me, so it was an honor for me to accept. I couldn’t think of any reason to think otherwise.

Of course, I was worried about the security situation. It was a general feeling that I quickly overcame when I arrived, but I knew from my time abroad in America over the last four years how media attention can shift perceptions about a country away from reality.

Q:  What effect did the media have on you? 

A:  I have an interesting story I should mention. When I received a telephone call from my minister about my appointment as ambassador to Yemen on a Friday evening, I was thinking in all directions about how it would be. I of course was happy, and while my wife was worried about security, we passed a very special evening that night.

The next morning, as usual in New York, I was browsing New York Times newspaper thick with many annexes on Saturday morning. Of all days, that day the New York Times Magazine chose to carry a cover story with a picture of Yemen and in big fonts saying that Yemen was on the brink of hell, with a report several pages long. This was not a good thing to see, and I still have that magazine with its cover showing Yemenis in flames.

While I was talking to my wife and saying that don’t worry, things were going to go well, she put the New York Times Magazine on the table and said “read this.” It was an unfortunate coincidence and that same day, I spoke to my predecessor, our ambassador who was in Yemen and asked him if he saw that story. He said “Yes, I saw it.” His answer was “Don’t believe in it – it’s largely an exaggeration, with a few facts.” This was my initial experience connected with my coming to Yemen.

Later on, I realized why Yemen looks worse than it is; in the western media, Yemen is always associated with bombs, attacks and terrorism. It’s always good when there is progress in any National Dialogue, yet when Yemen – unlike many other countries – could actually negotiate a solution, reflecting the positive side of Yemen; it was not seen as interesting news. The news agencies never take positive news as seriously as they do the negative stories.

Q:  From that encounter with the New York Times Magazine report until today, how have you found the differences between what is written and reality?

A:  I should say that Yemen is now on the brink of heaven. This is my feeling, because I see a country full of potential, full of good things which go unnoticed. Yemen has very good human resources – much richer than other countries in the region – and a young population that can be its best resource for development, as well as many natural resources, agricultural possibilities and fisheries. These factors put Yemen in a position to actually develop. All that Yemen needs is a system and a political framework for Yemenis to function to their full capacity.

At this moment, if Yemenis are doing really well, they are going abroad to work; but most Yemeni people cannot approach the limit of their personal abilities because the system is not giving them the chance to do so.

I believe that this country is now very close to prosperity, and that the steps that have already been taken are actually very positive and important. Even the ability of Yemen’s political factions to get together and negotiate is something to be admired; we know how bad the situation would be if they aren’t able to do so. It’s not a joke – if Yemenis were able to save one life by making this GCC deal possible, by entering into the National Dialogue, it was worth it to do so.

Q:  Over the past ten months of your appointment in Yemen, you’ve had a chance to learn about Yemen’s transitional process. How would you gauge implementation of the GCC transitional process since you arrived and up until now?

A:  I think the daily lives of Yemenis have dramatically and positively changed. When I arrived in November, city life was very limited. People very rarely moved, everyone were disappeared from streets, and markets were operating at their lowest capacities. I can now say that city life has reemerged; we can move easily in town and between cities, and business has returned to normal.

When I came to Yemen, I visited Dar Al-Hajjar and was the only visitor. Recently, when my wife arrived, we went together again and there were many Yemeni families. They approached us to chat, and I felt happy to see this difference. Also, when I came to Sana’a on board a Turkish Airlines flight to start my mission, I was one of five passengers on the flight. When I traveled from Istanbul to Sana’a the last time, the plane was full.

I can say that Yemen has moved towards normalcy in this ten month stretch of time, and in very significant ways. I am not saying this as a diplomatic nicety – I have lived through this.

Q:  In the Arab Spring, what was your government’s role in saving Yemen from falling into civil clashes? In what way did your country help Yemen both with the GCC deal and at the recent donor conference in New York?

A:  There have been many things we were able to do. When I was appointed here, I had clear instructions from the president, prime minister and from my minister about involving and engaging in Yemen’s transition. As you know, the Muslim world is going through a wave of transformation, or the Arab Spring. Whatever we call it, the process in Yemen is a unique case and one to be looked after, given the special relationship throughout history between Yemen and Turkey; there was a natural interest in what was happening in Yemen. Then there was the specific way in which the Yemeni transformation came about:   nowhere else did things happen like they did in Yemen. Of course, there was a difficult period – but after that, Yemenis came together and made a deal for a transitional period. This was an interesting phenomenon to watch and be involved in, and a chance to encourage Yemen to go this way. It represented the right path and provided the rationale for encouraging other countries to follow the Yemen example.

This encouraged me to make some effort to be part of the international discussion, as part of the group of ten countries that engaged with Yemen during the transitional period. We want to be part of this group in its efforts.

Q:  How much money did the Turkish government donate at the Friends of Yemen meeting in New York?

A:  My government pledged to donate one hundred million dollars, an unprecedented amount, to Yemen. This amount puts Turkey among the major donors to Yemen.

There was another Friends of Yemen Conference before, but not all the assistance which had been pledged was actually implemented. Turkey at that time pledged one million dollars to Yemen, and ended up spending more. We spent 2.6 million dollars on the technical and vocational school which we will inaugurate soon. This school will allow young Yemenis to receive a technical education and be ready to work in medium and small industries and establish their own businesses. We believe these kinds of projects are very important for Yemen.

Q:  In celebrating the 89th anniversary of Turkey’s National Day, what makes you feel proud about Turkey’s past history in Yemen? 

A:  Of course, we have a very good historical background in Yemen. I’ve been very happy to discover that the Ottoman period in Yemen is generally well-received by Yemenis, with most Yemenis speaking highly about it. Of course, it’s always better to be independent in your own country. The Ottoman Empire was the Islamic world’s center of power for a long time, and the Yemenis were proud of being part of this large Islamic empire. The power that the Ottomans reflected onto the rest of the world was shared by the Yemenis, which made them proud and happy. This is a much better background when compared with many other cases of countries being ruled over by others, with the situation ending with a war. In Yemen, it did not end with a war. We had an agreement in 1911 with Imam Yahya, and there was a transition period; after seven years’ time, the Ottoman soldiers left Yemen. In the year 1918, at the end of the First World War, we signed an agreement with the victors and evacuated Yemen. There are more than 20 countries which were once under Ottoman rule, and Yemen is a special case in terms of its acceptance of the Turkish Period in good terms.

Q:  When you travel around the country and find that people welcome you because of your country’s history in Yemen, how is this reflected in your feelings? 

A:  I am proud of this history… I feel more at home, I cannot describe the acceptance I have received from Yemenis around the country using words. When people learn that I’m from Turkey, they try to express the best feelings, with responsiveness and generally with emotion; it gives me a lot of responsibility, because its shows me how deep the connection is between our two countries.

It took some time for the Republic of Turkey to regain some of its strength after the destruction and collapse of the full empire during the First World War. During the last decades, we’ve tried to solve our problems and develop ourselves economically. Now it’s a different role, to look after our neighboring countries and friends – we can do something for them at this moment since the Turkish economy is safe and the rate of growth is stable. Democracy is also well-established. I think Turkey can do more for surrounding countries and those beyond.

Q:  What will Turkey’s future role in the new Yemen look like?

A:  The areas of politics, business, social, education and health are very important sectors for the Republic of Turkey to develop in Yemen. The first thing which we can do very quickly is to increase trade links, which is relatively easy and already happening. What we need is to create a framework for trade; Turkish products are already well-known in Yemen. This year’s trade figures are very promising. In the first eight months of this year, we reached more than three hundred million USD. If things continue this way until the end of the year, we might become Yemen’s second or the third biggest trade partner. We were the sixth in the past, and we did fine in the past year despite Yemen’s crises.

Yemeni exports are very limited; the number is quite small and I am working to increase it.

Q:  How are you going to encourage improvement for the Yemeni side?

A:  Fisheries represent one area that I can think of. Some Turkish traders were buying tuna fish from Yemen, yet this stopped at a particular time because of irregular supply. I think there could be a trade connection, especially if Turkish investors had canning or packaging facilities to get fresh fish to Turkey.

We have to think of mining and other natural resources; in terms of oil, Turkey might enter into this area. Turkish investors have shown some interest in marble and other types of stones, and I hope that sometime soon a factory will be opened in Hodeida.

Q:  What’s developed concerning the operation of Hodeida Port, as Turkish companies have shown an interest in this?

A:  The Hodeida Free Zone project is a joint venture project between the Islamic Bank for Development, Turkey and Yemen. We believe that a port can revive and prosper only if it has a hinterland. If you support a port with a free trade zone, then you can have a good impact. Local trade is very good, but it’s not enough to provide for the operation of a port. Today’s world is a global village and anything can be done anywhere in the world.

The port requires some restoration and, more than that, it needs a free industry free zone. Hodeida is a very important city in terms of the connection to the Mediterranean Sea. Hodeidah is a very significant port when you come down from the north, from the Suez Canal and down to the Red Sea – and we have to mention Aden also as being very important; it’s Yemen’s gate to the rest of the world. These two ports need well-implemented policies.

Q:  Does your government have interest in Aden Port?

A:  Why not? I can say that we have looked at the port’s situation. We’ve been following its progress and now that there is a new chapter in the port’s life, we might visit again soon and may be interested in developing it.

Q:  Do you support international operation of Aden Port?

A:  The best thing about competition is that it brings the best results. We believe in competition if it’s free, open and international; if it’s free of corruption and comes with transparency, we have no difficulties with it. Turkish companies are doing this and are quite qualified and can be very competitive. Behind-the-doors deals are not good for Yemen. This way, you cannot reach the best deals, and it has not been good for Yemen. I would be much happier if Yemen were able open all these international tenders in a very transparent way and receive the best offer which comes with the best rates and highest quality. It will be possible to have many business ideas. We are okay with the idea of international competition.

Q:  In less than ten months, you’ve come to witness Turkish Airlines’ inaugural flight to Aden, the opening of a new building for the Turkish School and for the TIKA office and much more? What’s behind this burst of activity?

A:  Of course, it’s not about me – it’s a matter of conjunction. I was lucky to be here at the beginning of the transformation, I should say. The most difficult part was over before I arrived. My predecessor lived through the most difficult part. I came at the beginning of the transition and I can use this opportunity to revive the relationship between our countries. I’ve happy to see the achievements you mentioned and see them as the beginning of a time of fruitful relations.  There are other projects that we are working on – we’re thinking about a cultural center, we have plans to expand the Turkish language department at Sana’a University, and maybe also in Hodeida and Aden. We will open three dialysis centers in Yemeni cities. We are thinking of giving assistance in the training and education sectors and in hospital management.

I think that one of the best things that Turkey can do for Yemen is to share its experience regarding economic liberalization. What we achieved in Turkey was possible because of the empowerment of the private sector. It’s the engine of the economy.

If we share the know-how, Yemen’s economy can go through a similar transformation.

Q:  How does being an advocate of social media involvement affect your work as a diplomat?

A:  It’s affecting me very positively. I should say that most of the things I’ve learned about Yemen came directly from people I met on Twitter. There’s a variety of people on Twitter, including activist users who are generally more engaged and active. If at times I write something incorrect about Yemen or elsewhere in the world, people on Twitter will write back and correct me; I’ve yet to receive a negative response. I’ve had good experiences with Twitter and am actually advising my colleagues to do the same. My best friends are from Twitter, and they’ve given me new windows into today’s world. For a diplomat, you cannot live without that. My government is one of the most liberal in this sense, and my ministry encourages ambassadors to have Twitter accounts and insists that its embassies should have official Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Q:  What message would you give to Turkish citizens who would like to come to Yemen?

A:  Yemen is somewhere that all Turks know by heart and have all emotional connections and bridges with. They should not believe what they are reading in the media: it’s generally negative and exaggerated. They should come and see the country for themselves. They will see that it’s very friendly, and they will also see opportunities for Yemen and Turkey. I encourage them to take a closer look. In the near future, many business opportunities will flourish in Yemen – if they delay, they will lose out .

Q:  How do you like to conclude this interview?

A:  I have full confidence and optimism about Yemen’s future. I am especially happy to serve at this critical time for Yemen. Not many have this chance; it’s a rare thing to be able to be so closely engaged with a country’s development, with the youth and society. How can you have all this at one time? That is why I am very happy to be in Yemen.