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‘Reflections of a Diplomat: Turkish Ambassador Reflects on Two Years in Yemen.’

National Yemen

Fazli Çorman, Turkish Ambassador to Yemen.

An Interview with Turkish Ambassador to Yemen Fazli Çorman

Finding a compromise, instead of trying to enforce one’s will, is the real solution.

We want Yemenis to go back to their country and help build it with the education that they have acquired abroad.

We hope that Yemen’s unity will not be harmed by this [transition] process.

You [Yemenis] should never accept losing. If you accept that, you have already lost.  So you have to just awaken yourselves and grab hold of your future.

Yemen has very long holidays, by the way, and that is actually something that should change!

You have to be the police of yourself. By kidnapping someone, that person is actually harming you, kidnapping your future…

Collectively as a nation, you have to do something about this problem: You cannot deny it, you cannot ignore it: Qat is one of Yemen’s foremost issues and it is dragging you back.

 By Jihan Anwer

Former Turkish Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, His Excellency Fazli Çorman, currently serves as the Turkish Ambassador to Yemen. He has served across the world, in such countries as Canada, Japan and Greece among others. Mr. Çorman arrived in Yemen during a critically important phase in Yemen’s development and what may be one of the most challenging periods any ambassador to Yemen has faced. He has stayed to see the historical changes that have taken place over the last two years. Another important date for Turkey is also approaching: the centenary of the republic. On October 29 2013, Turkey will celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. National Yemen interviewed Mr. Çorman in anticipation of this occasion, and His Excellency shared thoughts on his experience in Yemen, the shared history between Turkey and Yemen, and the challenges and opportunities for cooperative solutions between the two nations.

What are the major changes in the country you have witnessed since you arrived?

The major changes I’ve seen have always been towards the positive. The security level has considerably increased; the city has become more accessible and it’s easier to move around. Electricity and other services are in a much better condition than when I first came. The first month after my arrival, there was no type of garbage collection and it was terrible, of course. Now, though it still isn’t perfect, it’s improving.

Furthermore, the mood and mentality of people in general has considerably improved, and that’s something I like to see. When the people, collectively, have high morals, hope for the future and a belief that they can do something to improve the current situation, half the job is done. The other half of course is the actual work on the ground, and that is necessary. Yet, even before the work, you need to make sure that whoever is going to do that work should be willing to do it.  I think that now a more positive attitude is spreading; Yemeni people have realized that there’s a future for them and it’s in their hands to change it. I’m not saying that everyone thinks that but it’s easier now to see a more positive type of attitude in people.  Of course, anyone can look at the situation from different angles and accentuate the negatives but I’m not one of them. I try to speak of the positive events I witness in the country, and in Sana’a I can see positive developments.

What do you think are the most prominent similarities between Yemeni and Turkish people?

We have a lot of cultural affinities; the majorities of our populations are both Muslim, and we have a shared history so we can understand each other better than many other countries. Also in terms of natural resources, we in Turkey don’t have a huge amount of oil. In the same terms, compared to the neighboring countries, your resources are limited.

But this should be taken as an encouragement to work more, as there are numerous countries that in spite of limited natural resources have focused on human resources to develop into highly industrialized countries.

In Yemen and Turkey, we cannot say that our countries are deprived of resources; we have them, but there is a need to properly exploit them.

Do you think Yemen is using its natural resources efficiently?

Not yet. Your resources are in a much better situation then Turkey’s, but at this moment they are not being used efficiently, and that is something that everyone can easily see. But this is a problem that can be solved; the problem is the way these resources are managed, and it is possible to improve the management within a system where everything else also works.  A system-analysis approach is necessary for everything in Yemen; you cannot have something working when there are several systems where things are not working. Everything is interdependent and the bureaucracy, the council of ministers and the citizens, everyone should work cohesively to achieve the same objective. This is the only way in which success can come in the country.

There is some room for development in Yemen; this also one of the similarities I see between our countries. Generally, whenever I’m exposed to issues in Yemen I do not need to study and ask experts because I remember in my own lifetime how we faced the same challenges in Turkey. And I also remember how many times we have made the wrong turn before finding the right one. You have to think yourself as in a maze, and you cannot always make the right turn. Sometimes you take the wrong turn and you have to go back to your earlier place and find the right way. But once you reach the end of the maze—and the economic development is something like that in terms of the difficulty of the thing—then you have the experience and the knowledge of the ways that are working and the ways that aren’t.

In that sense, Turkey can help Yemen in many ways, but in particular by sharing expertise and providing solutions to moving forward. If you look into Turkish development 20, 30 years ago, our country’s issues were very similar to what you are experiencing now. We had the same resources and challenges: we had a young and large population eager to work and willing to live better but that needed to channelize their energy into the right direction.

In the 1970s, our youth were fighting each other because one side was rightist and the other was leftist. We were fighting in the streets, and everyone was offering solutions to the country’s problems according to their ideological stand, and these solutions were sometimes conflicting.

It is also true that today there are young people in Turkey who have differing views about the issues in the country, but at least we have found a way of discussing these issues without the youth fighting in the streets, but instead discussing these issues with each other in a peaceful manner.

In this regard, Yemen is also a very good parallel to Turkey. We are proud of Yemen because, among other Arab spring countries, only in Yemen was it possible through to find a peaceful solution through negotiation. Yes, the revolutions started in the same way and there have been a lot of losses and some unfortunate events have happened and are still happening. However, at least you were able to get together and form the National Dialogue Conference unlike many other countries. Finding a compromise, instead of trying to enforce one’s will, is the real solution.

Turkey has consistently supported Yemen over the past two years. How does Turkey prioritize its assistance and support to the country?

This is an area that we have been discussing recently with Ankara, because the Friends of Yemen meeting was held in New York recently. Our minister of foreign affairs also attended and made a speech there. Two major areas where Turkish assistance to Yemen has been prioritized are health and education. We are also going to have some projects on agriculture, irrigation and similar issues related to agricultural development because we know that this is an area in which a lot that can be done.

For health care, we are planning to open hospitals or similar health care institutions, inviting Yemeni patients to Turkey and a team of doctors to Yemen. Of course, these things cannot solve the larger problems. There is a saying in Turkey “You cannot operate a watermill by carrying water buckets to it”, implying that you need to have a continuous water source or stream to make it work. In Yemen one needs to have functioning systems which are now not in place, or are only very limited. In Turkey, we have recently upgraded and reformed our health care system; it’s one of the case studies for the experts in the sector, and we would like to use our experience to help Yemen in this area.

Opening a hospital and sending patients to Turkey for treatment…these are only palliative measures. The root is to reform and to re-establish Yemen’s health care system from scratch. This is one of the challenges for any government that will come to power—hopefully through elections—will have to deal with.

The second important thing is education. Currently the status of education in Yemen is better than that of health care. You have good educational institutions and you have bright people and that is the most important resource Yemen has. That’s why you have to be careful in nurturing young people. If you don’t give young people an education they will turn out to be problems and burdens to society. But if you nurture them they will become employees and constructors of the future.

As we said, we cannot operate a watermill by buckets of water, so we are having some pilot projects in this area that we are going to officially open soon. One of them is a technical and vocational institute, which is the result of a Yemeni-Turkish joint collaboration. We hope that Yemen will replicate this kind of project because in our system we have used these types of projects for our economic development program. They are not full universities, but in two years you can get an education and a profession; you can directly enter the work sector after your education. In Turkey we have coordination between these technical schools and the industry so that the industry is the one dictating the lectures that should be taught in the institutes.

The Yemeni ministry for education, higher education and technical and vocational education are the ones that I generally see most frequently and regularly. We have a lot of cooperation going on including offering scholarships to Turkey. Turkish scholarships are now universal and anyone can apply on their own at http://www.turkiyeburslari.gov.tr/index.php/en/. All applications for undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate studies happen through this website.

We are also organizing cooperation between universities, and in May we had educational fair and 45 universities, -seven of them personally by their rectors- attended. As with health care the real solution for education in Yemen is helping students find an ideal education in their own country, but that might take some time. Until that happens, sending some potential future leaders abroad to get a quality education and then come back to Yemen might help.

A condition for Turkish scholarship recipients is that they should return to Yemen. If the educated Yemenis end up working elsewhere, it would be a loss for Yemen. We want Yemenis to go back to their country and help build it with the education that they have acquired abroad.

What are your thoughts on the transitional period?

I’ve been closely following the Yemeni transition, and I have many close contacts among the different actors on every sides of the discussion. I have to say that it’s a very good accomplishment for Yemen to have come to this stage. It’s true that we are at the last stage and we don’t know exactly how it will end. But one cannot ignore all the previous accomplishments just because the last part is not going perfectly smoothly. If something has been done 90-95 percent, it is still a big achievement.

We are generally concerned about the unity of Yemen and the territorial integrity of Yemen. A country is only able to live healthily in the territory that it has, as it is one of the major components of the definition of the country. A country can be defined by its people, but it is also a geographical place. So geography and ethnical background, and maybe religion and culture as well, together define the people and the country as a whole. Geography is a major component of this. In Turkey, we consider the territory of the country as an integral part of what we are.

That’s why we are concerned about the separatist attitude in Yemen. The unity of Yemen is a significant achievement. Yes, there might be some complaints about it, but this is not the fault of unity. It’s a problem of the administration itself, and we can see now that the wisdom of the Yemenis is winning, and a solution of a different form is being suggested. It might be a federal solution, or just a united country with some decentralization. We agree with the need for decentralization because to have everything decided in the capital ignores the knowledge of Yemenis across of the country of what is best for their region. But some of the national issues that are of global importance will of course be decided in the capital. Therefore it could be a kind of decentralized system.

I would be very much concerned with any development that would lead the country to disintegrate. In our region, in the MENA region, there are many theories and studies on the fragmentation of countries here into small states. Why the countries were originally shaped this way is another issue; maybe there was a war 100 years ago after which the countries were arranged this way. Maybe it’s illogical and the current borders are meaningless. One can argue this, but to change them now and arbitrarily draw new borders is very dangerous in many ways, because these things are not toys. You cannot play with them at will and you cannot redraw these borders easily.

There’s another option: some actions should be taken, and others we may leave the for time to decide. Yemenis can decide about some of the major issues that are important to them at this moment and maybe they can leave some of them to time. I know that some Yemenis are insisting on solving all of these problems at once, but maybe this is not realistic. In the end, the decision belongs to the Yemenis, and we cannot say anything about it. As observers we are always trying to facilitate the dialogue and answer questions about our experience, but it’s the Yemenis that are going to decide for themselves.

We hope that Yemen’s unity will not be harmed by this process. At the same time we are very much aware that if we do not give the governorates, the local administration and the mayors some authority to collect some taxes, we cannot expect them to perform the services that are required. Local services should be funded by local taxes, and the government should only act as a coordinating agency in terms of education, municipal services, health care, and these kinds of public services.

Of course, when it comes to national security, defense of the country and foreign policy, these should essentially be focused on the capital, because you cannot tolerate double or triple voices in such areas. The state is one state and should act as thus.

What does the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Republic signify to you?

The national day is important for us, like any national day is important for its country. The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 on the 29th of October and the 90th anniversary is especially important for us because it reminds us that the 100th celebration is coming.

Of course the state structure and our ability to establish a state goes back to much earlier times. The Republic of Turkey is the 16th state established by the Turks, according to our linage. The last one was the Ottoman Empire, which was at one point the greatest power of the world.

The Republic of Turkey has a different outlook from the other states established by the Turks. It is the most western-oriented of all the Turkish states, and the republic itself aims to be as democratic and people-oriented as possible.

The establishment of the republic was not easy. It took place after the crumbling and collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  This is a difficult case because the collapse of something large can often leave you under the rubble. There was one point in Turkey’s history in which we were losing territory and it seemed that there might be nothing left. Then we lost the First World War in 1918, and then fought a four-year war that started in 1919 and ended in 1923. This was our war of independence, and at the end of it we saw the establishment the Republic of Turkey.

As a child I remember how joyous the celebrations have been. Of course, now we are much more proud because the achievements of this republic are very clear. When you visit Istanbul you see everywhere the results of this development and people are comfortable and their lives are improving. We would like to see this type of development extended to all Turkish citizens throughout the country.

And that’s why these ten final years are giving us another push before the century comes. It’s only ten years until we face the challenge of the century, and we have a number of aspirations to fulfill by 2023. It’s very important for us that we should enter the century of the republic at a more confident and advanced phase in our country’s development, and also move into the upper echelons of developed countries.

We know that it’s a never-ending process, and it’s also a sort of race. If you find yourself at the back, that doesn’t mean that you have to stay at the back. This can be a message to Yemenis as well. You should never accept losing. If you accept that, you have already lost. First of all, in your mind you should have a winning attitude and resist being a loser.  Once you have the determination to win, half of the problem is solved.

In terms of Yemen’s development, in these ten years and those to follow, we want to continue our help to the country and share our areas of expertise, because it is the Turkish aspiration to develop in solidarity in our shared region. We want to increase the volume of trade and investments in both directions between us and our neighbors and contribute to our mutual progress.

Do you currently have any specific project in that sense with Yemen?

We have many ideas, but to formulate them fully and put them into action, we first need Yemen’s transition to end satisfactorily.  We are discussing these projects currently and you can see Turkish and Yemeni delegations visiting each other’s countries, but for now these are sort of fact-finding trips.

Just as in the next ten years we aspire to become a major player in the world and a major source of cooperation and economic development in our region, Yemen certainly constitutes a very important place in this kind of global and regional strategy.

Yemen is poor but it has potential. It is the only country in the Arab world that is classified as “least developed country”. I know the general characteristics of these countries, and Yemen doesn’t belong there. It needs to graduate, in a sense, from this group soon.

We know that it’s possible because Yemen has a state structure and some experience in running the country, and Yemen also has a basis for greatness in its history; if you go back in your history, you can see that there was a prosperous civilization. The Yemen that we want to see it’s not the one that needs the help of other countries: actually, Yemen could sufficiently develop on its own, but some initial help is necessary. Still, it will never be that someone will finance Yemen’s development forever; it has to be fueled by Yemen itself. And the fuel for economic development is sweat, nothing else: you have to work for it.

What was the reaction of the Turkish government to the latest terror alert recently issued that caused 19 embassies in the region to close?

Actually I was in Turkey when I heard this news, and our government took it very seriously, of course. But while we tried to understand what was going on, we were also preoccupied with a recent incident that happened to one of our embassy in Somalia involving the al Shabab group.

The alert came at what was already a slow time in Yemen, as it was during the period of Ramadan, summer and the Eid holidays (Yemen have very long holidays, by the way, and that is actually something that should change!). Most people were already on vacation, so we kept quiet. We didn’t change anything as far as embassy services went, nor did we close the embassy or the consular section.

In fact, we already issue visas quickly, but due to many requests during holidays we have started issuing them even faster.

I would also like to reiterate something that many of the readers would be asking me, which is: when will the free visa agreement be implemented?

It was almost starting to be  implemented a short while ago, but we realized that there is a technical-legal connection between two agreements. One is the free visa agreement, which we already signed and is about to go into power from both sides.

However, there is another agreement—the re-admission agreement as we call it—which deals with potential problem situations, such as someone overstaying their visa or entering Turkey for purposes other than those stated on their visa. This free visa is only valid for three months, and for touristic purposes only, not for employment or residence.

That’s why there should be some type of mechanism to address issues of overstays and their like with regard to the free visa; these procedures are to be resolved in the second agreement I mentioned.  And that agreement has to pass through the Turkish parliament, because when an agreement affects or changes the Turkish laws, even if it constitutes only a single article, it has to be legalized by the legislative power. The executive power (i.e. the government) already decided on and signed the agreement. Now we have transferred the agreement from the parliamentary committees to the general assembly, and it will be discussed there in the upcoming days.

I cannot say when exactly they are going to decide, but we are working with the ministry of foreign affairs to push for the finalization of the visa agreement with Yemen soon.

In the meantime our embassy’s consular section works very quickly. Additionally, Turkish airlines now flies  six days a week and the Sana’a –Aden—Istanbul route is in operation. We look forward to upgrading our airline services even more in the future.

As one of the most successful ambassadors in Yemen, what are some of the projects that you would like to see implemented before you leave your office?

As the Turkish ambassador in Yemen, there are two principal items that many Yemenis tell me they would like to see.

One of them is a university: a Turkish university in Yemen, either a branch or an independent university itself, or maybe a joint project between Yemen and Turkey. And we are in the process of surveying this possibility.

The second one people generally ask me is establishing a Turkish hospital here. We are already working on some similar enterprises, maybe health care centers for check ups, IMRs and X-rays for early illness detection. A complete hospital would be a dream come true for me, and I hope it will happen.

What I would also like to see would be more Turkish companies on the ground in Yemen, in particular in the fields of construction and infrastructure. There is already a lot of trade going on between Turkey and Yemen, and our share of trade with your country is increasing, but the figures are not large enough, and it has to come from both sides. We have to find something that Yemen can export to us. Recently our minister of energy visited Yemen and we looked into the possibility of oil, gas, and oil derivates that Turkey may buy from Yemen.

Also, we are very happy to have some Turkish companies interested in exploration and production of Yemeni oil and gas, and recently one of them has begun work in Yemen. These are important first steps, and although there has been a lot of cultural connection and good will between us, there have not been many commercial links, investment activity or construction collaborations between us. Turkish companies are known internationally for their expertise in the construction sector, and also for their ability to win tenders, complete work on time and sometimes even before deadlines, as well as for the high quality of their work.

For example, the Mareb dam was constructed by a Turkish company quite some time ago, and I was proud to see that it still works flawlessly.

In the areas of road, tunnel, airport, port and organized industrial zone construction, we have much experience and we would like to offer this experience to Yemen. So in these last stages of my posting here I hope to find myself attending opening ceremonies for specific projects taking off on the ground. Unless this happens, our connection will only exist in rhetoric terms; we need to seal it by actual cooperation. We are brothers and sister with a history of friendship, but we have to show that on the ground. Now is the right time because Turkey is capable and Yemen is transforming itself. It’s the perfect time to reinvent each other and solidify our cooperation.

If we talk about foreign investment to Yemen, we can see that the negative media portrayal plays a major part in discouraging investors. Why do you think Yemen is being depicted so negatively by the media?

Because of the mistakes that Yemenis are making. I will be straightforward. There are mistakes that have been made.

Yes, there is the fact that for the media good news is not news, and bad news is what matters. This is how the media works everywhere. But for bad news not to be spread, first you have to decrease the occurrence of bad events.

By this I mean that these bad events should not happen, and preventive measure should be taken. Of course, even if you do 100 good things and one bad thing, the latter will be the one going on the news. But don’t worry: when people have to make decisions, they look at the reality. Everyone is able to analyze and decide for himself or herself.

Yemen, even under this bad media flood, is getting some positive attention from the world. The number of ambassadors may not be as high as in another countries but the activity and engagement level is very high. You are enjoying full support from the international community, especially by the UN Security Council’s permanent members. They are fully on your side.

You have a chance to move forward, and in this sense you are lucky. Although everything seems bleak in some ways, everyone knows that you have the potential and they want to help you, but you have to help yourselves first.

In my time in Yemen I have seen some things that are happening in such a way that they contribute to this negative media image. I will not give examples, everyone knows them, but every person should be held responsible for the decisions he or she made. Sometimes Yemeni figures try to maximize their own benefits, and this significantly harms the country. This is a challenge to overcome.

As Turkish deputy permanent representative on the UN, you have given a speech on terrorism and its possible solutions. How can Yemen tackle its terrorism problem?

Actually, terrorism is a global problem we all face, and Turkey has suffered from it as well. In the UN General Assembly, Turkey is now co-leading with the US a regional counterterrorism initiative, and we are very proud of the fact that Yemen is also taking part in this.

Our approach to terrorism is characterized by one important strategy: to be able to fight against terrorism of course you have to fight it militarily, but if you don’t support this fight with economic and social development you will never succeed.

In our case for example, we had years of problems in our southeastern regions and we were able to gain the confidence of our own people only after we made lots of investment in their area by improving irrigation systems, dams and water channels. We provided different kinds of facilities that changed their lives and helped them to start accepting the state authority.

In Yemen’s case, there is a lot of talk of problems caused by electricity and power cuts perpetrated by tribal groups.

But I wonder, why don’t these tribal people feel that these electric lines are also for their benefit? Maybe they are not benefitting from this service. If that is the case, that is a big mistake, because you have to share the services with the local people and provide them with a feeling of ownership. If the light in his house is being powered by that same electric line, he will not think of attacking that line. If you do not share the resources, then of course people will be against them.

There’s also the need to mention the importance of attitude and the social acceptance that this type of actions receive.

For example, if we talk about a tribe kidnapping someone, Yemenis and the other tribes usually keep silent. This is not good. You are together in one ship and someone is making a hole on the bottom of your ship; you cannot just ignore this and claim that someone else should stop the wrongdoer; everyone should try to stop that person. If someone is being kidnapped in the streets, everyone in the vicinity should work to stop the kidnapper. Maybe there are going to be victims, but this can be considered a war and Yemenis are known to be brave. If all of you are standing up to these people, they will not be able to do anything. You have to be the police of yourself. By kidnapping someone, that person is actually kidnapping you and your future and harming the country and the destroying the future of the country as a whole.

What advice would you give to the next ambassador, and what message would you like to send to the people of Yemen?

My advice for the next Turkish ambassador to Yemen would be to approach the country from a positive perspective and try to share the experience of Turkey’s development with Yemen. This will benefit both Yemen’s growth and our mutual cooperation.

My message to the Yemeni people would be to own this country, to claim this country. You are one of the most deeply rooted civilizations in the history of the world. So you have to just awaken yourselves and grab hold of your future. When you do that, your future will be bright.

And of course—I have to add this to my interview—you have to get rid of this Qat issue because it’s holding the country back, unfortunately. Sure everyone has the right to decide his or her own actions, and one cannot dictate anyone’s behavior (chew whatever you like, how much you like). But collectively as a nation, you have to do something about this problem. You cannot deny it, you cannot ignore it: Qat is one of Yemen’s foremost issues and it is dragging you back.

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