A Conversation with the Turkish Ambassador to Yemen 

Monday, May 13, 2013, Originally published in Yemen Times 

The Turkish Ambassador to Yemen, Fazli Çorman, previously served in Greece, Oman, Japan and Canada. Upon his assignment to Yemen, he quickly made a name for himself in the country as he is one of only two ambassadors with a Twitter account. He now has more than 2,000 followers and prides himself on being accessible. 

In an interview, Çorman talks about the complex relationship Yemen and Turkey have. Those who remember the Ottomans fondly view the empire as a force that structured the North of Yemen. Today, Yemenis in this category continue to celebrate their “Turkish heritage.” While others, who remember the Ottomans as occupiers, believe Turkey is primarily expanding its influence in the Middle East through Yemen. On this relationship, Çorman said: 

Çorman says that no foreign power should interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs. (YT archive photo by Amira Nasser)

Çorman says that no foreign power should interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs. (YT archive photo by Amira Nasser)

"We all know that Turkey and Yemen have had a strong relationship, for centuries. There are deep cultural affinities, ties of brotherhood, as well as a firm solidarity between the Turkish and Yemeni people. Almost all Yemenis know this fact and feel very close to Turkey. The Yemeni-Turkish brotherhood is deeply-rooted; transcending any particular period or personal realm. Thus, efforts to harm this brotherhood are doomed to be unsuccessful. Yemen is special to us, and we have nothing but good intentions. We deem Yemen’s security and stability as of our own. Our Yemeni brothers and sisters can be sure that nothing will affect the excellent relationship between the two brotherly countries. It will only reinforce our ties. I have bad news for those who are disturbed by the developing Turkish-Yemeni brotherhood. Our relationship will only grow faster."

The Turkish government has become one of Yemen’s main trading partners. Just two months ago, Turkey received its first shipment of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Yemen.  When asked about Turkey’s future economic cooperation plans with Yemen and what to expect, Çorman said Yemen's struggling economy has a lot of potential. 

"Turkey’s Ege Gaz LNG company received the cargo at Aliağa Port on March 9. This shipment supports the Yemeni economy and other shipments will follow. We all know that Yemeni gas is sold at very low prices and Turkey is ready to purchase Yemeni gas at the world market price. I think this trade will not only increase Yemeni exports to Turkey and thereby balance the bilateral trade, but will also give leverage to the Yemeni government in their negotiations with Yemeni gas prices.

Also, I have observed an increase of all kinds of Turkish goods in the market. This shows development in the bilateral trade relations, which are reflected by our statistics. Our trade volume in 2012 was a new record in our economic relations. It was approximately $500 million in 2012 which, not only doubled the figures of 2011, but exceeded all statistics prior to 2011. Our target is to contribute by further increasing this volume to at least $1 billion in the near future,” Corman said.

Turkey's ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is considered by many as one of the most conservative parties with Islamist roots to have power since the time of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Rumors are circulating that suggest Turkey is dealing primarily with individuals in Yemen from the Islah Party, which is the largest opposition party in Yemen  also with Islamic-roots. Examples people put forward are that of an Islahi tribal Sheikh Hameed Al-Ahmar, who is also accused of being part of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s former regime and said to have multimillion dollar businesses in Turkey. Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, also an Islahi, was awarded Turkish citizenship. Furthermore Corman was asked to comment on Islahis who were wounded during the Yemeni Revolution and were sent to Turkey for treatment. 

“First of all, any Yemeni businessmen can have a business in Turkey. Hameed Al-Ahmar may be one of them. We invite and welcome all Yemeni businessmen to invest or establish businesses in Turkey regardless of their political affiliation. Secondly, Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before she gained Turkish citizenship. In this regard, she successfully represented Muslim women in general and Arab women in particular. It is with this understanding that Turkish citizenship was given to her and her family, as a result of our appreciation of her strong voice as a Muslim woman which has been heard in the West for the first time. Our act is out of respect and should not be traced with any other intention behind it.

“Thirdly, in the framework of the Agreement Concerning the Cooperation in the Area of Health between Turkey and Yemen every year, 25 Yemeni patients—this number is increased to 100 in 2013 —who cannot be cured in Yemen can be treated in Turkey by the selection of the Yemeni Ministry of Health. If the Yemeni Ministry chooses them according to party affiliation, I do not know, and I cannot judge this. Due to the dire conditions of those injured in Yemen during the revolution and as a response to the requests of the Yemeni government, 100 more patients were offered complimentary health care. All of these patients were selected in coordination with Ministry of Health officials. Turkey is equally distanced to all parties in Yemen and doesn't think about discrimination, especially the humanitarian field. If Yemeni people follow our news closely, then they will easily understand that these rumors and allegations are clearly baseless."

Yemen and other countries have seized weapon shipments that passed through Turkey or originated from there in the past few years. Some of the weapons seized are said to be manufactured in Turkey and many media outlets and politicians have accused Turkey of turning a blind eye.  Corman answers who is shipping them and how the weapons are being smuggled into Yemen.  

“There have been three shipments that are associated with containers coming from Turkey over the last two years. One was caught in Dubai in March of 2011, another in Aden in November of 2012 and the last one came to Aden in November but wasn't inspected until January of 2013. All three shipments had pistols that were concealed amongst other goods. They were not declared to customs as such, and therefore they were cases of illegal smuggling.

The pistols captured in Dubai, were blank or traumatic-firing pistols that may be modified for live ammunition, and were marked by its Turkish producer’s brand name. That producer was prosecuted and imprisoned. His license for blank-firing pistols was cancelled. The pistols captured in November 2012, were marked with a fake brand. They were small-caliber handguns and were concealed in some biscuit boxes loaded at the very back of the container. Most of them were bundled with biscuits and cakes. We got one sample of that handgun and the laboratory analysis in Turkey recently revealed that their barrel is not ribbed and they cannot fire regular live ammunition. It appears that the receiver in Yemen was planning to modify their barrel to fire live ammunition in order to make extra profit.

The last shipment, captured in November but opened in January, contained a very small caliber of blank-firing handguns. I am not an expert, but I personally saw these handguns and they were clearly not-capable of firing live ammunitions since they do not have the proper barrel.

There are exaggerations involved. These cases are very amateurish and do not reflect the work of a professional arms smuggler. This does not change the fact that whomever did this broke the law by hiding weapons—blank or not—in containers declared as something else,” Corman said. “The Turkish Minister of Customs is planning to visit Yemen soon as we are searching for an agreement with Yemeni officials to prevent such cases from happening in the future.”

Soon, Yemenis won’t require a visa to travel to Turkey. Turkey would be one of the few countries around the world that won’t require visa applications from Yemeni nationals. Furthermore, some Yemenis have said Turkey is recruiting fighters from Yemen to fight in Syria against current President Bashar Assad.

"This is the most ridiculous thing that I heard. It is almost a laughing matter if the subject and aim of the allegation was not so serious. These allegations are like free-flying balloons released by obscure sources online and then whomever catches the bait, some knowingly and others inadvertently, spreads the news. Yemen has an incredibly fertile ground for every kind of conspiracy and thus, conspiracy theories abound. The lack of trust and transparency by inept and corrupt personalities allows modifiers of public opinion to play freely with these kinds of conspiracies, all in order to promote their own wicked agendas. In the case of this “balloon,” the quality of work is so low that it gives itself up.

If Turkey would like to recruit Yemeni fighters for Syria, why would we sign an agreement to abolish visas? It's a public move that would attract the world’s attention. Also, why is the Yemeni government with its General People's Congress Foreign Minister accepting such an agreement? Wouldn’t it be simpler and wiser to just let the ‘recruited fighters’ enter into Turkey if that is what we wanted? Furthermore, this visa abolishing agreement was originally signed in January of 2011, under the presence of former President Saleh and the current President of Turkey in Sana'a. At that point, there was no revolution, neither in Yemen nor in Syria. The ratification of the agreement took longer than anticipated due to turmoil in Yemen and it was re-signed in October of 2012.

I would like to kindly remind our Yemeni sisters and brothers that by implementing this agreement, Turkey will be one of the very few countries that opens its borders to Yemenis for free travel, and vice versa, all while the rest of the world puts more restrictions on Yemenis. We expect that it be appreciated. Those few who may still believe that Turkey recruits fighters are free of course, to ignore the agreement and to not travel to Turkey to save themselves from the risks of being lured into fighting in Syria.”

 When asked to comment on Iran’s involvement in Yemen, Ambassador Çorman had the following to say: 

“When it comes to your question about Iran or any country’s influence in Yemen, I want to believe that no partner of Yemen interferes in the internal affairs of the country. It is only the business of Yemenis to choose their partnerships as they see fit. It is true Yemen is facing many challenges, some internal and some external and we are ready to extend all necessary contributions for the consolidation of peace and stability in Yemen, as well as the well-being of the Yemeni people. Despite difficulties, I am confident to say that we are doing our best to help.”

Over the past few years, it became very apparent that the Turkish government is strategically strengthening its ties in Yemen through educational projects and programs. Yemen now has three Turkish schools, one in the capital Sana’a and two in the cities of Aden and Taiz. Furthermore, since 2013, the Turkish embassy announced that 22 scholarships will be given to 22 students, each from a different governorate in Yemen. This is one of many costly educational projects that Turkey has taken on board. Mr. Çorman states that the Turkish involvement with the Yemeni educational system is not something new and goes further by suggesting that the “new model” of the Yemeni educational system will be influenced by Turkey:

“There is a huge demand in Yemen for students to study in Turkey. Therefore, we organized an “Education Fair” from the 3-4 March in Sana'a and the 5-6 March in Aden. The new 22 extra scholarships for the best student of each governorate that you mentioned in your question were announced as a support to Yemen by the Rector of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University located in Rize, during this Education Fair.
We’re regularly providing more scholarships every year for Yemeni students to study in Turkey. For instance last year, there was record number of 1,700 Yemeni applicants to the Turkish scholarship. A delegation came from Turkey and they conducted more than 200 interviews with the best candidates. Fifty of them were selected and now they are studying in Turkey.

Yemeni Ministers, like Minister of High Education H.E. Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, Minister of Education H.E. Abdurrezzak Yahya Al-Ashwal and Minister of Technical and Vocational Training H.E. Dr. Abdulhafiz Numan are very cooperative with in developing the educational system in Yemen together. Hereby, I would like to thank them for showing this cooperation and for participating in the opening ceremony of the Education Fair. On a separate note, we furnished the Yemeni-Turkish Technical and Vocational Training Institute in Sanaa for 2.6 million Dollars. We are searching possibilities to open a Yemeni-Turkish University”.