In an interview with Today's Zaman Eryani stated Turkish policy towards Yemen was welcomed by Yemen and the Yemeni people, and that relations between the two countries go back many years. “Yemen was a part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by İstanbul. There are still the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Yemen. So we have historical ties and many things in common,” he said. Turkey enjoys deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with Yemen and supports the unity, stability and prosperity of the country, of which Turkish President Abdullah Gül's visit to Yemen last year is a concrete example.
Gül's visit to Yemen last year at the invitation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was particularly significant as the first presidential visit from Turkey to Yemen.
For Eryani, the visit is a source of optimism and a remarkable step in developing the relationship between the two countries. “It opened a new page in relations,” Eryani said.
During Gül's visit to Yemen visa requirements were mutually lifted, a Turkish Martyrs Memorial was inaugurated and five important agreements, as well as a number of promising business deals, were signed. As Eryani notes, “Yemen was the first Arab country to build a memorial for Turkish martyrs.”
Touching upon economic relations between Yemen and Turkey, the ambassador stated that Turkey's exports to Yemen were of great importance, adding that the trade volume between the two countries is approximately $400 million per year. “Yemen intends to utilize Turkish experience in the fields of infrastructure and construction. There are lots of Turkish companies visiting Yemen to discuss with officials on how to improve the economic situation in Yemen,” Eryani added.
According to Eryani, Yemen and Turkey collaborate in various fields, including health and education, and there are currently more than 90 Yemeni students studying in Turkey. “There is an agreement between both countries regarding the exchange of doctors and training courses for them. We currently have 15 doctors in Turkey who came for three-week training courses. Currently we have more than 70 wounded citizens in Turkey. These citizens were wounded during the uprisings in Yemen, which lasted for almost one year,” Eryani said.
The ambassador also calls for Turkish businesses to invest in Yemen: “Turkish businesses can invest in the fields of oil, gas, tourism, and the industrial and medical sectors. In brief, economic relations are good but we expect them to be much better. We are doing our best to develop economic relations, which is very important.”
Eryani said the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) opened an office in Sana, the capital of Yemen, last year. “TİKA, which is charged with the cooperation between the two countries, plays an important role,” he said.
February elections and problems in Yemen
During the 2011-12 Yemeni uprising, after a year of massive protests against Yemeni President Ali Saleh, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposed an initiative to transfer the powers of Saleh's 33-year reign to Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. After Saleh signed the GCC initiative on Nov. 23, 2012, Yemen scheduled early presidential elections for Feb. 21, 2012, in which Hadi was the only candidate.
In the February elections, says Eryani, the current president was elected for an interim period of two years. “During the interim period Yemen will prepare itself for parliamentary elections as well as presidential elections,” he notes. “The people of Yemen supported the new president and gave him legitimacy to rule the country for two years. Ninety-nine percent of the people voted for the new president, which evidences the support of the people for him. He wasn't only supported domestically but also regionally and internationally. All the countries in the Middle Eastern region supported him.”
When asked if people were satisfied with the new president, Eryani stated that every faction in Yemen was satisfied, taking into account the problems faced during the crisis. Of former President Saleh he commented that Saleh's situation was unusual in the Arab culture, noting: “In Arab culture we are used to seeing that former presidents are either executed or sent to jail or into exile. But our former president left politics peacefully and he was not prosecuted for his mistakes.”
When asked his opinion of the so-called “Arab Spring,” Eryani stated that he rejected the term; many people have been killed and countries have suffered from deficiencies in security, and it is too early to judge the situation in the region. “When we look at Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the situation might look good but there are still problems in those countries. It is very controversial to say that the Arab Spring will bring good results. We really don't know the future,” he said.
Eryani also emphasized the importance of the National Dialogue Conference due to be held in Yemen in the upcoming days. The conference aims to settle disputes between Yemen's political factions under the supervision of the president. “Now Yemen is preparing for the National Dialogue where all the factions and political parties in Yemen will gather and discuss how to solve the problems of the country,” said Eryani.
When asked about the conflict between Shiite and Sunni groups in Yemen, Eryani stated that in the past there had been no conflict between any sects in Yemen. “Unfortunately, after the Iranian revolution, the Shiite-Sunni conflict emerged in the region. Iran, according to its constitution, considers itself the representative of Shiites around the world. Yemen has a Zaidi population living in the northern part of the country, a part of the Shiites. Shiite rebels known as Houthis also living in the northern region believe that power should be in their hands. They think they have a God-given right to rule the people, so they are fighting for this belief. This is unacceptable. There is a political conflict in Yemen, not a sectarian conflict,” he said.
According to United Nations figures, Zaidi Shiites make up about 45 percent of Yemen's population and Sunnis 53 percent. Houthis are estimated to be approximately 30 percent of the population. The Yemeni government has also accused the Houthis of having ties to external supporters, especially the government of Iran, a Shiite-majority country.
When asked about the demands of separatist groups in the southern part of the country, Eryani stated that their sole purpose was to divide Yemen. “They want to return to the periods before the unification of Yemen,” said Eryani. Northern Yemen and Southern Yemen, the latter ruled by a communist government, were formally united as the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990. “Among the problems in Yemen the biggest one is the situation in the southern part of the country. This issue will be discussed in the National Dialogue,” stated Eryani.
“Separatists claim that they are fighting for their own country, the southern part of Yemen. They want to separate the south from a united Yemen, which is impossible after all. The majority of Yemenis support the unity of Yemen, and even the international community, including the Gulf countries, European countries and Turkey, support unity. Any separation in Yemen will affect the stability and security of the region as Yemen is located at a very strategic place,” he said.
Al-Qaeda threatens regional stability
When asked about the fight against al-Qaeda, one of the principal difficulties faced by Yemen, Eryani stated that the government was continuing its fight against the radical Islamist organization. “Yemen is very successful in its struggle with al-Qaeda. Some leaders of the organization were recently killed in Yemen, including the most important one, who was wanted by the United States for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in 2000,” said Eryani. The USS Cole bombing was a suicide attack against the United States Navy destroyer USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, which was harbored for refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden, in which 17 American sailors were killed and 39 injured. The terrorist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Al-Qaeda has captured some places in Abiyan, a governorate in Yemen, and they still want to capture the rest of Abiyan and also the Shabwah governorate. They are mostly located in these governorates. We have a great war against al-Qaeda in Abiyan. The people of Yemen are united with the military in the fight against al-Qaeda,” Eryani said.
In his first public speech since his inauguration in February, Yemeni President Hadi also pledged to continue the fight against al-Qaeda until it is eliminated from the country, stating: "The real battle against the terrorist al-Qaeda organization has yet to begin and will not end until we have eradicated their presence in every district.”
Ambassador Eryani has similarly remarked: “Yemen is the country which has suffered most from al-Qaeda. Yemenis are the real victims of al-Qaeda activities. Not only now but also in the past Yemen has suffered from al-Qaeda. Yemen was like an open museum and the tourism sector was very important for Yemen, but due to al-Qaeda activities the tourism sector closed. I can say that Yemen is suffering more than others, and now the entire international community is suffering from al-Qaeda.”
Eryani describes Yemen as a strategically important location on a route traversed by oil ships, adding that this route could be jeopardized by al-Qaeda at any time. “For the first time Gulf countries have realized that security and stability in Yemen is part of their own stability and security. They supported Yemen during the crisis. If they had not supported the state, Yemen could have gone through a civil war. The Gulf initiative prevented Yemen from going through a civil war,” he said.
When asked to comment on relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Eryani stated both countries enjoyed good relations after the signing of a border agreement in 2000. “We solved the border problems with Saudi Arabia. It was always a problem that jeopardized relations between our two countries. Saudi Arabia is a very important country for Yemen.”
Asked for his assessment of the conflict in Syria, Eryani stated that he was sorry for what was going on in Syria but that he did not wish to comment on the issue.
Iran supports separatists in Yemen
“I was the Yemeni ambassador to Iran between 2001 and 2005 and I worked very hard to improve relations between Iran and Yemen, but unfortunately Iran abused those relations. When you have good relations with Iran, it utilizes them for other purposes, which is not good,” said Yemeni Ambassador to Turkey Abdul Qawi Al-Eryani. Asked to comment on Iranian influence in Yemen, Eryani replied that Iran remained stuck in the past. “Iran is not looking to the future. That is why Iran’s relations with the Arab states are not good, with some exceptions. Iranian policy is not good for Islam; they are dividing Muslims while calling for the unity of Muslims. Iran is a neighbor and Yemen needs to have good relations with Iran. Yemen continues to have a political relationship with Iran, but not like before. Relations suffered after Iran supported rebels in the northern region [of Yemen]. There is also a rumor that they are supporting separatists in the southern region. Unfortunately, sometimes Iran wants to use Yemen as a bridge to reach other places, which is not acceptable to Yemen. We will not allow anyone to use our land to jeopardize the stability of other countries,” Eryani stressed.