Turkey’s Influence Divides Yemenis

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Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Basindowa cut the red ribbon to inaugurate the Turkish International School in Sana’a.

Turkey’s Influence Divides Yemenis

Farea al-Muslimi, Al-Monitor, September 13, 2013

From the Sabaha region, which overlooks Sanaa from the west and constitutes a vital outlet to the port of Al-Hudaydah on the Red Sea, the Ottoman (Turkish) armies invaded Sanaa twice to tighten their grip on it — in 1538 and again in 1849. Perhaps it was there that the commanders of both armies paused to take a first look at a national capital that they were about to turn into merely another capital for a new Ottoman vilayet (administrative division).Farea al-Muslimi for Al-Monitor, September 13, 2013

Today, in that same region, a new tall building stands alone on the eastern side of Mount Asser, with a huge sign on which is written “International Turkish School of Sanaa.”

This school stands witness to the long history of Yemeni-Turkish relations, which is perhaps the longest-standing between any two countries in the world, despite their differences.

Naser Taha Mustafa, director of the Yemeni president’s office and former head of the Syndicate of Yemeni Journalists, said on his personal Facebook page that while his grandfather was Turkish, that has not had a negative effect on how he has been treated and regarded as a national Yemeni figure. Hundreds of Turks who stayed in Yemen after the departure of Turkish troops from Sanaa in 1918 were integrated into the highly tolerant Yemeni society, in the wake of Turkey’s defeat in World War I.

Just as some Turkish descendants are government officials, some old Turkish buildings are still being used by the Yemeni government. The headquarters of the Yemeni army’s high command uses an old Turkish building that was renovated and expanded. A Turkish monument that faces the western gate of the building was erected three years ago, standing witness to a relationship founded on common religion.

In Yemen, you can still hear an old man talking about heroic adventures and stories of wars against the Turks. At the same time, however, his elderly wife will still be wearing Turkish-style dress that was popular for a while in Sanaa, yet is now only common among old women resisting change.

Moreover, some words in the local Sanaa dialect have Turkish roots such as kindara, which means shoes. Salta, a traditional Yemeni dish that is still very popular, was the food of choice among the Turkish army decades ago.

The topic isn’t simply about history. Even Turkey’s current affairs resonate in Yemen and have their pros and cons. Yemenis became divided between supporters and opponents of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic government as a result of the government’s response to the Taksim Square protests in June. The rift soon widened as a result of the Egyptian army’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood strongly backed by Erdogan.

Any discussion of Turkish-Yemeni relations cannot overlook the historical memory between an invader and a country occupied by the power of weapons, even if spreading Islam was the pretext under which Turkey invaded Yemen. Such justification is illogical, because Yemenis adopted Islam decades before Turkey; it then spread throughout the country and citizens did not stray from their religion. Thus, there was no reason for the Ottoman Empire to impose Islam on Yemenis.

Turkey: weapons and jihadists

Whenever Turkey is mentioned today in Yemen, the first word that comes to mind is “weapons,” in reference to the multiple [illegal] weapons deals that were revealed during the past two years, before smugglers were able to succeed in bringing weapons into Yemen. These arms include thousands of pieces manufactured in Turkey. At the same time, other deals coming from Iran to Yemen were unveiled, although neither country claimed responsibility. Moreover, “Turkish pistols” have become popular in Yemen among those who are accustomed to carrying personal weapons.

Despite the contradiction between the Turkish and Iranian positions in Yemen and the region in general, Saudi media outlets have accused Turkey of cooperating with Iran and Qatar to smuggle arms to Yemen.

According to the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, “Turkey has recently appeared as a strong player — alongside Qatar, Iran and Israel — and has managed to coordinate with Qatar and share several important roles in smuggling arms to Yemen through the same networks that have been active for many years in the western part of the country.”

However, these accusations are not necessarily accurate, and come in the framework of Saudi Arabia’s disputes with Ankara regarding their differences in position toward the Muslim Brotherhood — which Riyadh publicly regards as an enemy. Yet, what is certain and constant is that Turkish arms are being smuggled to Yemen through huge deals, whether in the framework of regional coordination with those countries or without. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu objected to Iran’s meddling in Yemen when he visited Sanaa less than a year ago, and expressed his shock at the actions of some countries trying to derail Yemen’s security and unity. Moreover, he confirmed that no force can take away Yemen’s unity, security and stability, and Turkey does not even want to hear of such thing.

Turkey’s supervision and support of the recruitment of Yemeni militants, with the cooperation of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, was mentioned by local Yemeni newspapers at the time. Moreover, Al-Sharq mentioned earlier that a Turkish intelligence group is in Yemen to oversee the process of sending militants from the Muslim Brotherhood to Turkey, to prepare them and take them to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The newspaper also stated that Turkish Airlines has added several direct flights from Yemen to Ankara to transport militants. While the transport of militants used to happen individually before, there are now large groups going there with the Yemeni authorities’ knowledge.

Turkey and the Yemeni spring

During the mandate of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Turkey worked on renovating and maintaining archaeological buildings that go back to the era of the Ottoman occupation of Yemen. Moreover, Turkey expanded its horizons of cooperation with Yemen, and its annual exports to the latter reached into the millions of dollars. The Turkish president visited Sanaa and gave Yemenis unprecedented emotional praise by saying, “Merely the mention of Yemen in Turkey causes Turks to get shivers down their spines. All Arab countries are our friends, but Turks know Yemen very well because of their shared history and beautiful memories.”

Yemenis remained impressed by the ruling experience of the Islamists in Turkey, until Ankara revealed its public support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which led the revolutions of the Arab Spring in several countries, including Yemen. Thus, the position of Yemenis toward Turkey changed in line with their position on these revolutions and on the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of power in several countries.

When Turkey announced its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and opened its hospitals to treat wounded members of the group, as well as when Nobel Peace Prize laureate (2011) and Muslim Brotherhood member Tawakkol Karman was granted Turkish citizenship, the country’s popularity increased among the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters in Yemen — to the point that Karman announced she was more proud of her Turkish nationality than her Nobel Peace Prize. On the other hand, Ankara’s antagonism to other parties — whether supporting the former regime or opposing the Muslim Brotherhood — intensified, especially after the increased mutual visits between officials of the two countries and the strictness of Ankara’s opposing position to Assad’s regime in Syria and the new authority in Egypt. These latter positions constitute the main reason behind the division of the Yemeni street regarding these parties, whether collectively or individually.

Erdogan’s four-finger salute — which became the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and was soon adopted by hundreds of thousands around the world — is also widely spread in Yemen. Pro-Turkey Yemeni parties have announced their stances in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, based on Turkey’s policies in Egypt and Syria.

Turkey in the Yemeni school curriculum

For decades, Yemeni ninth-graders studied detailed chapters on the bloody and cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire in Yemen and its unfair taxation system.

However, another educational program was established in Yemen and lasted from the 1970s until 2001 when former President Saleh canceled it. It was called the scientific institute program and was funded by the state budget. The program was run by the Muslim Brotherhood, which developed its curriculum, presenting the Ottoman era as the “Ottoman conquest of Yemen.” Students were taught that the conquest was to promote and spread the Islamic caliphate. It was not about colonialism or invasion — the term conquest refers to the rule of the Islamic state in non-Muslim countries for the purpose of spreading Islam, whether by means of war or peace.

There was a significant difference between these institutes and public schools in terms of what students were taught about Ottoman Turkey. Public school textbooks were much more thorough when it came to this topic.

The Turkish school in Sanaa

Nearly half a decade ago, the Turkish Embassy opened a private school in Sanaa, which now has branches in Taizz and Aden. Two years ago, the school acquired its own building on the western entrance to Sanaa, through which Turkish armies had entered, setting the stage for its centuries-long rule.

Hundreds of Yemeni students enrolled in this school. Some of them visited Turkey within the framework of the school’s program to spread and promote Turkish culture. For three years, the school has been sponsoring a science contest for students in Sanaa. The contest includes three subjects, yet excludes history, perhaps due to the Turks’ sensitivity to this subject. Also, Turkey has recently started to grant Yemeni students scholarships to various Turkish universities.

It seems that the history of foreign influence in Yemen is playing out once again. While today the conflict of power between Turkey and Iran has been reflected on the situation in Yemen, both countries had colonial rule in Yemen.

The Persians — during the era of the Sassanid Empire — invaded Yemen in the sixth century, while the Ottoman Empire conquered Yemen 10 centuries later in the early 16th century. Ottoman rule lasted until the end of World War I, and thus is fresher in the minds of Yemenis than those of the Persians.

The coalition between domestic conflicting parties and regional conflicting parties — which are seen as extensions of the former — has strongly provoked a sense of nationalism among Yemenis. Yet, Yemenis are well aware that this coalition will affect Yemenis alone in the future — whether those who studied in the Houthi sessions in Saada, those who graduated from the Turkish school in Sanaa or those who stood on the fence between both sides.

The combination of religion and politics, which characterizes current foreign intervention in Yemen, threatens Yemeni social peace more than anything else — even more than nuclear weapons. This is true because while this intervention is led from the outside, its repercussions will have a major effect within the Yemeni borders alone.

Farea al-Muslimi is a Yemeni youth activist, writer and freelancer. His work has appeared in The National, Foreign Policy, As Safir and many other regional and international media outlets. On Twitter: @AlMuslimi

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