By Diva Business Magazine,
FIRAT Sunel is an author from İzmir and a senior diplomat. His novel, “Salkım Söğütlerin Gölgesinde” (In the Shadow of Weeping Willows), is widely acclaimed and soon will be released as TV series. His new novel, “İzmirli” (The One from İzmir), will also meet with readers in January. However, this time we will not talk with him about literature. Firat Sunel, whose diplomatic career extended from Bangkok to Dusseldorf, from Bonn to Tbilisi, is currently Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey in Asmara, the capital of State of Eritrea. So where is Eritrea? Let’s hear the answer from His Excellency:
FIRAT SUNEL: Eritrea, with whom we share a common history for 350 years during Ottoman period, is a country that in fact we all know very well. But we rather know it as “Habeşistan”, with its former name. Located in the Horn of Africa, namely at the Red Sea coasts, Eritrea is a miniature paradise with its 1300 km pristine coastal line, untouched hundreds of coral islands, history, nature and warm-hearted and friendly nice people. Main boulevards of capital Asmara, so-called “Little Rome”, has an aesthetic spirit under the influence of Italian architecture reminds me my home city İzmir in 1960’s which I know from old photos. So I think that it will especially appeal to my fellows from İzmir.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, you have opened our Embassy in Asmara. What is it like to open a new embassy?
FIRAT SUNEL: Very difficult, but so honorable and spectacular. Only with a suitcase and a laptop you are stepping into a country that you don’t know and the adventure begins. Everything you do, after that time, will be your masterpiece with its merits and sins. Turkey and Turks are introduced to the people in your person. It was not easy but, we have covered a great distance in one year. Our flag I hoisted at the entrance of a hotel one year ago, is today waiving in one of the most beautiful buildings of the city, reflecting the characteristics of Turkish architecture.
Q: What is the reason for the increase of Turkey’s commitment to Africa in recent years?
FIRAT SUNEL: Africa was home of Turks for hundred of years. So we are not only Asian and European, but also African.
Africa has always had great importance for both Ottoman Empire and Turkey. However, over the past century because of our limited resources and policies determined by the Cold War, we had to give our priorities to our own issues and neighboring regions.
Nevertheless, owing to strong bonds we have created over the centuries, even in our most difficult times we did not remain insensitive to developments in Africa. We always stand by the peoples of Africa in their rightful struggle against colonialism and for independence. Therefore, the presence of our country in the continent is very different from presence of some European countries that have colonial history. We have never been “the white man” who came to exploit Africa.
Even on the contrary, our independence war has been source of inspiration for many African nations in their struggle against colonialism. With increasing economic and political power of Turkey in the region, relations and cooperation of Turkey with its African brothers was moved to a much higher level in recent years.
Africa began to take place among the main priorities of Turkish foreign policy since 1998. The “African Opening Policy”, we put into practice at that time, bore fruits and made Turkey more closer to African countries.
In 2013, when Turkish Embassy in Asmara was opened, this policy went a step further and turned into “Africa Partnership Policy”. We believe that problems of Africa should be solved from the African perspective. Externally imposed “solutions” have always failed. So we should first know African people very well and introduce them ourselves accordingly. We want to reinforce our common history and achievements with trust oriented, persistent and mutual interest based on friendly relations.
Q: How did the new momentum concerning African relationships in the Turkish Foreign Policy affect our relationships with the continent? What have changed?
FIRAT SUNEL: On 2009, the number of our Embassies in all the continent was 12. Today the number has increased to 39. In other words, we have opened 27 new Embassies within 5 years.
Turkish Airlines has become the leading Airline Company in terms of the number of flights through Africa. Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has been operating development aid projects and humanitarian assistance in more than 40 countries in Africa with its 11 Coordination Offices.
Our country is among the 4 biggest humanitarian donor countries in the world and one third of our foreign humanitarian aid is allocated to African continent. These are all the indicators to show Turkey’s interest to the continent.
The opening of our diplomatic representations have very positive reflections to our relations. Our economic and commercial ties are developing as well as the political and cultural relations. Until 2000, our commercial relations were limited with only a couple of North African countries. However today, our relations are almost spreading to all the continent. We are one of the 15 countries which have the most comprehensive relations with Africa. Our trade volume used to be under USD 3 billion in 2002, today this number is approximately USD 25 billion.
Q: Well, Let’s return to Eritrea. Where is Eritrea in the picture of Turkish African relations? What kind of opportunities Eritrea can offer to the Turkish businessmen?
FIRAT SUNEL: While Eritrea is a small country according to its surface area, the country is big and important according to its underground sources and many other potentials. It is closed to the most extensive sea transport roads. It has one of the richest mineral deposits including gold, silver, copper and potassium in East Africa. The mining sector is quite liberal and there are 17 mining companies which work actively in the country.
In case there will be some investments, the country has the potential to become one of the main tourism paradises with 1300 kilometer tropical coast and more than 350 coral islands. However, I have also need to underline that there are some structural and infrastructural problems. Actually this is the reality in many African countries.
On the other hand, in comparison with other African countries, Eritrea has many advantages. Primarily there are almost no security problems. The country is even safer than many European countries. Furthermore, there are no outbreaks such as Ebola and HIV. In addition there are no threat for other contagious illnesses either. Another issue which is very important for businessmen and investors is the fact that bribery and corruption do not belong to the culture of Eritreans.
Eritrea has a closed economy, the country exports almost everything except staple food. However, recently there are some positive steps toward to have a more open policy. Turkish Airlines has flights 3 times a week directly to Asmara which is very convenient for our businessmen. In the same vein, Eritrean businessmen considers Turkey as a new and significant partner in economic and commercial relations. Last month the visit made by the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly, got great attention and 113 Eritrean businessmen joined the meeting. The number of the businessmen can be considered as a record. We can also observe this interest in the trade statistics. The trade volume was approximately USD 1 million before our Embassy opened last year. Within one year the trade volume has increased to USD 5, 6 million.
I believe Eritrea can provide opportunities not only for our export market, but also importing goods to Turkey especially in the area of agricultural products and raw materials. I believe the numbers will continue to increase and the trade volume between the two countries will be multiplied in the following years.
Right now our citizens are having some difficulties when getting an Eritrean visa because there is not any Eritrean diplomatic representative in Turkey. But I hope this problem will be solved in the near future.
In summary, although there are some structural and infrastructural problems, Eritrea promises future for Turkish businessmen with having great potential in many areas.
Consequently, I recommend Turkish businessmen to asses having investments and establishing economic connections with Eritrea while there is still space for movement in the beginning of the opening policy tendency.