ISTANBUL // Turkey signed an agreement lifting visa requirements with Yemen yesterday, the latest move in a systematic programme designed to boost trade and prestige for Ankara in the region and beyond.
"Just like Turks and Yemenites could visit and embrace each other without a visa in old times, both peoples will be able to visit each other with today's lifting of visa" requirements, Turkish media quoted Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, as saying in Yemen yesterday.
"For us, this is a historic visit," Mr Gul said after a meeting with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, in Sana'a. Mr Gul's two-day trip was the first visit of a Turkish head of state in Yemen.
With the visa agreement, Yemen became the latest addition to a growing list of more than 60 countries that have ended visa requirements with Turkey. Some of those countries, including Yemen, Sudan and Iran, are regarded with suspicion by Ankara's partners in the West, where al Qa'eda activities in Yemen have raised concerns. Last year, package bombs bound for the United States were found to have originated in Yemen, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen of Yemeni descent regarded as a dangerous ideologue for Islamist terrorism, is thought to be hiding in the country.
Advisers to Mr Gul told the Turkish newspaper Radikal the visit was meant as a message of support for an embattled country that was sometimes seen as "the third front" in the fight against terrorism, after Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr Gul also addressed security worries regarding Yemen. "The fight against terrorism is a global concern," the Turkish president said. "International co-operation is very important in this issue. Turkey will be together with Yemen in this."
Turkey's ambition to become an important regional player was clearly visible during Mr Gul's visit. While the country had been preoccupied with its own problems in the past, it was dealing with "many countries' problems" today, he said.
"It is very important for the stability of the Arabian Peninsula, for the stability of Africa and for the safety of the waterways that this country stays secure," Mr Gul said about Yemen. Referring to the widespread poverty in the country, he said Turkey would host a summit of the world's least developed nations together with the United Nations in Istanbul this summer.
The Turkish president also stressed historic ties between his country and Yemen, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century. Ankara's new foreign policy seeking a stronger regional role for the country stresses the Ottoman legacy of Turkey.
Mr Gul, who said that an estimated 50,000 Ottoman soldiers had died in Yemen, took part in the opening of a cemetery for Turkish troops in Sana'a. According to media reports, the president and several government ministers accompanying him cried when they listened to an Anatolian song describing the last farewell of Ottoman soldiers going to Yemen.
But while history played a role during the visit, political and economic issues dominated Mr Gul's agenda. One important goal behind Ankara's initiative to lift visa requirements with as many countries as possible is to strengthen exports. Mr Gul, who brought a delegation of ministers and businessmen with him to Yemen, said both countries wanted to increase investment and trade.
Turkey has seen considerable success with that policy. Export volume more than doubled to US$113.7bn last year from $47.9bn (Dh175.93bn) in 2003. The lifting of visa requirements with Syria in late 2009 triggered an economic boom in Turkish regions along the border with Syria.
But Turkey's visa initiative is not only about economic interests. "They are saying: We are a big country, we are widening our relations in the region," a foreign diplomat in Ankara, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about Turkish politicians. "They want to present themselves as a regional power." For many Turks, the ability to visit another country without having to apply for a visa first is a source of pride.
Ankara's ultimate aim is to get visa requirements with EU countries lifted. Turkey says it is close to signing a re-admission agreement with the EU, a key condition by Brussels for improved visa conditions.
At some point in the future, Turkey may find itself confronted with a European demand to cancel visa-free travel arrangements with countries such as Yemen if Ankara wants visa requirements with the EU to be lifted, the foreign diplomat said. But that possible conflict is not an immediate concern because the point at which the EU demand will become pressing "may be 10, 15 or 25 years down the line."