By Abhishek G Bhaya

Trade and interdependence among Middle Eastern nations may make people less prone to fighting: Foreign Minister Ozdil Nami

While Lebanon and Turkey are often cited as nations hosting the maximum number of Syrian refugees from the ongoing civil war there, followed by Jordan, Iraq and Egypt in that order; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is playing a significant role in their transit to safety.

The Mediterranean island country is strategically located in the cusp of Europe and Asia, therefore, becoming the first stop for many fleeing the war by boat.

“Every month we are taking hundreds of refugees from Syria, and also some from Iraq. It is a massive humanitarian crisis. They arrive on boats, with small children and women among them, and without any money. We do our best to assist them with temporary shelter till they get transferred to larger camps in Turkey,” Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Ozdil Nami told Muscat Daily in an exclusive interview during his visit last week to the sultanate.

Nami said Turkish Cypriot people empathise with refugees owing to their own painful history. “We know what it is to be a refugee. Between 1964-74, we became refugees thrice in our own homeland,” he said.

The Minister was referring to a period when widespread looting of Turkish Cypriot villages prompted 20,000 ‘refugees’ to retreat into armed enclaves, where they remained for the next 11 years, relying on food and medical supplies from Turkey to survive.

“So, we know and we do our best to assist them. We offer scholarships for the children of refugees and try to educate them in our universities. However, we are a tiny nation and therefore our abilities are limited,” added Nami.

Northern Cyprus has also been hit hard by the widespread violence in the region from Libya to Iraq in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and the advent of the Islamic State extremist group.

“Of course when such conflicts take place, you are unable to trade with those countries. We used to have trade relations with Libya but there is none now. We had a direct shipping ferry from Famagusta (Northern Cyprus) to Latakia (Syria); it doesn’t exist anymore. We used to trade with Lebanon earlier; no more,” Nami elucidated.

“Trade and commerce have collapsed completely,” he added.

Nevertheless, the Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister takes inspiration from Europe’s history to raise hope that things might improve in the conflict-ridden region in the future.

“Just look at Europe. After two world wars, which resulted in total devastation, trade and economic relations were the answers. Great enmity gave way to new-found collaboration and led to the creation of European Union,” he cited.

Nami is hopeful that his country may play a critical role  in bringing about peace in the Middle Eastern neighbourhood by creating interdependence among the nations.

“Recent surveys hint at substantial amounts of hydrocarbons off the shores of Northern Cyprus. We are hoping that this could be a resource that may bring peace to the region. If, for instance, we are able to create a regional interdependence by building pipelines connecting Egypt, Northern Cyprus and Turkey and even Lebanon. Also, creating more trade within the region will probably make people more interdependent and less prone to fighting,” he said.

One can only wish that Nami is proven right.