Gulf Times Reporter Annand Holla's Interview With Ambassador Ahmet Demirok , 16.04.2015
In his 22-year-long and still-running career as a successful diplomat, Ahmet Demirok had served in five countries before moving to Qatar as the Ambassador of Turkey around one-and-a-half years ago.
Demirok was in for a surprise — a pleasant one that had evaded him for two decades.
“The most difficult part of our lives is that we are moving into a new place and a new country as a family,” he says, seated in his sprawling office at the Turkish embassy in Onaiza, Doha, “The adaptation period, therefore, is crucial, and sometimes, very difficult, especially for our children.”
“Usually, whichever country he or she gets posted at, a diplomat takes six months to get used to it,” Demirok continues, “But Alhamdulillah, in Qatar, the adaptation period for my wife and I was just two days,” he smiles before adding, “and for my children, it was 30 minutes!”
That, Demirok explains, is because they all felt like they stepped into the same realm of culture as theirs in Turkey. “I am very happy here,” he says, “I deem myself to be the luckiest Turkish ambassador because to be able to serve in such a brotherly country as Qatar is a great opportunity for an ambassador.”
Not often does the serious aspiration of becoming a suave, sharp-dressed diplomat capture the imagination of a flighty teenager. But Demirok dreamed of consular glory ever since he was in high school.
After completing his secondary education at Kulu High School in Konya, Demirok graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences of Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Educating himself in Political Science and International Relations helped him enter Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I wanted to be a diplomat because I have always found it to be very important and meaningful for a country. As a diplomat, you fight right in the front to increase and enhance the interest of your community, your country,” he says.
Demirok’s diplomat career began as an Attaché at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was followed by his postings in Greece, Australia, Slovakia, and Austria. In 2008, Turkey’s then foreign minister Ali Babacan (currently the Deputy Prime Minister) offered Demirok to be his political adviser, which he gladly accepted.
“After working with Babacan and then with former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (who is currently the Prime Minister), I got posted in London, UK, as Consul General to the Turkish Consulate General there,” he says.
On October 1, 2013, Demirok was appointed the Ambassador of Turkey to Qatar, a country that has 8,000 Turkish citizens.
The affable 44-year-old, who happens to be among Turkey’s youngest ambassadors, couldn’t be happier about “the excellent Turkey-Qatar relations.”
“I have done my best to help these relations reach their peak,” he says, “I believe they will continue to progress because both countries’ policies are based on strong principles.”
Demirok feels at ease here because of the “plenty of space” he gets to move around. “Be it Turkey-Qatar relations in politics, business, trade, cultural, educational, science, or any field, things are constantly improving. For me, as the ambassador, all doors in Qatar are open. That’s why I believe we can take our relations even further.”
Undoubtedly, the Turkish embassy is among the busiest in Qatar. Demirok explains, “I have a hectic calendar. We host two to three high-level delegations every week. Before these guests come, we have to design a good programme for them. As an ambassador, I must also represent my country at various receptions, National Day events, and a series of other occasions.”
Diplomacy however, doesn’t stop at him, feels Demirok. “Diplomacy is also related with your family, especially with your wife,” he says, “My wife Arzu is very active with the Qatari community. I, too, like to socialise with the Qatari society to better understand the society we are living in.”
“That’s why I attend the Majlis gatherings and wedding ceremonies,” Demirok continues, “As a sports lover, I attend all sports events; be it the football matches, the handball championship, or the horse races. I have a large friendship circle here, comprising diplomats, Qataris and expats.”
The worrying fallout of this lifestyle is the squeezed family time. “Unfortunately, I get to spend little time with my wife and children — Alperen (17), Asli Nur (12), and Amine (2),” Demirok shares.
As for his homeland, the most he misses is his circle of friends and relatives. “When I go to Turkey, I realise that a lot has changed,” Demirok says, “You can’t find the things that were there when you left.”
It’s well-known that Turkish cuisine, coffee, soap operas, fashion, art, and design sensibilities have been a massive hit with Qataris, and in fact, with all Arabs. Demirok reasons that the 500-year-old history shared by Qatar and Turkey is at the heart of this cultural fascination between the two nations.
“Arabs and Turks are not different people,” he says, “We have a common history and we share the same religion (Islam). Our cultures are more or less the same, our attires different. But unfortunately, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, there was a disruption in Turkey’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. Now, as public diplomacy has assumed great importance in promoting one’s country, Turkey is carrying it out wonderfully well.”
“The reason why Turkish soap operas are popular in Qatar or the Middle East is because we are brothers and sisters of Middle Eastern countries, but we tend to forget each other,” explains Demirok, “Whenever they watch Turkish movies or soap operas, they feel like it’s them (on screen). That’s because Turkey reflects Middle Eastern culture and Islamic values. Moreover, Turkey has been producing top quality films and TV shows in the recent years.”
These factors also contribute to Qataris visiting Turkey in huge numbers, every year, feels Demirok. “The number of Qatari visitors to Turkey is doubling every year,” he says. For instance, more than 18,000 Qataris visited Turkey in 2013. In 2011, the number was only 7,000, while the figure for 2014 is pegged to be around 30,000. “Our ultimate goal is to host 300,000 Qatari brothers in Turkey every year,” Demirok says.
In turn, one wonders what about the Qatari culture appeals to him. “Qatari culture is really not different from ours,” Demirok says, “Be it brotherhood, friendship, maintaining relations with neighbours; Qataris are really nice, modest people, who know how to treasure their tradition, which is important. The Qatari society would like to build a modern society, but based on their traditions. That’s why I don’t feel like a stranger or a foreigner here.”
Demirok has all the reasons to feel so. When he isn’t unwinding at Majlis sessions or taking off to desert camps, he likes to spend a pleasant time with his family and friends at the Museum of Islamic Art Park. “It’s an amazing place with beautiful cafés, and you get to see the sea, the West Bay and enjoy the breeze,” he says.
Limited time off work means the only movies he ends up watching are the kids’ movies with his children. “At times, I listen to some Turkish folk or pop music in office, or songs of Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias and Whitney Houston,” Demirok says, “To de-stress, I play football as there are a lot of good fields here. I also play tennis and keep fit at the fitness centre at my residence.”
With the 2015 Qatar-Turkey Year of Culture having taken off in fine style, Demirok is optimistic about both countries pulling off a spectacular cultural magnum opus. “So far, we have held eight events from the total of 44 that’s planned for the year — 32 by Turkey in Qatar, 12 by Qatar in Turkey,” he says.
As part of the celebrations, plans are also afoot to open the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Center in Qatar which will offer Turkish classes, teach Turkish arts and music. “The Qatari government has given us a good venue for that,” he says, “We are also planning to open a Turkish school for Turkish expats here in Qatar, and it is scheduled to be operational in September.”
It’s easy to believe Demirok when he says that Turks, Qataris and even expats are always welcome at the embassy. “I never refuse a request for an appointment. That’s why I am very busy,” he confesses, “Earlier, there was some distance between the Turkish expats and the embassy here. I have been doing my best to bridge that gap.”
Having one of the biggest embassies in Qatar should be of considerable help in throwing a grand party for special events. “Last April, for the first time, we organised an event on April 23 (Turkish National Sovereignty and Children’s Day). Inshaa’Allah, this year’s event will be on a bigger scale,” he said.
Speaking of big-scale celebrations, for the Turkish Republic Day that was celebrated at the embassy on October 29, last year, only 400 guests — diplomats, government officials and members of the Turkish community — were invited as per the budgetary allowance. At the event, though, 1,000 people turned up.
“The place was full of people,” Demirok says, laughing, “I didn’t expect so many. But I was very happy. It proved that I am carrying out my responsibilities well. I feel it (such bonhomie) is the result of what I have tried to build here.”
The most interesting bit of all was that three Qatari ministers attended the event. “That’s a record-breaking figure,” Demirok says, smiling, “Normally, one minister attends a National Day celebration. That’s all.”