Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Comoros: The little-known Arab nation


Comoros: The little-known Arab nation

Few outside Africa have heard about the Union of the Comoros, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Africa. Certainly few Arabs know about that country although it is officially an Arab nation.


Sixteen years after it joined the Arab League, the Union of Comoros has yet to receive an Arab ambassador. The leaders and the people of this little-known Arab state, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa, just don't understand why Arab countries are reluctant to send ambassadors, which is the natural basis of relations between countries.

In the case of Comoros, the issue is crucial because the country has come out of very troublesome two decades of political bruises and economic underdevelopment. Since 2006, with the election of Ahmad Abdullah Sambi as president, Comoros has witnessed unprecedented stability and restored its relations with global financial institutions.

Comoros has the potential to become one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and the Arab world because of its strategic location, rich fertile land and the beauty of its beaches and forests. But with a limited access to foreign investments and a meagre annual budget of 40 million euros (Dh216 million), it is hard to do much to develop those sectors.

Therefore, the support of Arab governments and investors is urgently needed. But as President Sambi told Gulf News, Comoros needs to see Arab envoys first. "We are Arabs, aren't we?" one official asked. He surely speaks for all his people.

Chaotic traffic
  • The Volovolo Market in Moroni, capital of the Union of the Comoros. It is one thing to enjoy the beaches and lush greenery from the plane's comfort, but the experience in the crowded city could be overwhelming.

To go around the main island of the Comoros, the Grand Comore, in a shabby little taxi is a very different experience from looking down at the country from the air. Looking from the comfort of the plane down as it approaches the island, one could not but feel thrilled about the white sand beaches, the coconut trees and the active but wonderful looking Mount Karthala volcano.

But soon after, such feelings quickly evaporate as one encounters the chaos at the small airport.

There was only one counter for passport control without the usual line. You have to muscle your way through to the lady at the counter. After managing to stamp your passport, you are sent to a small room to get the entry visa. Only in the Comoros do you get your passport stamped before you obtain the actual entry visa, which costs an astonishing $100 (Dh367). We managed to do all that in just one hour, which probably didn't mean a lot of time for veteran Comoran journalist Shaikh Hammad, who met us at the airport, as the Comorans seem to have all the time in the world on their hands.

Our interview with President Ahmad Abdullah Sambi was scheduled two days later at 6pm. Sambi is a widely popular leader, whose strong belief in democracy and the power of the constitution (and who also ended an 11-year-long rebellion in his home island of Anjouan) has won him the respect of his people. He came to power in a free election in 2006.

Prior to meeting the president, Photographer Megan Hirons Mahon and I interviewed a number of senior officials. All it takes in Moroni, the capital, is a telephone call with a minister to set up an interview. The Comorans are one of the friendliest people on the planet. We also toured the city with its popular markets; its beautiful north where a Qatari state fund has just signed a deal to develop a tourist village on the beach near the stunningly picturesque Lac Sale.

At 6pm, we were waiting at the main reception area in the Presidential compound. The word compound is actually an overstatement. It is an old place of mostly one-storey buildings in a vast area, rounded up with a fence. At the gate there was a lone soldier who opened the green metal gate to let out little rundown Peugeot taxi in — no questions asked.

At the central end of the compound is the president's residence and office. On the right, there are the offices of his administration, including the small office of his assistant, the gracious Nakchamy Nailane, who handles the presidency's relations with the English-speaking world. She was a great help and was the one who had set up the interview with President Sambi.

Minutes after 6pm, the head of the protocol invited us into the office of the president. And there he was with his now famous green headdress — it is believed that he got used to wearing it while he was studying for his higher degree in Iran. The President finished his university studies in Egypt's Al Azhar University, because of which his Arabic is impeccable. The outspoken president is perceived as one of the best orators among Arab leaders. As we sat down to business he apologised because he wanted to cut the interview short — very short in fact — to a five-minute courtesy call.

He had to meet the military commanders urgently as he was leaving early next day. It seems the generals were waiting just outside. He asked to send our questions by e-mail and he promised he would take care of them and "even answer them in English".

Suddenly, I found myself saying ‘no' to the president — politely though with a huge smile. With all due respect, I insisted on speaking to him face to face. We had travelled a full day for this interview.

"We will not take much time, Mr President," I added. "I will ask just a couple of quick questions."

He smilingly resisted but as I kept on insisting, exploiting his gentle demeanour and willingness to listen to my rant about the trouble we took to get the appointment with him. "I can wait here as long as it takes, Mr President, I don't mind doing this at late night or even early morning," I added.

He finally agreed to sit for 15 minutes. I started firing my questions. When I looked at my watch after he bade us goodbye after the meeting, I noticed the interview had lasted 50 minutes; actually almost exactly the time that had been allocated to us at the beginning.

But I could not quit thinking of the way I insisted on the interview even as he tried to explain how busy he was. I am now confident that if it was another President of any other Arab country, and I kept saying no to his requests to postpone the interview, that lone soldier at the gate would have probably thrown me out of the gate, and had a story to tell his children that evening.