UAE: ‘We want to enrich the lives of our citizens’

Assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy Omar Saif Ghobash on the evolving social and economic landscape of the UAE

By Michal Michelle Divon

Published: Thu 1 Apr 2021, 6:52 PM

Last updated: Thu 1 Apr 2021, 6:53 PM

Omar Saif Ghobash is the United Arab Emirates’ Assistant Minister for Culture and Public Diplomacy. He is known for his 10-year tenure as ambassador to Moscow and Paris, and as the author of the 2017 book Letters to A Young Muslim. A prominent Emirati voice in combatting extremism and one of the most public figures discussing the Abraham Accords, Ghobash discusses the UAE’s strategic partnerships and its view of the ever-changing region.

Are you surprised by how well-received the Abraham Accords have been?

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at the outpouring of enthusiasm and love that was demonstrated. I think it says something about the way in which the Emiratis approach the world. We’re not looking for a fight with anybody, we’re not looking for controversy, we’re not looking for conflict. And it also links in with the way in which we’ve been so open to outsiders being in our society. I think you know that 85 per cent of the population of the Emirates is foreign, and yet they are regarded very much as residents and part of the Emirati community.

There are reports about a $10billion UAE investment in Israel. What sectors will the UAE focus on? What’s the strategy behind this investment?

This is a model that the UAE has used in the past. I believe we have a similar structure for China, Russia, a slightly smaller one for France and India as well. The idea is that we institutionalise the economic relationship that we have with each other. In this case, there is a commitment to investing $10 billion once the correct deals are presented according to the parameters agreed by both sides. And it allows the Emirates to develop an expertise in the local economy, being able to initially perhaps partner with other investors and experts, but ultimately being able to evaluate the set of opportunities with our own indigenous sources. It’s a large investment into a relatively small economy, if you compare the Israel economy to the Chinese or Indian or the French. So, it’s an indication of how important the relationship is and how much we are putting on the economic angle.

Recently, Israel participated in IDEX for the first time. There have been reports about Israel and the UAE developing anti-drone systems together. How important is this for the UAE’s defence strategy?

Defence is an unfortunate necessity. We live in a topsy-turvy world where there are all kinds of threats and those are becoming increasingly technologically-based. It makes sense the two countries with a similar outlook on the region, with a similar desire to protect their populations and develop economically, would find common ground on the same defence technologies. We in the Emirates are engaged in building a complex society and economy that can survive whatever happens in the region and we see a similar approach being taken by Israel.

Is defence the main thrust? Not at all. We’re much more interested in economic diversity, complexity and enriching the lives of our citizens.

Do you think the common threats regionally are what enabled the Accords to take place? How significant were they in bringing Israel and the UAE closer?

When I said common threats, I was specifically thinking of technological threats when talking about anti-drone technology. There are groups, particularly down in Yemen — the Houthis — who seem to have access to drone technology and it is in that context. So I was thinking less in terms of geopolitics and more in terms of evolving technologies of war and aggression. We perhaps may differ from the way we look at Iran from the Israelis, we have a large Iranian population in the UAE, we have a lot of economic ties with Iranians, and our problem with Iranians is related to a specific set of files. We are interested in developing ties with all the countries of the region, and our wish for the region is to see governments interested in developing economically, and engaging in traditional economic competition with others.

We are seeing Saudi Arabian oil sites being targeted recently, a spate of attacks on ships that also point to Iranian involvement and its allies. How concerned are you with such incidents and does the UAE perceive this as a direct threat to its sovereignty?

I’d say that these incidents are peripheral to the dynamic of relations and changes in the region. If there are rogue elements within the Iranian community that are doing this, that’s for them to think about. We are observing the relationship, rather the American outreach to the Iranians, with interest and we’ve made very clear to our western and eastern partners our concerns regarding nuclear technology and about Iranian behaviour in the region.

There’s a new US administration, with a new outlook on the Middle East. How is the UAE-US relationship shaping under the Biden administration?

We have a relationship with the United States, its people, and the parties that alternate in power. We don’t change our tune depending on who is in power. The fact is that the Biden administration knows extremely well not just our position on these regional issues, but there are many individuals within the Biden team, who were part of the Obama team, who know our diplomats and our state officials, and are very well-acquainted with how we see things. We will continue to pursue the Biden administration in explaining how we see things and might perhaps have a different negotiating stance than the one currently taken. But that doesn’t affect our relationship with the United States, that doesn’t affect our relationship with the administration itself.

We recently marked International Women’s Day. Now the UAE is requiring at least one female board member in listed companies. This seems to be a part of a larger strategy. What can you share with us?

I think this is something that goes back to the founder of the Emirates. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was always in favour of full participation of women in society, economy and government. And with the years, and with the spread of educational opportunities, we’ve seen that actually it’s women who have jumped at the educational opportunities in the country. There was a statistic going back a few years that suggested 70 per cent of university graduates are female. There is, of course, the broader economic argument that women form half the population. We see that in countries where women are denied access to education or equal opportunities at work, and where their position is undermined by legal structures, those economies tend to be poorer. I think there is also the economic argument that everybody needs to be a productive member of society, and in that sense, there is social and emotional health that is being promoted as well.

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