Berlin -  The United Arab Emirates is undergoing massive change: the Mars programme, a new relationship to Israel, and the opening up to foreign investment are proceeidng at a rapid pace. Berliner Zeitung met the UAE's Ambassador to Germany, H. E. Hafsa Al Ulama, to discuss the country's economy and its ambitious agenda.

Berliner Zeitung: The largest companies in the UAE are still banks - plus airlines like Emirates. How will the economy develop?

H. E. Hafsa Al Ulama: The UAE is a young country. This year we're celebrating our 50th anniversary as a nation. It is a federation of seven states that have come together. As a young country, we also have many young people who are very ambitious about making a positive contribution to our region. Many of our companies are setting out to become world leaders. You mentioned Emirates Airlines, plus companies like DP World, one of the largest port operators in the world. Historically, the UAE has always been a major trading hub - in the beginning in the region and now internationally.

What role do German companies play in this?

About 1,000 German companies are currently active here, and more than 15,000 Germans live in the UAE. They work there and build their lives. We have three German schools - from first grade to the Abitur. Of course, there is also a Goethe Institute. German companies play an important role in accelerating innovation and trade.

In which industries do you see particular potential for innovation in the future?

Let's talk about the space industry: In the USA or Europe, this is nothing special. They have been sending satellites into space for quite some time - but in the Arab world, this is something totally new. A few months ago, we sent a probe to Mars, and it has since reached orbit. The UAE is now one of five nations to have reached Mars - and the first in the Arab world. Most of the engineers who worked on the project were young people. The programme's chairwoman, Sarah al-Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and chairwoman of the UAE Science Council, is also young, and a woman too.

The large reception hall of the embassy. A traditional fishing boat is on display in the background. 
Isabelle Östlund
The large reception hall of the embassy. A traditional fishing boat is on display in the background. 

Let's talk about the space programme. What goals are you pursuing with it?

We are convinced that space will play an important role in the future - both scientifically and economically. There are many opportunities arising from the privatisation of space; the more competition there is, the better and cheaper the solutions will be. We feel there is an opportunity there. Maybe it's a risk, but there's a gap that we're moving into. When we built the deep-water port of Jabal Ali, in the late 1970s, everyone said, "you guys are crazy." They laughed at us. Now it's one of the most important ports in the world and we learned how to run ports in other countries. If you don't do anything, you stay in the past - time is anything but fair, better to keep at it.

So the initial investment should translate into "know-how"?

Yes, take Emirates Airline as an example: It was founded in the 1980s. Back then, we leased two aircraft from Pakistan because we needed them to bring people to Dubai in the first place. Today, Emirates is huge and a global leader in aviation. You have to start somewhere and stick with it - it's the same with aerospace.

What about renewable energy?

There's progress there, too: A lot of people say that's contradictory, because the UAE is a big exporter of oil and gas and is largely dependent on that. But that's not entirely true, because the oil and gas business currently accounts for about 30 per cent of GDP - for other countries in our region, that share is much higher. We are planning for the phase-out because we want to celebrate the last day we produce oil, not regret it. Hydrogen and solar energy are becoming increasingly important. We have already built two of the largest solar parks in the world. We see great development potential for green hydrogen, especially in our relationship with Germany.

The UAE embassy in Berlin. 
Isabelle Östlund
The UAE embassy in Berlin. 

At the same time, oil and gas remain an important source of revenue.

Sometimes we are asked why are we doing this at all - our natural resources continue to be enormous, but we also see a responsibility towards the world.

Hafsa Abdulla Al Ulama

Since June 2020, she has been the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Germany. Prior to this position, she was the Ambassador of the UAE to Brazil, Ambassador of the UAE to Montenegro. She holds a Master of Science in Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems from the London School of Economics. 

Let's talk some more about youth in the UAE. Whenever you talk to young people from Arab countries, you get the impression they have great expectations for the future and at the same time you notice that there are great difficulties in integrating them into the labour market - how can this be done better in the future?

That is actually a challenge. We have conducted independent studies and asked Arab youth which country they would like to go to in order to live and work - the answer is always the UAE. We have geared our policies to this. We have a ministry that is only concerned with the needs of the youth. We see many young people taking their destiny into their own hands and starting their own businesses.

What role should women play in this context?

The role of women has been changing since the founding of the country. This is related to the leaders of the country. It is very important to have wise and forward-thinking leaders - especially in our part of the world. It starts with our resources. The founder of our nation [Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, editor's note] said, "For every dollar we spend, I want to save a dollar for the future." Today, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is, next to the Norwegian Pension Fund, the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. We should not forget where we came from, because we were a very poor country. Even in the 1960s, we didn't have enough running water and electricity.

How does this relate to the role of women?

The issue of education for women started in the same period. I remember that at that time we didn't have enough schools for all the children. Sending all the children to school became a national task. Women should go to school in the same way. Today, more than 60 per cent of all our university graduates are female.

Is that high proportion of women reflected in the workforce?

85 per cent of the population in the UAE is from all over the world, so the proportion of men in the workforce is higher. But if we look only at UAE citizens, we have a ratio of about 50-50. The interesting thing here is that the government is more progressive than many families. The government is committed to greater participation by women. We have introduced a law that requires every company to have a woman on the board. Half of our Federal National Council consists of women. The government intervened here, but that was a good thing, because without intervention it can take 100 years to achieve gender equality.

You mentioned the workers from abroad. Many observers are critical of the working conditions for ordinary workers from Southeast Asia in particular - the practice of some employers withholding workers' passports is mentioned again and again, even though this is now banned in the UAE.

This is a story of the past. There is a labour law, there is the international labour law that is supposed to protect workers from exploitation. This is also a learning process, for us as a young nation. Sometimes mistakes happen, but the important thing is to learn from those mistakes. We now have laws that protect people from religious or ethnic discrimination. Just because I am a UAE citizen, I cannot discriminate against other people - otherwise the case ends up in court. We need these regulations also because they are a prerequisite for our prosperity. A lot of international companies come to the UAE to do business.

Foreign investment is an interesting topic. What exactly are you looking for?

We are looking for partners who want to invest with us in the UAE. We have set up a programme to increase industrial production to 300 billion AED (about 67 billion euros) - and we are asking for extensive support. Agritech is also of particular importance to us; during the corona period we realised how dependent we are on imports. We are looking for solutions to produce our own food - we need innovations for this. Water also plays an important role, of course.

Against this background, Israel seems to play an important role, because the country has great know-how in the field of water and agricultural technologies. How do you see the relationship between the two countries?

It's great! The normalisation of relations is just six months old. The Israelis and us call it a "warm peace." At first, it was said everywhere that the peace agreement was to be only for geopolitical and security reasons, but it goes far beyond that. It is about the future, instead of continuing to fuel the spiral of chaos, instability and violence in our region of the world, two countries have now sat down together and said: let's change this for the better. We have signed a cooperation agreement with the Weitzmann Institute (Institute for Scientific Research in Israel, editor's note) for joint research on artificial intelligence. There is already cooperation in the agricultural sector. Tourism between the two countries is also already flourishing. The possibilities in the future are limitless.

It has just been announced that even shares in an Israeli gas field have been sold to a state-owned company from the UAE - a few months ago this would have been unthinkable.

Yes, even the port in Haifa will be operated by DP World in the future. If you think about it further, I can also very well imagine that there could be further cooperation, especially in the area of green hydrogen. Perhaps even trilaterally with Germany as a partner.

The image of the UAE has changed a lot; when DP World wanted to take over ports in the US in 2006, it was highly controversial - even President George W. Bush intervened.

And now we are receiving F-35s (stealth fighters, editor's note) from the USA! For us it is important to build trust and that is what we are doing in our relationship with Israel. Israel is participating in the World Expo in the UAE with its own pavilion. The whole world will then open up again for the first time after the corona restrictions. Germany will be represented with not one but two pavilions - one for Germany and one for Baden-Württemberg.

How has the corona crisis affected tourism?

Last year was not easy. Today we still wear masks in many places, but now we are open again. We have one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. The restaurants and stores are open. I regularly hear from my family about going out to eat together again. However, rules and precautions are still in place. Once safety measures are in place, however, the world must move on; you can't stop it forever.

Will the nature of tourism also change? The issue of sustainability is playing a greater role for more and more vacationers.

We already have sustainable tourism programmes, but we need to do more. We are currently consuming too much - this is true worldwide. These issues need to be discussed globally; it can't be done by one country alone. We all have a responsibility. And that's where young people come in, like climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example.

The interview was conducted by Maximilian Both 

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