Although the UAE has registered several achievements over the past 12 months such as the hosting of the Formula One race and the opening of the Dubai Metro, it is possible that what has happened outside of our borders has had a greater impact. And one individual is responsible for what will be seen in the future as the most important year in the UAE’s foreign relations to date.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s young foreign minister, started the year with visits to Syria to meet President Bashar Al Assad, to Kuwait for the Arab Economic Summit and to Egypt to meet that country’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Then he was on to the US to sign the US-UAE nuclear agreement, to Bonn to speak at the founding summit of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and to Berlin where the UAE offered to jointly fund an Afghan airport.
In February, Sheikh Abdullah visited Qatar, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on a regional tour. He also hosted the foreign ministers of the above states as well as those from Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Palestine to discuss issues relating to the Palestinian territories. He then headed a delegation that included UAE businessmen to Minsk, Belarus.
In March, Sheikh Abdullah headed the UAE delegation to the Arab-South America Summit in Doha after accompanying the President Sheikh Khalifa to the Arab summit in the same location. He also visited Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, where the UAE financed a major mine-clearing operation. He held bilateral talks in Egypt with the US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. And in the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah hosted the foreign ministers of Australia and Iran.
In April, Sheikh Abdullah embarked on an unprecedented African tour of Niger, Mali, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Gambia, Nigeria, Chad and Burkina Faso. He then visited Japan for the Pakistan donors’ conference where the UAE pledged $300 million to assist that country.
In May, Sheikh Abdullah’s African tour continued with visits to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Central African Republic, Morocco, Liberia, as well as Spain, Lithuania, Finland, Portugal and Lebanon. The foreign minister then appointed four senior aides with political, economic, legal and special affairs portfolios as part of his ministry’s restructuring aimed at “meeting the UAE’s growing foreign relations commitments and interests”. Also in May, Sheikh Abdullah reached an agreement with the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner to allow Emirati diplomats to be stationed in French embassies in countries, such as many in Africa, where the UAE lacks a diplomatic mission.
In June, Sheikh Abdullah went on an extensive diplomatic and economic tour including South Korea, Brunei, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives as well as visits to Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Estonia, Macedonia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Cameroon, Libya, and South Africa.
June was a good month for Sheikh Abdullah and his team as their efforts to win international support for the UAE to host Irena succeeded when the UAE was awarded the honour in a meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, beating two major European contenders, Bonn and Vienna.
Despite that achievement Sheikh Abdullah didn’t rest. He continued travelling – to Pakistan and then to Azerbaijan in July. In August, Sheikh Abdullah accompanied Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, on a trip to China. In September, the UAE foreign minister met with his GCC counterparts as well as ministers from Russia and a host of other nations. Sheikh Abdullah addressed the UN General Assembly and highlighted the strategy behind the UAE’s foreign policy. He also joined Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince to meet the US president Barack Obama in Washington.
In October, Sheikh Abdullah travelled to meet the president of Mexico, Philippe Calderón, and then to Cuba, Columbia, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. Sheikh Abdullah then hosted the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Abu Dhabi for bilateral talks.
In November, Sheikh Abdullah took part in the Forum for the Future meeting in Morocco and then accompanied Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, the UAE’s prime minister, on a visit to Britain to meet Gordon Brown before visiting the UAE forces in Afghanistan. This December, Sheikh Abdullah flew to Bahrain for the Manama Dialogue conference and Kuwait for a summit of GCC heads of state as well as meeting the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Sheikh Abdullah also makes it a point to meet the various Arab ambassadors in the states he visits, which reflects the UAE’s balanced pan-Arab foreign policy. Sheikh Abdullah managed to do all this as well as attend the UAE cabinet meetings and host diplomatic guests to the country. Sheikh Abdullah has been supported by a team as diverse and professional as Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs, Reem Ibrahim al Hashimi, the UAE Minister of State, Dr Sultan Al-Jaber, the CEO of the Masdar Initiative and Khalid Al Ghaith, the Assistant Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs.
Without a doubt the most travelled foreign minister in this young nation’s history, he has set standards that are very tough to follow. Sheikh Abdullah’s youth may have played a part in his relentless efforts to see his country prosper and be represented in the best possible manner. It is clear his determination is what sets him apart and why I believe 2009 is the year of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 20th December 2009