Today, the United Arab Emirates celebrates its 42nd National Day, an occasion that encourages all of us – Emiratis and residents – to let our hair down and have fun.
Behind the party atmosphere, there are many reasons for optimism and confidence. UK Prime Minister David Cameron had it spot on when he said that over the past 42 years and more, the UAE had become “a role model in the region that must be emulated in terms of adopting balanced and wise policies at the local and foreign levels”. These were the words he used when addressing the UAE President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan during the latter’s state visit to the UK in April.
In the past month alone, Dubai World Central, the vast aerotropolis in Jebel Ali was opened and a day later it hosted Dubai Air Show, the world’s fastest growing aerospace exhibition. The event wrote itself into air show history with a record-breaking order book of $162.6 billion (Dh597 billion). The deals came mostly from the UAE national carriers of Etihad Airways, Emirates Airline and flydubai.
This represents an enormous degree of self-confidence about the growth of the UAE as both a hub and a destination for millions of travellers every year. And this has an enormous impact elsewhere in the world. For Britain, these orders are worth thousands of jobs for Airbus and Rolls-Royce. And I’d guess some of those families whose livelihoods will come from these orders will be among the increasing number of Britons coming to this country on holiday.
A few days later, Dubai won the vote to host World Expo 2020 with an overwhelming majority. Again, this is a recognition not just of the past 42 years, but of the potential of this nation as a hub and driver of innovation far into the future. All in all, this is a fairly heady backdrop against which to be holding a National Day celebration.
This is good for Britain because of our long history of cooperation, friendship and open dialogue with the UAE. This is about all the people to people links – the many Britons who live and work here and the Emiratis who consider the UK their second home – but this is something led from the top. The state visit by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa came six months after Prime Minister Cameron’s visit to the UAE in November 2012, and it followed the state visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the UAE in November 2010 – all intended to reinforce that sense of alliance on both sides.
We work with the UAE on a range of shared interests. These include the prosperity agenda of investment and trade across to the security challenges across the region, including countering the threat from terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
One of our closest area of cooperation remains foreign policy – particularly on the challenges in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. No one wants to see Iran with a nuclear weapon, and so it was inspiring to see the UAE welcoming – in suitably measured and cautious terms – the possibility of the latest negotiations between the P5+1 resulting in the rolling back of Iran’s weaponisation programme.
Likewise, we and the UAE are equally appalled at the bloodshed in Syria, where we work hand in hand as members of the Friends of Syria Group to try and bring about a political resolution to the conflict.
As we commemorated Remembrance Day in November this year (the day when we pause to consider with gratitude the sacrifices made by those from our Armed Forces who have given their lives to defend our liberties), I was thinking about British soldiers in Afghanistan serving alongside their Emirati counterparts as part of the 48 nation Nato-led mission. It was a symbol of the unbreakability of the UK-UAE bond of friendship in 2011, when the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the UAE foreign minister, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, made a joint visit to Afghanistan to meet our troops and see where we are collaborating together on development projects.
It is not just the governments that cement these bonds. My compatriots have long contributed to the UAE’s economic development, by being involved in iconic projects like the Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi Formula One. Some British companies like BP and Shell, have worked with Abu Dhabi for more than 70 years. And these business ties are a two-way street. Emirati investment in the UK is rich and diverse. Through investment in projects like the London Array (the world’s largest offshore wind farm), the Emirates Skyline (cable car across the River Thames in London) and regeneration in Manchester, the UAE is an increasingly important contributor to UK prosperity.
Around 3,000 UAE students studied in the UK last year and the British Council is one of the leading providers of English language teaching in the UAE. Over 100,000 British nationals live, work and study in the UAE, a land they call their second home. A million British nationals visit the UAE every year, with 50,000 Emiratis coming in the opposite direction.
All of this depends on people, not governments. But governments can make things easier. That is why the British government announced last month that we will be introducing an Electronic Visa Waiver Scheme that will allow Emiratis to travel to the UK for a visit of up to six months simply by filling in an online form at least 48 hours before they travel. We will launch this early in 2014 – news about when is coming soon, so watch this space.
At this 42nd National Day, the UAE has plenty to be cheerful about. And so do all of us who consider ourselves friends of this country. On behalf of the British part of the diverse mosaic of communities celebrating the National Day, I am delighted to wish the rulers and people of the UAE many congratulations indeed.
Dominic Jermey is the British ambassador to the United Arab Emirates