Last week, I had the rare opportunity of introducing a first-time visitor to the Emirates. Not just to big cities, but across the country, traversing deserts and gravel plains and over the mountains, from coast to coast. In so doing, I have viewed the country afresh and observing it alongside my visitor, I have shared, to some extent, in the surprises.
The visitor, Senator John Le Fondré, Chief Minister of the British Channel Island of Jersey, my other home, was visiting for a few days to bolster the existing UAE-Jersey relationship and to see whether there might be scope for diversification into different fields, away from the well-trod path of financial services.
Beginning in Dubai, our first port of call, naturally, was Expo 2020 Dubai, with two objectives in mind. One was a number of meetings with senior UAE government officials, to discuss the nitty-gritty details of bilateral collaboration. Without divulging any details, it is fair to say that amongst the topics were some of the very latest innovations in financial services at a global level, very much something in which both the UAE and Jersey are international leaders.
The other was to take a quick look at a small selection of the national pavilions on show, including, of course, the UAE Pavilion. Here, I learnt an important lesson.
It was easy for me, a long-time resident of the Emirates with some knowledge of the country’s history and heritage, to find little points to criticise about the presentation. Senator Le Fondré, by comparison, for whom everything was fresh, found the architecture and the audio-visual presentation to be remarkably impressive, giving a rapid glimpse of the modern Emirates. Being too close to something, or too familiar with it, we agreed, provides a very different view. A visitor’s perspective is not necessarily the same as that of a resident.
From the innovative ideas portrayed at the Expo, not just at the UAE Pavilion, but in others which we visited, we moved to the modernity of Dubai, with its high-rise buildings, plush hotels, freeways and the like, evidence of the stage of development reached by this global commercial hub. I have observed its growth for over four decades, so it’s no surprise to me. For my visitor, though, it was visible evidence of the way in which this part of the UAE is on a par with other major global cities.
The next stop was at the Buhais Geology Park near Mleiha, the rolling sand-dunes of the desert dividing it from the Dubai-Sharjah conurbation. Here we went into a different world. The buildings of the park are designed to sit quietly and unobtrusively in the ancient landscape of the crags of Jebel Buhais.
The interpretative centre, managed by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA), aims through film and interactive displays to explain something of the remarkable and fascinating geology of the area, dating back over 65 million years.
Designed to provide an educational experience, for young and old alike, the buildings are linked to an outdoor trail past fossils protruding from the rocks and fascinating archaeological sites.
For a first-time visitor, the dramatic landscape provides an impressive contrast to the dunes and the big cities on the coast that lie beyond them. This geology park, moreover, displays not only the EPAA’s desire to protect the landscape, but also its determination to educate people about it. That commitment was certainly taken on board by my visitor, since the concept of a possible Geopark is also something being examined at home in Jersey. The Buhais Park has offered some useful thoughts.
From Buhais, we went over the mountains to Fujairah, a fairly frequent trip for me. Most first-time visitors like Senator Le Fondré, though, arrive here expecting sun, sea and sand and magnificent modern cities, with world-class shopping opportunities and a thriving business community. Rugged mountains, with glimpses of little farms in the wadis with their terraced fields, are generally a bit of a surprise, helping to give a slightly more complete idea of the Emirates as a whole.
And then in Fujairah, a highlight for my visitor, we visited a modern hi-tech dairy farm, complete with pedigree Jersey cows, signifying a direct link between the Emirates and Jersey. For a change, this link was not in the usual field of financial services but in agriculture, a small but important component in the diversified economies of both countries. One topic of conversation here was whether there was scope for Fujairah to join Jersey in an innovative and highly successful programme to increase milk yields for dairy farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
It was, all in all, a thought-provoking visit. I have definitely benefited from trying to see the Emirates through the eyes of a first-time visitor. Going from Expo’s aspirations for the future to the modernity of Dubai and then over the deserts to mountains full of fossils and to hi-tech agriculture has reminded me of the country’s diversity and ancient heritage. It has reminded me, too, of the variety we have to offer for those overseas seeking to build closer ties with us. I must do it more often.