Why the UAE and Finland are more alike than you think

Both have been forced to carve out their political institutions and a national identity in an environment of adversity

Staff wave flags outside the Finland pavilion on the tenth day of Expo 2020 in Dubai. Christopher Whiteoak / The National
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One year ago, when I started my posting as the UAE’s ambassador to Finland, my knowledge of Finnish history and culture was based on a childhood love for the Moomins fairy-tale characters and a mixture of stereotypes: Finland as the happiest country on Earth, the land of saunas and the birthplace of Nokia – you know them all.

Finland seemed a distant and remote place that could not be more different from my native home in the Emirates. But after a year of immersing myself deeply in Finnish history and literature, the country’s cultural and artistic scenes, and traveling across the nation, I made a surprising discovery: the UAE and Finland share some remarkable similarities that go far beyond their surface differences.

First, both Finland and the UAE have been forced to carve out their political institutions and a national identity in an environment of adversity. On our respective journeys to nationhood, we have overcome some harsh circumstances and this has profoundly shaped our respective national traits. In Finland, there is a unique term that encapsulates this spirit — sisu.

Sisu embodies the Finnish people's unwavering resolve to confront adversity with bravery and tenacity. In the UAE, we have a similar set of values that define our national character — “al azima; al jedd; al mothabara,” which translates to "determination; earnestness; perseverance". These words reflect the resilience of our people and a commitment to achieving our aspirations as well as building a prosperous and harmonious society in an unforgiving environment.

At the same time, as two small nations in difficult climates, we also realised and appreciated the need for co-operation, dialogue and coexistence to reach innovative and evolving solutions to rising challenges.

The UAE and Finland have been pioneers and example-setters when it comes to developing diverse, tolerant and future-oriented societies. Both nations have recognised that providing free and accessible education, and pursuing gender equality and women’s empowerment, are cornerstones for progress on all fronts.

The two countries have also ensured that women’s empowerment has become ingrained in society. The UAE’s drive for gender equality is strongly rooted in the vision of the founding father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who believed that women are equal partners to men in nation-building. This path continues to be followed today under the leadership of President Sheikh Mohamed.

On our respective journeys to nationhood, we have overcome some harsh circumstances and this has profoundly shaped our respective national traits

Both our countries have been able to push the most important button for real change: that of societal attitudes. In the UAE, 95 per cent of female high-school graduates pursue tertiary-level education, and Emirati women constitute 70 per cent of all university graduates. Women represent about 46 per cent of the diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, Finland boasts a strong education system, where 59 per cent of general upper-secondary graduates are female, and Finnish women with tertiary-level education outpace their male counterparts.

From a more personal perspective, my appointment as the youngest female UAE ambassador stands as a powerful testament to my country’s unwavering commitment to empowering women in all fora, reflecting just how far our nation has come on this journey.

A long-standing passion for sustainability is also deeply and historically rooted in the practices of both nations, shaping our respective cultures and even informing our visions for the future. Whether sand dunes and desert tents or snow drifts and mokkis (a type of Finnish cottage), the people of the UAE and Finland have kept themselves closely connected to their natural heritage, preserving its unique habitats and biodiversity. To Emiratis and Finns, nature is more than just a landscape – it is a symbol of stability, coexistence and harmony.

Both nations are also striving to lead the global sustainability agenda with ambitious plans and visions to achieve carbon neutrality, by 2035 for Finland and by 2050 for the UAE. The Emirates is already home to three of the largest and lowest-cost solar plants in the world and was the first country in the region to deploy industrial-scale carbon capture technology and the first to deploy zero-emission nuclear energy. It has also become a pioneer in new zero-carbon energies such as hydrogen.

Moreover, as the host of Cop28 later this year, with more than 150 world leaders gathering in Dubai, the UAE aims to deliver the most action-oriented climate conference ever, issuing an inclusive invitation to governments, businesses, young people and civil society to collaborate on finding practical climate solutions, raising ambitions and creating lasting, sustainable economic growth.

Keeping all of that in mind, it appears to me that no matter how far we are apart, or how different our histories, landscapes and traditions are, there will always be something that connects us and brings us closer. And that is exactly what I strive to achieve by being an ambassador: to shatter stereotypes, to look past our differences and focus on what unites us rather than what divides us. We will be surprised by how much we have in common, and that is a noble thing to celebrate and embrace.

Published: October 12, 2023, 8:00 AM