Omar Ghobash: the new face of UAE diplomacy and tolerance

After postings in Russia and France, Omar Ghobash has returned to the Emirates as Assistant Minister at the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Anna Zacharias: Omar Ghobash as he steps into his new role at the office of cultural diplomacy. Monday, February 3rd, 2020. Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Omar Ghobash is a celebrity diplomat and author, known for his 10-year tenure as ambassador to Moscow and Paris, a patron of the arts and one of the most recognisable faces of the government.

After a year's hiatus in Los Angeles and a month studying Mandarin in Beijing, he has returned to the Emirates as Assistant Minister at the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy. His mandate is to grow the UAE's influence through the arts.

“I’ve found the secret to not being recognised in public,” says Mr Ghobash entering his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation in Abu Dhabi. “A hoodie.”

It is a fitting return for Mr Ghobash, whose father Saif was the country's first Minister of State of Foreign Affairs. He remembers cruising around Abu Dhabi's diplomatic area aged 12, blasting out Iron Maiden.

"The ministry was almost a default place for me to go after university," he says. "I now understand that this block is pretty much where I grew up and where I'm going to stay for the rest of my life."

Mr Ghobash went to Moscow in his mid-thirties independently in 2008 before joining the ministry as ambassador to Russia. He saw potential for trade and helped grow the UAE’s investment commitments in Russia to $6 billion (Dh22.04bn).

Political tolerance, of the kind that they talk about in the West, is not likely to happen unless religious tolerance is completely routine because those two ideas are so linked

He comes to his new role with a strong cultural background. He was a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and served on the committee that acquired pieces for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

But his experience as a scholar could prove most important. Promoting UAE culture begs the question, how is it defined?

The UAE has embarked on a nation-building campaign in the last decade and tolerance has emerged as a government-endorsed national characteristic. Meanwhile, the UAE has pushed its reputation overseas as model for peaceful co-existence.

Mr Ghobash has dedicated years to the question of tolerance and Islam in writing his 2017 book Letters to A Young Muslim, which is being translated into Arabic. The meaning and limits of tolerance must be explored within and among different faiths, he says. "We need to have those kinds of conversations among ourselves. Within Islam what do we tolerate? "It's the border of tolerance and intolerance that I'm interested in."

The exploration of tolerance has implications for domestic politics, too.“One of the reasons why religious tolerance is so important as a concept here in the Emirates is because we feel political intolerance in the region is driven by religious intolerance, which is the heart of the Islamist agenda,” he says.

“Political tolerance, of the kind that they talk about in the West, is not likely to happen unless religious tolerance is completely routine because those two ideas are so linked.”

Civic engagement is essential to counter radical Islam.

“The only way we are going to go forward is by maintaining the idea of the nation state. We think that is the way in which you can actually build a society, build an economy and build a future. Once you take away the idea of borders then you are in free for all.”

This led to nation building, Mr Ghobash says.

One aspect was the introduction of national service in 2014. Another was defining national identity. This requires moving beyond the image of elders in the majlis to one of a young society in transition, he says.

“There’s another aspect, which again leads to debate, which is who defines what it means to be Emirati and are they taking into accounting that actually being Emirati can be much broader than what we think?”

One instance is the inclusion of Emiratis with foreign parents, says Mr Ghobash, whose mother is Russian.

“They represent a large part of the Emirati society and yet they don’t necessarily fit into the traditional view of what an Emirati is.

“Many Emiratis do their thinking in English. We have a possibility of very broad understanding of Emirati and that allows us again to play that global role that the Emirates wants to play.

“I don’t think we’ve actually caught up with our own identity because it’s evolving at a rapid rate.”

One of his biggest jobs in Russia was to dispel stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. “We in the Gulf probably need to be operating as one unit because we’re all put into one basket.”

One idea is “talking embassies” where overseas offices host 20 to 30 events annually on topics outside of geopolitics and economics.

“We need to train up our ambassadors and diplomats to speak because for a long time the default position of Arab diplomats was not to speak.”

Diplomacy is changing, Mr Ghobash says.