How the UAE's relationship with the Vatican has strengthened ahead of papal visit

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Abu Dhabi on February 3

Pope Benedict XVI (L) shakes hands with President of the United Arab Emirates' parliament S.E Abdul Aziz Al Ghuraih after his weekly audience on October 22, 2008 at St Peter's square at the Vatican.  AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / POOL RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AFP)

More than a decade has passed since the Holy See and the UAE announced the establishment of diplomatic ties, setting the foundations for a flourishing relationship and paving the way for the first visit to the Gulf by a Catholic pope.

The arrangement was made to promote what the Vatican called "bonds of mutual friendship" and to strengthen international co-operation between the two states. A year later, in 2008, the first high-level delegation, led by former speaker of the Federal National Council, Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, visited the Vatican and met Pope Benedict XVI.

Although Mr Al Ghurair made clear the UAE's wish to cultivate the budding friendship, the two states had been quietly nurturing these ties for decades.

Now the UAE is readying itself for the first official papal visit to the GCC. Pope Francis will touch down in the capital on February 3, where he will be welcomed by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

The two are scheduled to hold talks on ‘human fraternity and peace’, as well as the co-existence of all people and religions, the UAE government said.

Divided by thousands of kilometres of sea and desert, and rooted in distinct histories, Abu Dhabi and the Holy See have found common ground.

While the Vatican is one of the oldest diplomatic organisations in the world and the UAE - at 47 years old - one of the youngest, their similarities are likely to allow them to grow closer.

One parallel between the two is the sheer number of migrants. The UAE has the second largest number of migrants after the Vatican, by percentage of population. Because there are no births in the Vatican, its migrants make up 100 per cent of its population, which is less than 1,000 people. But more importantly, they both believe in freedoms that include the right to religious expression.

Religious freedom

In his 15 years at the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia - the UAE, Oman and Yemen - Bishop Paul Hinder says he has seen progress in tolerance and mutual understanding between communities in the UAE.

"We enjoy security," Bishop Hinder, who is Swiss, told The National. "There are countries in the region where there is risk, but here in the UAE, we enjoy remarkable security."

The UAE's first Roman Catholic church, St Joseph's, was built in 1965 - a simple cement building on the Abu Dhabi seashore. Two years later, the Church of the Assumption opened in Dubai. Today, there are 76 churches and places of worship in the UAE, of which nine are Catholic, with almost a million followers of the Christian faith.

Unlike Pope Benedict's less forthcoming approach to Islam, Francis made religious reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue a cornerstone of his papacy. In his first international trip of 2014, the pontiff visited Jordan, Palestine and Israel. In 2017, his visit to Egypt came three weeks after a suicide bomb struck two Coptic churches, killing 45 people. At the time, Pope Francis spoke of "brotherhood and reconciliation with all the children of Abraham, particularly the Muslim world".

Similarly, the UAE's openness to inter-faith dialogue and its freedom of religious expression are factors that have attracted a huge expatriate community.

As the number of Catholics in the Emirates has grown, clergy in the UAE have appealed for more land to serve their congregations. "We have more space than we had at the beginning," Bishop Hinder said.

Soft power

Over the years, both states have employed soft power to bridge gaps and appeal to each other. In December, Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi became the first Arab artist to perform at the annual Vatican Christmas concert.

"Cultures and the UAE met, still meet and are making a difference in arts and culture which integrate to create a better life for humanity," the singer wrote. "Our goal is to enhance goodness and promote dialogue and tolerance among religions and people in a refined manner."

The concert aimed to emphasise the plight of refugees, an issue that the UAE and the Vatican have taken to their hearts.

"I conveyed today in the Vatican in front of Pope Francis messages of love, peace and tolerance among religions and people that represent my culture, community, nation and Arabic heritage," Al Jassmi said.

In 2017, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed ordered that one of Abu Dhabi's most prominent mosques be renamed Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque. This, Sheikh Mohamed said, was done to "consolidate bonds of humanity between followers of different religions". The move was widely appreciated by the Christian community.

The coming trip, Bishop Hinder said, was in response to a request by Abu Dhabi.

While the Pope's visit will reinforce ties between the Holy See and the UAE, it is down to ordinary men and women to make a difference.

This, said Bishop Hinder, is true. "I think it's mostly the local effort. The Vatican doesn't know exactly what is happening. I have to inform very often the secretary of state or the Pope himself about the situation because we are not the focus of attention and that may be one of the advantages of this visit.

"Surely, it will be a step forward in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world. Improvement in the atmosphere is not to be underestimated."