The UAE’s new man in Paris: two countries united by activist leadership

In an exclusive interview, Omar Ghobash reflects on his new position — and hails a warm relationship symbolised by the success of Louvre Abu Dhabi

2017-12-18: Omar Saif Ghobash, the new UAE ambassador to the French Republic, presented his credentials to President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (PHILIPPE SERVENT / PRESIDENCE DE LA REPUBLIQUE)
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The UAE has sent one of its most prominent diplomats to France to serve as Abu Dhabi’s ambassador in a year that has witnessed an unprecedented strengthening of relations between the two countries.

After eight years as ambassador to Moscow, Omar Ghobash was named as the UAE’s man in Paris. He presented his letters of credentials to President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month.

2017 was a big year for relations between the two countries, with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a project ten years in the making. Speaking to The National from Paris, in his first interview since formally taking up his post, Mr Ghobash was in high spirits.

“I am over the moon," he admitted with undisguised candour. "I never expected this. My boss, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed (UAE Foreign Minister), looked at me and could see I was dumbfounded when he told me that he was moving me to Paris. I find it fascinating.” Ambassador Ghobash says this is also an important time for France.  “Under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron; it becomes extremely interesting. He is an activist president, we have an activist leadership in the Emirates, we see all kinds of possibilities. Having these leaders coming together means pushing together a better vision for the world."

That vision includes stability and growth in the Middle East. France and the UAE have a defence pact and Mr Ghobash is much encouraged by France takes a keen interest in the region.

“My understanding is that Macron sees the Middle East as somewhat directly affecting Europe, in a way that it doesn’t affect other countries like the United States," he said. President Macron’s understanding of the impact of the region on Europe is driving his policies. “For that reason, the Libyan question is very important, as is the stability of North Africa. We are seeing a lot of activity on Libya and we are also seeing a lot of activity over the Syrian question and a desire to bring [the war] to an end. This could be an area for common work between the Russians who have a great deal to say about the Middle East and France which has great interests there.”

France of course also has strong ties with Qatar. Mr Ghobash acknowledges that these ties are likely to continue. However, he added, “France has different types of relationships in the region.. they have more commonality with the Emirates on their vision for the Middle East, and while I won’t say they are taking sides on this issue, they also agree with us on the need for more control over funding [of extremist groups] and more transparency on the funding.”

One priority for the new ambassador is how the UAE is perceived in the French media. “It is a problem we face along with the rest of the Arab world. Our research is telling us that we are not really differentiated in the minds of the French.  What we want to do is to get out to the broader public the ideas we stand for, in particular the model that UAE can present as a progressive and advanced Arab country.”

Communication is one of Mr Ghobash’s strengths. He stands out not only through his media appearances in the Arab world and abroad, but also in his writing. His book, Letters to a Young Muslim, was widely acclaimed. The New York Times  said the book embodies the “sort of wisdom that creates hope for a world in which people are smart enough to work together toward a common good rather than claw at one another while slowly sinking in quicksand.”

Showcasing UAE innovation will be a focal point in his tenure in France. “We really want to stress the innovation that takes place on the level of government, for example with the Minister of Artificial Intelligence. We will also be talking about the issue of happiness and wellness, tolerance and youth. It often comes across [to outsiders] as surprising that anyone in the volatile Arab world would be interested in that at the government level.”

Science and technology are increasingly finding their place in the front ranks of Emirati diplomacy. Mr Ghobash said: “We would be very happy to work with the French on this. In the past months, our conversation with the French were that we are looking to see French technologies being stood up in the UAE with our participation.”

In an impassioned speech in Abu Dhabi last month, President Macron made a commitment to support the teaching and use of French all over the world. Mr Ghobash said: “It is my understanding, we will be looking at introducing French into our school system, and education also helps to spur innovation’.

Mr Ghobash is currently taking "top-up French lessons", but his language skills are good enough for him to have presented his letters of credentials  in French. Fluent in Arabic and English, he says his French is now better than his Russian.

He was posted as ambassador to Russia at a time when Moscow had a limited presence in the Arab world. Asked what he learned from that posting, he says, “Two main takeaways. One is the power of communication and the importance of clarity in communication to get things done; and the second is not to underestimate the side that you are dealing with."  He explains his point further. “In the case of Russia, in 2008-2009 it was almost on its knees because of the financial crisis and hardly had strong ties to the Arab world. By 2017 they look like they are playing a major role in the Arab world. So always bear in mind how things can change and one must always be ready to recognise a change in circumstances.”

His posting in Paris is starting on a high after last month’s Louvre Abu Dhabi.  “In all my conversations with French officials, each one of them has stressed the incredible importance of the Louvre to this relationship. It really demonstrates the difference with which they treat us in the Emirates. They chose the Emirates to partner with on the Louvre. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a platform to provide greater understanding. We are providing a platform to present a universal message that we in the UAE, as a leadership and people, recognise. We have a relationship (with France) for the Louvre based on expertise and cultural ties, yet is not exclusive, the way we are curating the Louvre Abu Dhabi is based on universality. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a starting point for a discussion about arts and culture, not just in the UAE and the Arab world, but globally’.