The end of England's pandemic lockdown and the announcement of a vaccine roll-out on Wednesday heralds a turning point and for Mansoor Abulhoul, the UAE ambassador, another sign ties between the two countries can be soon renewed.
Travel in particular looms large in his thoughts on the 49th National Day. The UAE and the UK have agreed a travel corridor that will allow exchanges that numbered in the millions in 2019 to rapidly scale up in December.
"There's definitely a huge desire to travel again," he tells The National. "We're all human — we want to see one another.
“We want to celebrate this going into the festive season. British people, for example, in the UAE want to travel back to the UK to see loved ones.
“There'll be others who are going to see loved ones in the UAE for a bit of sunshine and a safe environment where we've got a systematic approach from the hotels and throughout the hospitality sector.”
That safe environment is crucial. The Covid-19-related safety protocols put in place by the UAE air travel and hospitality sector were vitally important. The volume of travellers is set to increase in the coming weeks but the vaccination campaign is only just getting under way.
A lot of work behind the scenes went into engaging with the UK to secure a travel corridor announcement last month. The decision was based on data and transparency as the UAE side sought to highlight, among other strong points, the world-beating testing regime.
"We, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the team here, had been working long and hard to get onto the travel corridor list," Mr Abulhoul says. In particular the office covered a better understanding of the approach the UAE has taken to combat Covic-19, which has now been acknowledged as exemplary.
“There was a lot of exchange about health experts who played a big role in providing data and information showing in many ways the UAE was much ahead of the curve. In terms of testing we're now around 17 million, and having Dubai airport really opening up in June helped travel too.”
Relationship burnished in early days of pandemic
In fact, the genesis of the joint work could be traced to the early days of the pandemic when the UAE rallied to provide airlift capacity for the UK as it sought to repatriate tens of thousands of stranded citizens abroad.
The country’s gift of 200 tonnes of PPE for the UK as the NHS struggled in the first wave added new layers of contacts between officials on both sides, as well as the private sector.
“The solidarity was built with the repatriation of people here, our own citizens going back and the PPE medical supplies that came over. So it was building upon that but really a huge amount of co-operation between the FCDO [Foreign Office], Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre to our Ministry of Health officials.”
Since the announcement of the travel corridor in mid-November, interest in seats on flights has been strong, he reports. “Demand has been significant and shows people's desire to travel is certainly there so I would see that expanding going forward,” he said.
Vaccine regimes the next frontier
Looking forward the next big challenge, Mr Abulhoul, who has been ambassador in London since 2019, said putting in place recognition of vaccine regimes is high on the agenda.
“They will be looking at these areas and a lot of investigation to see how that works as we're able to move to that next phase.”
For now the constraints of social distance remain paramount and the embassy held a unique celebration of the 49th anniversary of the founding of the nation this year.
“At the embassy we’re hosting a virtual National Day, and we'll have some guest speakers and some interesting video content to share with the guests that are invited,” he said. “It’s such an important occasion when we're celebrating 49 years of unity with the seven emirates and embracing the spirit of resilience and success.
“I’m also following the Seeds of the Union spectacular production to celebrate National Day, which will be broadcast to millions around the world,” he said.
For the UK, the end of the year also means the latest step in the Brexit process and the ambassador sees deeper trading and investment ties with the GCC countries.
“The GCC is a £45 billion ($59.87bn) trading partner with the United Kingdom, one of the largest partners,” Mr Abulhoul said.
“On a bilateral level or through the GCC as a bloc, irrespective of striking a free trade deal, we are constantly working on how we improve market access and foster further trade and investment between the countries.”
The prospects for 2021 are set for a significant boost from the UAE's 50th year celebrations and the opening of the World Expo in Dubai.
“We have incredibly strong bonds between the two countries for the last 50 years and it’s something that I think has to be celebrated as well,” he said. “Expo is going to be a huge event that we’ve had more time to build to and a huge amount of energy is going into it.”
On a day when both countries have something to cheer, thoughts of the future are brighter than they have been for some time.
“I think there's a certain amount of spring in our step in terms of how we can safely move, you know, but also celebrate a special day for us,” he said.