Women are at the heart of UAE’s remarkable success, says envoy

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Updated 09 October 2021

Women are at the heart of UAE’s remarkable success, says envoy

Lana Nusseibeh is the UAE’s permanent representative to the United Nations. (Supplied/UN)
  • In an exclusive, wide ranging interview with Arab News, Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh sets out her vision as she prepares to take her seat on UN Security Council
  • The envoy said that the UN should be ‘the convening tent that we all step into’ to face challenges together, and that international isolationism is not an option

NEW YORK: Gender equality lies at the heart of the UAE’s success, according to Lana Nusseibeh, the country’s permanent representative to the UN.

In a mere 50 years, the small Gulf nation has gone from having to borrow educational curricula to set up its first school, to a mission to Mars and collecting data on the origins of the universe. Women have been instrumental to this rapid development, the envoy said.

Gender equality is “a central pillar of our foreign policy and a key reason for our success,” she added.

“We guarantee women’s equal rights under the law. We protect the rights of women in the workplace. We ensure equal pay for equal work and I think we’re one of the only countries in the world that enshrine that in our legislation.

“The empowerment and equality of women in your society really defines whether you are a successful nation or not.”

The members of the UAE’s UN delegation — 70 percent of whom are female, “not by choice but by meritocracy,” the envoy said — are busy preparing for its two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, which begins on Jan. 1.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Nusseibeh set out her vision for how best to tackle some of the toughest and most pressing regional and international issues on the council’s agenda, including climate change, women’s rights and counterterrorism.

“If the tensions of the past decade or two, since (9/11), have shown us anything (it’s) that we’re interconnected, that we can’t all be islands, that an isolationist approach will never work in international relations — that our fates are connected,” she said.

The UAE will take its seat on the Security Council at a particularly challenging time for the region. More than 100 Security Council meetings about Syria have failed to end the decade-long civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half of the population. Neither have regular meetings about the situation in Yemen made any headway in a country experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The fragile ceasefire in Libya continues to hold but the country is teetering on the brink of uncertainty as it prepares for national elections in December that might or might not happen. The Palestinian question remains unresolved, and Lebanon continues its free fall into an abyss amid the collapse of its economy, security and political system.

“We don’t have a silver bullet for issues that have been on the international agenda for a number of years now,” said Nusseibeh.

“But we do come with the belief that stability in these countries is really vital for the entire region. You can’t just be a successful country in and of yourself. These issues cross borders. If the region (is) doing well, then the UAE continues to do well.”

This shared destiny is actually the light at the end of the tunnel, she said, and keeps hope alive that the world will continue to work to find solutions to these crises. It is a hope “very much grounded in realpolitik,” she added.

“The international community is engaged because the fate of what happens in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Syria, affects all of us,” Nusseibeh said. “So, it’s also in our national self-interest, as countries, that for us to survive and continue to build on the decades of work we’ve already achieved, we need stable, secure societies around us.

“It is in all of our national interests (that) we don’t push ourselves into a cycle again of just managing it through humanitarian aid and short-term solutions. We need to manage it through a bigger perspective (based) around political dialogue and longer-term solutions.”

Nusseibeh describes the UN as “the convening tent that we all step into” and called for the organization’s existing processes to be strengthened instead of reinventing its mechanisms and devising new initiatives.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” she said. “Let’s inject (these processes) with some urgency toward conflict resolution rather than the more traditional conflict management, (where complex issues) are managed ‘as best we can’ and we kick the can down the road for a generation, 10 or 20 years from now. I think that’s unfair. It’s our responsibility to do better on these issues.”

Hope also lies in the promise and potential of youth, Nusseibeh believes.

“What gives me hope is the generations coming up always do better than the generations before them,” she said.

“Youth everywhere in our region deserves to live safely, with a secure, dignified and prosperous future ahead of them. And I think that, frankly, they will make demands of their governments, and those governments will have to respond around the world to that youth question.

“I am amazed by how the youth have moved the dial on climate, just to give you a non-political example.”

For millions of young people in Arab countries, the stellar success of the UAE has earned it a reputation as a “model nation” and “a beacon of hope.”

Surveys conducted over the past nine years have shown that the majority of 200 million Arab youths now give the UAE as their top choice of country in which to live, work and build a family, replacing the US, Canada, and Germany.

The majority of young Arabs in troubled nations also say they want their “corrupt” governments to “emulate the UAE.” But is this possible? Can the successful Emirati model be applied to other countries in the region?

Every nation must chart its own path and choose its own model, Nusseibeh said, because attempts to impose models based on external examples always fail. However, she added that there are some key takeaways from the UAE success story that are applicable not only in the Arab world but universally, as they have proven to be prerequisites for the success of any nation.

“That women are at the table when decisions are being taken, and involved in all elements of society, whether it is the judiciary, the military, the private sector or the government; that has been one of the core pillars of our success that we’ve embraced and that is applicable in a regional model,” Nusseibeh said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear just how interconnected and interdependent nations are on each other, but it is not the only global challenge in recent years to reveal how the entire world is increasingly linked. As a result, the Security Council finds itself facing new challenges.

The effects of climate-related threats — water scarcity, deforestation and the displacement of populations, for example — are often more profound on women and girls. UN data shows that about 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women. 

“So of course (in) the climate action that we undertake we have to tailor our response to that understanding. Climate-risk analysis has to be gender sensitive,” said Nusseibeh.

“This is part of our broader objective to strengthen women’s participation in all aspects of society, but also in the response to these challenges. They should not just be this nameless data point; they need to be part of the tailored response to this.

“So we want to bring this perspective to the Security Council and encourage fellow members to address the security impact of climate change in this holistic manner.”

Although countries sit on a differing sides of the spectrum in their attitudes to climate change, the UAE believes the gaps can be narrowed.

“It’s not polarization, grandstanding or big initiatives,” said Nusseibeh. “It’s how we nudge the dial in a direction that we believe to be right (for) the evolution of our collective societies.”

On Thursday, at Expo 2020 in Dubai, the UAE became the first country in the Gulf to announce its commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the country’s vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, said the country will invest $163.4 billion in renewable energy.

“The fact that we are preparing for a post-oil revolution is smart foreign policy but it also sets us in the group of countries that are preparing for an energy revolution that is necessary for the protection of our planet and for future generations,” said Nusseibeh.

The UAE has been at the forefront of renewable-energy efforts. It hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, and has put itself forward as a candidate to host the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in 2023.

“We’ve really diversified our energy portfolio with clean energy, nuclear clean energy, renewable energy and solar, and of course the mix includes hydrocarbon,” said Nusseibeh. “That is something that we think is applicable internationally.”

A strategy of “nudging the dial in the right direction” also applies to the central issue in the Arab world: the Middle East peace process. 

According to Nusseibeh, although the Abraham Accords — the recent agreements between Israel and a number of Arab nations, including the UAE, to normalize relations — did not in themselves resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they represent a step in the right direction as they have resulted, for example, in the inclusion of Jewish communities in the social fabric of the UAE.

“What was exciting for the UAE was seeing the Jewish community able to establish itself and emerge for the first time in hundreds of years in the Arabian Peninsula,” she said.

“When we don’t have fear of other faiths and religions, when we try to do everything we can to improve interfaith dialogue and moderation, I think these are all steps in the right direction as well.”

Such peaceful co-existence is also the single most efficient weapon against the scourge of terrorism which, at its heart, feeds on and spreads sectarian fear, allowing the extremist ideologies that promote hate-driven violence to thrive.

As global efforts continue to tackle the effects of the pandemic and return to normal life, misinformation is another major pandemic the world is facing, Nusseibeh said.

“Unless we focus on stopping (extremist ideology) in its tracks (we) are going to see an increase in the ability, and the rapid pace because of technological advances, of groups and people who promote violence and hate, including Islamophobia,” she added.

As a country where people of 200 nationalities “live, work and worship side by side,” the UAE prides itself on its diversity, Nusseibeh said. It represents a positive model not only for the region but also globally, she believes. This is exemplified, she added, by the Abrahamic Family House Initiative, a complex on Saadiyat Island, the cultural heart of Abu Dhabi, that houses a church, a mosque, a synagogue and an educational center.

“The model in a difficult region that the UAE embodies is a model that offers hope (that) we can in fact create a modern Islamic country that also fully embraces the concept of diversity, tolerance and peaceful coexistence,” said Nusseibeh.

“It sounds so simple in, terms of it being a low bar, when you put it like that but, actually, when we look around the world it’s clearly not a bar that enough countries and communities have reached. It’s something that we keep striving for.

“There are many pressing challenges that we face as an international community, and getting pulled down in ideological warfare will hold all of us back. (So will) getting pulled down through debates about whether women are an equal part of your society or not.”