PARIS: On Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, Hend Al-Otaiba presented her credentials to French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris as the first-ever female ambassador of the UAE to France. Today, she shares with Arab News en Francais an experience she describes as “intense, full of fruitful meetings, events, visits, and projects.”
Francophone and expert in strategic communications, Al-Otaiba speaks about the recent state visit of UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to France and discusses the strong links that unite the two countries in the fields of energy, culture, and business.
Her flagship initiative during the past year has been the organization of the Majlons — a series of discussions and debates bringing together French and Emirati experts. She shares the details of the Majlons, a concept that combines Majlis of the Gulf and the salons of Enlightenment in France.
On a more personal note, the envoy reveals her favorite French discoveries and her experiences as an Emirati woman and mother living in France, a country where she feels “at home.”
Q. UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was on a state visit to France in July, the first one at such a level since 1991. Why was the visit that important and how do you assess its outcome?
The president’s state visit to France was an important milestone in the deep and longstanding relationship between the UAE and France, continuing the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed’s first presidential visit to France in 1975. It was a highly productive visit, focused on strengthening partnerships and joint investments touching on both the public and private sectors.
Many important issues were raised in discussions, with 10 memoranda of understanding developed covering education, security, culture, and sustainability. The conversations looked to the future, with commitments to innovation in areas such as space exploration and health.
Energy and the future of energy security was a major topic throughout the visit, with a number of valuable discussions looking forward to objectives ahead of COP28 (UN climate change conference) in the UAE next year.
The launch of the UAE-France Business Council, bringing together 18 French and Emirati business leaders to innovate in energy, transport, and investment, is an opportunity to collaborate further.
The UAE and France place particular emphasis on their cultural partnership and in July, Noura Al-Kaabi, the UAE minister of culture and youth, and Rima Abdul Malak, the French minister of culture met to discuss the strong cultural relationship between France and the UAE, reinforcing the partnership built on trust, openness, and dialogue.
Q. Energy was one of the main highlights of the visit, but we also know that diesel is not included into the range of oil products supplied by the UAE to France. Any changes to expect regarding this after the visit?
The sustainability of our future energy is a major shared priority. During the visit, the Comprehensive Strategic Energy Partnership was signed to acknowledge that both countries will focus on improving energy security and climate action, while reducing carbon emissions, ahead of COP28 in the UAE.
A memorandum of understanding on climate action was developed between the office of the UAE special envoy for climate change and the French government.
And it’s also very positive that during the state visit, TotalEnergies and ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.) signed a major deal which includes the provision of diesel fuel by the UAE. This agreement is now being rolled out.
We will continue to work together closely to ensure energy security across a range of areas and technologies.
Q. Post-oil economy is becoming a priority for both France and the UAE: How can your country benefit from the French experience in terms of energy transition to a non-oil economy?
We are constantly learning from each other, partnering to build technologies and systems that will benefit both our countries and others around the globe.
The UAE and France have many strong partnerships focused on energy transition. The Emerge partnership between the UAE’s Masdar (future energy company) and France’s EDF (multinational electric utility firm) looks to the future of solar technology, and they are jointly taking on large projects.
The strategic partnership between ADNOC and TotalEnergies will enable us to explore new opportunities for innovation and growth across the energy value chain. This relationship and many others highlight our commitment to both government partnerships and private-sector collaboration in tackling global energy challenges.
As part of Expo 2020, the UAE worked with Siemens Energy to start the green hydrogen project to explore options for sustainable production of hydrogen. France has committed to working with the UAE on developing hydrogen technology, with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. and EDF signing a 2021 memorandum of understanding to further research and development in this area.
Q. France is today the third-biggest investor in the UAE, how does this translate in different sectors?
France and the UAE benefit from productive investment relationships across numerous sectors. France has a significant presence in the UAE, including in energy, water, and hospitality. The UAE is home to the largest number of French companies in the Middle East, which collectively employ more than 30,000 people.
An important area of partnership is marine transport, where France’s CMA CGM (container transportation and shipping company) has invested in Abu Dhabi Ports to establish a new terminal, which will be a state-of-the-art addition to the growing port.
There is significant collaboration in technology and innovation, with Dubai being named a certified French Tech Hub since 2016, resulting in annual awards to impressive startups. This year, the UAE has launched NextGenFDI to attract further companies and talent, supporting them to launch and scale within the UAE. We expect this to be an exciting opportunity for companies in France and worldwide.
Q. What have been the learnings from the Majlon project experience, this series of events at the embassy, and how does it achieve the objective of strengthening synergies between the two countries?
The embassy’s Majlons, a series of expert-led discussions and debates, draw on traditions from both the UAE and France – the community information-sharing majlis of the Gulf, and the enlightenment-era salon discussions of France.
For example, the interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence Majlon focused on the importance of open discussion, with religious representatives coming together to share ideas.
The Majlon series allows true openness and connection between people of different backgrounds and experience. It is a unique opportunity for the people of the UAE and France to learn more about each other’s rich heritage and culture.
Q. How do you see Majlon’s future and are there any future Majlon events that you can announce now?
The Majlon series has been an excellent opportunity to deepen the relationship between the people of the UAE and France, providing participants with the chance to learn more about a range of topics and aspects of our two cultures. The series is a platform for development of initiatives by French and UAE partners, an opportunity to build and seal future partnerships, and to develop projects in various fields.
The future for the Majlon series is bright. Future events will tackle themes such as culture, media, youth, education, and investment opportunities between France and the UAE. We look forward to sharing more information about future events in due course.
Q. What are the main monuments and events you have visited in France? By which ones have you been the most impressed, and why?
It has been a pleasure to live in France this past year and get to know the country and its culture better. It was very special to be in France for the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14 – it is a magnificent celebration and is a powerful political, historical, and symbolic event in France.
I have had the opportunity to visit many of the beautiful landmarks, monuments, and events that are features of French heritage. Some recent stand-out experiences include my visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, where I saw a strong commitment to arts, culture, and history. Created by Gehry Partners and open since 2014, it is a remarkable place for dialogue and reflection. With a strong emphasis on accessibility to art nationally and internationally, so many people can experience their exhibits, collections, and events.
Another highlight was my wonderful visit to Chateau de Chantilly, home to centuries of history and a hub of French cultural heritage. From the house to the garden and the great stables, we could experience so many pieces of French history.
I also enjoyed my visit to the south of France, in particular the beauty of the paysage. With gorgeous views of nature, architecture, not to mention the French cuisine, it was an enormous pleasure to travel and enjoy the tranquility.
Closer to Paris, I love to visit Fontainebleau, with walks to see the wildlife in Fontainebleau Forest and to appreciate the history of the royal Chateau de Fontainebleau. While there, it is wonderful to visit the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Theater, carefully restored to its former glory and an example of the French commitment to history and heritage.
Q. With the Louvre and the Sorbonne, France has today a strong cultural presence in the UAE. What about the UAE culture in France? Any plans?
There are strong cultural ties between France and the UAE, present in both countries, and there are always projects that are furthering this connection. This has proven invaluable for both Emiratis and the French.
We can see growing awareness and use of the Arabic language in France, as illustrated by the recent agreement between Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) and the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Center to cooperate on an Arabic language certificate. This follows similar changes in the UAE to support the teaching of French, with the introduction of French as the third compulsory language in public schools, and the inauguration of a French language radio network.
The Sheikh Zayed center at the Louvre Museum pays tribute to the UAE’s founding father and brings the cultural relationship between the two countries into the heart of Paris.
Other spaces including the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theater further represent the UAE’s commitment to being a part of French restoration and the protection of its heritage. We saw this on show again when six Emirati artists represented the UAE at the Revelations International Biennial in Paris.
We look forward to future opportunities to bring the art, history, and culture of the UAE to the Hexagon.
Q. The Arab world, Islam, and Arab communities are today at the heart of the internal French social-political debate. As an Arab ambassador, are there any specific steps you intend to take to forge better relations between the Arab world (and communities) and France?
Coming from the UAE, I am fortunate to be able to tell stories of our heritage and participate in cross-cultural meetings, allowing others to glimpse the openness and constant advancement happening within the UAE.
There are still misconceptions internationally about life in the UAE, including around the roles of women. One of my objectives for people in France and around the world is to see how many bright, strong women are in leadership positions in the UAE – both in the public and private sectors.
In our government, the participation of women is already very high as women make up 66 percent of the UAE public sector workforce and 50 percent of the Federal National Council’s seats. It is important for people to know that, for these and many other reasons, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 18th globally in the UN Development Program’s 2020 Gender Equality Index.
We will continue to build cultural partnerships – allowing residents of both countries to visit and explore each other’s stories, history, art, and architecture.
The Majlon series has been an excellent opportunity to share ideas for the future, while our newly forged business partnerships have been an opportunity for different sectors to learn from each other and create lasting ties.
Q. How is life in France as an Emirati woman and mother? How is it different from life in the Emirates?
Being in France is a great opportunity for my family to experience a new culture and new ways of life, and it offers us all the chance to explore and learn. Like the UAE, France offers large cities filled with history, beautiful countryside landscapes, and strong international ties.
Although there are differences such as language, history, and climate, there are many similarities including commitment to cultural heritage, openness to discussion, and a willingness to learn from others that make France feel very familiar. I feel lucky to be able to call both countries home.
Q. After spending one year in France, what does this country mean to you today and how would you describe your interaction with the Emirati diaspora?
France is a special and important place to me, with a rich history and many shared values with my homeland. I have enjoyed getting to know the people and places of France, learning about what similarities connect France and the UAE and understanding how we can benefit from our cultural and geographical differences.
It is wonderful to meet with Emirati students and professionals who have travelled and built lives in France. Working in a variety of sectors, Emiratis living in France are both ambassadors of our culture and bring the history, heritage, and values of France back to the UAE. Of particular note are our doctors and frontline workers who worked tirelessly in France throughout the coronavirus pandemic – we are very proud of their contribution. I look forward to future opportunities to speak and meet with Emiratis living in France.
Q. Women are mostly still under-represented in many fields in many Arab countries, how long do you think is the road toward a confirmation of the real leading role of women?
The empowerment of women is a key issue for me. It is an exciting time in many sectors, including for UAE diplomacy where an impressive generation of female leaders have emerged. Women are part of creating our future and embody our country’s values of openness, tolerance, and cooperation.
I am extremely proud of our government for championing and empowering women, recognizing the value of their passion, skills, and education. Like many of my peers, I am committed to supporting the new generation, providing advice, opportunities for mentorship, and support networks.
* This interview was originally published in French on Arab News en Francais.