Supporting women’s advancement, tackling HIV/AIDS and pushing the prospects for broader democracy and governance are a few of the issues addressed by the United Nations in the United Arab Emirates since 1977.
With the emergence of Dubai Humanitarian City and Dubai Aid City in recent years, and their vigorous promotion by the authorities, the commercial capital, Dubai is bidding to become an operational and logistical hub for aid agencies in the region.
In an interview with IRIN, outgoing UN Resident Coordinator, Nadir Hadj-Hammou, spoke of the work carried out so far and the UAE’s support for humanitarian work overseas.
QUESTION: The UAE is known for its riches and is economically stable. It is not a country high on the world’s agenda in relation to development needs, so why is the UN working here?
ANSWER: The UAE has reached a certain level of development, but the Emirates still want to go much further. And they want to do it keeping in mind humanitarian concerns and the interests of their citizens, so they are looking at best practices in the world and the best expertise, using a cost-effective way which is sustainable. This is what the UN has to offer them. Once we have established local capacity, we see that as a success.
As mentioned, we are cost-effective and a non-profit organisation. At the touch of a button, we can consult our people in other countries and other UNDP systems. We are very neutral and go for the best option. This is what justifies the UN being here, and this is what the authorities appreciate.
The UN has been involved in all strategies of development in this country. We have been involved in education, health and civil aviation. The whole aviation sector has been developed hand in hand with ICAO expertise. [The Canadian-based International Civilian Aviation Organization, works to promote cooperative aviation regulation.]
Q: What are the main achievements of the UNDP in the Emirates?
A: Institutional development has been one big breakthrough for us, especially working with the Ministry of Finance to introduce performance budgeting very successfully. We put at the disposal of the country our extensive network, experience and knowledge to provide highly-qualified expertise, worldwide best practices, training and the latest know-how.
We are concerned with building national capacity, supporting women’s participation and using the latest information-technology to support government institutions. For example, for several years now, we and colleagues from the ICAO have been training UAE personnel to take charge of the aviation sector in the Emirates, on the ground and in the air.
And at the Palm Research Centre, which we established at the UAE University to look at problems, constraints and best practices in date production, an Emirati national has been trained to take over the project management.
We have made a big breakthrough, too, in terms of women’s development. We helped to put together a national strategy for women in development, which was approved at the national level and implemented. We trained some women to start their own enterprises.
We are talking now about having women in politics and in the federal national council. So it has been quite an achievement to start dialogue on these issues and see some action, especially because the theme has been embraced at the highest political level.
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, former president of the UAE [who died in November 2004], was an active player with us in encouraging women to participate – alongside men – in the development of this country. And one of the foremost advocates for the advancement of women in the country has been Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, chairwoman of the UAE General Women’s Union.
The UN in Dubai has provided technical advice on achieving the national strategy for the advancement of women in the country. The employment of women has been an important step towards “Emiratisation” [favouring the recruitment of more indigenous Emiratis over expatriates].
Boosting skilled employment in various sectors means more and more women are equipped with the skills they need to enter government administration and business.
HIV/AIDS is another area where we’ve had success. The first speech I did at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was, in fact, on AIDS. Again, another big breakthrough: some would think the Emirates would never talk about AIDS… We had awareness campaigns in schools and universities.
The Emirates are participating, left and right, in HIV-related aevents. Religious leaders from the UAE recently took part in a regional conference in Cairo on this issue.
If you walk in the streets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you see signs and posters on HIV/AIDS awareness.
Q: How does the UAE compare with neighbouring countries in terms of progress on humanitarian and development issues?
A: It is difficult to compare. I have seen higher willingness in some places and more action in others.
In the UAE, women are fortunate to have leaders who are encouraging and supporting them to promote economic and social development in their country.
We have some women at least at the local level in the government in Sharjah [one of the seven emirates of the UAE] and in Dubai in the council. And you have a woman minister at the federal level now.
We are constantly working with the General Women’s Union to strengthen capacity on these issues, and things are moving in the right direction but it will take time.
Q: There are no elections in the UAE and the country is run by sheikhs. In terms of democracy and governance, how much willingness is there to move on this issue?
A: Last year people started talking about having elected members on the ruling council, or having half the members elected. It is not a taboo subject, it is a public issue and people are expressing themselves.
About a month ago, there was a group of very high level economists and intellectuals here to make recommendations to Sheikh Khalifa [UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan] on how this country is governed and which way they think the president should go, and that is a sign of democratic development.
People thought that things would fall apart when Sheikh Zayed passed away last year, but you have a very stable country. It’s moving slowly. The difference here is that in this country you have to look at the population. The majority are foreigners, do they have a voice to express on who they think should be leading the country?
It is a very young country and there are tribal relations to take into consideration, too. How do you translate that into a democratic process? It is very difficult. All this has to be taken into consideration when discussing democracy in the UAE.
Q: How significant are the Millenium Development Goals for the UAE?
A: There are two ways of looking at them. You have the MDGs as far as this country is concerned and also in relation to how this country is involved with other nations in the region. When UNDP evaluates, who has been given the mandate on implementing the MDGs, it reports on different levels in a country.
This country differs [from many] as it offers basic social cover for its own population. There is no real poverty pocket for the Emiratis, so a lot of the MDGs would not be applicable in that sense.
But this country does help achieve MDGs at a global level. The UAE provides a lot of humanitarian assistance: we got US$ 50 million for the rebuilding of Jenin in the occupied Palestinian territories. We signed funding agreements for Somalia and Sudan, and for the tsunami response [in Southeast Asia]. This is all part of their contribution towards the MDGs.
Q: You mentioned that there are no pockets of poverty, but how about the very vulnerable foreign communities in the UAE – for example, domestic workers?
A: There has never been a study on the level of income for Emiratis, but we know that there is a lot of support from the government for its people.
We are not mandated to serve the foreigners in this country: our responsibility stops with the government. But if we were approached by vulnerable groups, we would help them and sensitise the government.
In addition, there are other vulnerable groups we work with such as the handicapped: a group of 400 in Abu Dhabi.
We also host UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] and, although the country does not offer refugee status to people, they facilitate displaced people until UNHCR takes care of them.
Recently, we signed an agreement to send back child camel jockeys to Pakistan, a development in which UNICEF was involved.
Q: Where does the government stand on the issue of human rights?
A: The issue of human rights is taken very seriously. You have human rights officers in the police and a department in the Ministry of Interior. There are some mishaps, but the fact that you can go public on these issues – on the radio, and so on – is already an achievement.
The police are very client-friendly. There is also a web page and hotlines, so they are trying to address this issue.
Q: Dubai has been actively seeking to persuade aid agencies to base themselves there, not least in Dubai Humanitarian City. How do you view this development? Is this a useful hub for the humanitarian world, or the region?
A: When we came here, we were the only ones here, with a small office for UNICEF and UNHCR.
In the past two years, things have started moving in a particular way. The government here has started encouraging the UN to open offices here and is offering facilities – not only because they think it will bring business to them, but because there is a genuine interest that has been expressed very often to facilitate humanitarian work in the region and beyond.
Now we have WFP, UNICEF, OCHA [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], UNOPS [the UN Office for Project Services], the FAO, UNIFEM [the UN Development Fund for Women] and UNODC [the UN Office on Drugs and Crime], the World Bank and NGOs.
This will ensure that we have better coordination here and in the region on all the issues we are working on.