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Yacoob Abba Omar, the South African ambassador to the UAE, is hoping his country wins the rugby World Cup. Lee Hoagland / The National
Yacoob Abba Omar, the South African ambassador to the UAE, is hoping his country wins the rugby World Cup. Lee Hoagland / The National

Diplomat happy he came in from the cold

Yacoob Abba Omar once had to put up with "the job from hell" and a Russian winter, but this ambassador has warmed to his role of increasing the business ties between South Africa and the UAE.

I'm not entirely sure what practical training most ambassadors get, but I suspect that few of the diplomatic corps in the country know how to put a limpet mine together. This was just one of many practical tips that Yacoob Abba Omar, the 50-year-old South African ambassador to the UAE, picked up in Moscow at an army school. "It was February and we did it in the snow, it was so cold," he says.

A political activist from a young age, he grew up in Durban and joined the ANC, was detained and escaped into exile in 1985, living in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola and Zambia, including eight months in the former Soviet Union.

"It was towards the end of the Gorbachev era, so there was already a feeling of glasnost in the air, although we didn't speak too much Russian," he says.

After 1994 and the election of the ANC he was given a job managing corporate affairs with Armscor, the state-owned weapons company. "It was a job from hell," he says. "It was so Afrikaaner that their idea of diversity was an English-speaking white person."

His role was to help restructure the organisation, close down unprofitable units and develop the successful ones, a task that gave him his first taste of management.

In 1998 during the last year of Nelson Mandela's presidency he was appointed deputy head of his communications unit, writing speeches for the great man. "I wrote the speeches, but he often didn't follow them," he said. "I often joke that the only line I wrote that he said was 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. He would always rewrite the words or adapt them to the situation."

After a few more years with Thabo Mbeki, the second post-apartheid president of South Africa, Mr Omar joined the private sector and took a job with Meropa, a PR company based in Johannesburg. After a successful year his phone rang one day.

"The president wants you to be our ambassador in Oman," he was told. Mr Omar stopped the car on the way home and bought the Lonely Planet guide to the country. Then he and his wife, a journalist who was the first coloured features editor at The Star newspaper, spent two sleepless nights deciding whether to accept the challenge.

The answer was yes, so the Muslim, non-Arab speaking political firebrand and PR man, a South African of Indian descent, set off to open a new embassy. They spent five enjoyable years in Oman, before being transferred to Abu Dhabi in June 2008.

It seems to me that much more of an ambassador's job these days is concerned with business, not politics. Is that true in your case?

Absolutely. I would say that I spend 80 to 90 per cent of my time on economic matters. The one big thing is to maintain and improve trade levels. We have about US$2 billion (Dh7.25bn) of bilateral trade - split quite evenly between both countries. We are buying oil and exporting food, automotive parts, metal products, diamonds, gold and lots of other things. The UAE is our 21st largest trade partner, so it is very important, and it's the largest in the Middle East region even if you include Israel and Turkey.

How does one help a country's exports?

The first thing is you can't bullsxxx, your products have to be good. Once you have good products as we do, then as you improve your marketing you need somebody with the knowledge and ability to identify the key products you want to push. For example, we have a number of sectors that we want to encourage and think will help create jobs such as leather goods, textiles and clothing.

Do you make many cars in South Africa?

We have eight manufacturers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Unfortunately they are not exported here because they are right-hand drive. Now we are trying to encourage the manufacture of accessories, because that is where the biggest local content or jobs are.

In what areas is the UAE most interested?

Definitely fast-moving consumer goods, especially food. Spinneys has even set up its own plant in South Africa sourcing food.

What are the challenges?

We need to build on the skills base. For example, rather than just exporting diamonds to Antwerp and Dubai, we need to create those skills to cut diamonds locally, and in every sector.

Do you see that same dilemma for the UAE?

Yes, and South African technology companies are helping out here in areas such as aviation.

Is South Africa much of a destination for Emirati tourists?

Not as much as we'd like it to be, but it's growing.

What effect has the Arab Spring had on South African trade and do you feel there are lessons for the region from your country's own struggle for freedom?

I think the biggest lesson is for former enemies to learn to live with each other. We recognised that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. We could not go about destroying each other and our country. Hence we engaged in this difficult reconciliation process led by Archbishop Tutu who was supported by great political leaders. The political stability we have enjoyed since and the on average 3 per cent GDP growth seen in the past 15 years is testimony to the wisdom of this approach.

Why doesn't South Africa do more to push Robert Mugabe from power? Why not cut off the country's electricity supply for example?

Given our experiences as a country we always believe in engaging in dialogue to arrive at peaceful resolution. We are working intensely to ensure that the Zimbabweans arrive at a long-term solution to their country's woes and challenges. Imposing unilateral sanctions from the outside is never the best answer.

There are parallels between your country's Black Empowerment programme and Emiratisation. Do you agree?

Yes, we both have large populations, many young people, a shortage of skills and there have been delegations both ways to see what is happening. We need to get more of the black population into management.

Finally, are you a rugby man?

I don't play, but I love to watch. I think we'll get to the World Cup finals. We might even win.

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