ABU DHABI // As the UAE strives to become a bigger regional player and the only Arab country with western-backed nuclear energy it has reached out to Europe, Latin America and even into the Pacific in an effort to bolster its diplomatic relations around the world.
The past year has witnessed a slew of diplomatic activities led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with visits to more than 90 countries in the first six months of 2009 alone. Most of the visits were part of the UAE's efforts to garner support for its June bid to host the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) headquarters in Abu Dhabi. But Sheikh Abdullah made it clear after the capital's Irena success that these new relations with other countries would be followed up in order to "enhance our relationship with them in other levels".
In November, the nation signed a pact with Portugal to exchange diplomatic missions. And in May, Sheikh Abdullah and his Portuguese counterpart, Luis Amado, signed a declaration to open embassies for both countries in Abu Dhabi and Lisbon. Diplomatic observers have said the number of overseas visits by Sheikh Abdullah and other officials this year, whether in the run-up to the Irena contest or afterwards, was perhaps unprecedented in the history of Arab diplomacy.
These visits have resulted in newly forged diplomatic ties and brought existing relationships to new levels with several countries. For example, the UAE established diplomatic ties with East Timor in November. In October, ties were created at the ambassadorial level with Haiti, Liechtenstein and the Pacific island of Palau. And earlier this year, diplomatic ties were struck with Liberia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
In May, the UAE signed an agreement with France designed to allow Emirati diplomats to be stationed in French embassies in countries where the Emirates have no diplomatic mission. France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has said they could start with French embassies in Africa. A diplomatic source said yesterday that the first of these could be in place within two months. He said details were still being worked out, but once the first diplomat is posted it will take much less time to send others.
"It will start with a limited number and extend according to the need of both parties." Earlier this week, the last diplomatic episode of 2009 was concluded with the visit of the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, to Abu Dhabi. A visit coinciding with the capital's decision to hire a consortium of Korean firms to build four nuclear reactors. Khaldoun al Mubarak, chairman of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), stressed that the nuclear deal would push the relationship between the two countries well into the future. "The nature of this project will require a partnership that endures for nearly 100 years," he said in a statement released by ENEC earlier this week.
The UAE has diplomatic missions in at least 69 nations, according to the Foreign Ministry's website, but has diplomatic relations with more than double that number. "Part of it has to do with Irena," said an informed source. "But it has been always the plan to increase representation and to have more direct contact with a wider range of countries." In October, Sheikh Abdullah led a delegation to Latin America, meeting leaders and officials from Mexico, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Colombia and Brazil.
"The visits provide one-on-one conversation where the UAE explains its views on a wide range of regional and international issues in a direct manner," said the source. With stronger diplomatic ties often comes greater co-operation on trade. For example, when the UAE signed a diplomatic declaration with Portugal, the two sides also signed a memorandum of understanding to speed up the conclusion of a double-taxation agreement, as well as another protecting investments.
UAE foreign policy has been focused for years on boosting American and European trade and military ties and supporting the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dr Mohammed bin Huwaidin, a political scientist at the UAE University, said the reach of the country's foreign policy had expanded rapidly following the Iraq war. This expansion has been marked by a desire to ensure stability in the region. The UAE has also helped massively in the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, and last summer forgave nearly US$7 billion (Dh25.69bn) owed by Baghdad.