A discussion at the Sorbonne focuses on the fall of the Berlin Wall and its impact on the Emirates.
The impact of German reunification on the UAE
Travelling to the lecture hall for the Sorbonne's discussion about German reunification and the consequences for the UAE, a series of questions puzzled me. Which German reunification were we talking about? Had they finally reclaimed Alsace and Lorraine? And Austria and Sudetenland? Koenigsberg and all the terrorities christianised by the Deutscher Ritterorden? When will these people and provinces go "heim ins Reich"?
My confusion was also tempered by a certain nervousness. In this newspaper I had the temerity about a year ago, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to point out that Europeans, ever since the days of the Romans, have been vaguely unsettled by the Germans. Suddenly everyone in the country with German blood or who had once eaten a frankfurter was sending me abusive e-mails. A few others suggested I should be chopped up like sauerkraut, with the remainder advising the editor to dispense with my services.
Now I was venturing into German territory again - but first I had to find the place. Fortunately I had been at the Sorbonne in Paris just a few months ago, so as I crossed on to Reem Island I discerned in the distance a dome, lit like a beacon, similar to the one in the Place Pantheon.
It proved harder to reach than to spot, but after a few U-turns and false dawns, probably just like German reunification, I arrived. The pavements around were either half-built or demolished, I wasn't sure which. The Parisian students who rioted in 1968 were famous for their slogan "Sous les pavés, la plage" (under the paving stones the beach) but I'm sure Abu Dhabi's students are much better behaved.
Inside the campus, it is all rather splendid. Trees have been planted, the paving stones are in place and the main dome is as impressive from inside as out. I ran into Professor Jean-Yves de Cara, the charming executive director of Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.
"Has something happened to Alsace?" I asked him. "Are the Germans taking it back?"
"I don't think we can say that," he said. "It is true that they spoke German in Alsace, but Germany was never really unified until the 19th century. We are talking more about the reunification of West Germany and East Germany after the Fall of the Wall. But it is true. There was a fear in France."
French fear was understandable after three major wars, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then the First and Second World Wars. "Our politicians probably over-reacted," said de Cara. "They expressed some fear because of economics and demography. And the power of the deutschmark. But the cost of reunification has hit Germany hard. They have recovered, but they are still provincial, not nationalistic, and not the leaders of Europe."
What about last week in Brussels, I asked, when Angela Merkel was dubbed the "Iron Chancellor"?
"Everything in Europe is grey, and full of nuance," he said rather gnomically. "Europe is not black or white."
Behind us a group was gathering for the keynote speech, due to be given by Zaki Nusseibeh, the deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. I could see that the French might have a view on German reunification, but what did it have to do with the UAE?
Mr Nusseibeh's first few words were miraculous. I had been anticipating that the speech might be in French, something I can just about cope with. But what if it were in German? My German is limited to more or less one phrase: "Da sind der hauser mit schnee bedeckt" which translates as "There are the houses covered in snow". It is amazing how useful a phrase it is, but it could be tricky to drop into a conversation in Abu Dhabi.
"I am planning to speak in English," said Mr Nusseibeh. "It is halfway between French and German."
His speech was delivered in rapid-fire fashion, so it was just as well it was in a language I am familiar with. For him, the UAE's links to Germany only began once the latter had reunified. Before then, the German Democratic Republic was looking either inwards or westwards, while the Federal Republic of Germany was looking either westwards or to Spain for its holidays.
"The reunification of Germany in 1990 created the political conditions that made it possible for the development of a slowly changing foreign-policy perspective in Berlin towards this region," he said.
Even if Germany had been interested in the Gulf, in the past, Britain would have done all it could to block it, partly because of oil supplies but also because it could close the gateway to India. Nevertheless, the UAE was the first Gulf country to establish diplomatic relations with Bonn, with the first German ambassador coming to Abu Dhabi in 1973.
Nusseibeh was certainly much braver than I would have been in his place. For a start, he mentioned the war. OK, it was the Gulf wars, but even so. "Germany's refusal in 2002, however, to participate in the Iraq war, [was] the famous occasion where it found an independent voice to say to the United States 'No'", he said.
German and UAE ties have deepened, probably helped by the latter's love for the former's magnificent driving machines. There is now a German school in Abu Dhabi (the daughter of a friend of mine goes there and she tells him sternly to get his elbows off the table, in German), a partnership between Kitab and the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the much-awaited arrival later in the month of the Berlin Philharmoniker. There are 82 airline flights a week and 23 bilateral agreements between the two countries.
Nusseibeh did not shirk from raising the "spectre of a rising ugly Islamophobia in Germany". Islamophobia requires both sides to come together to combat it, he told me after his speech. "Abu Dhabi is the centre of multiculturalism, reinforcing traditions and heritage."
Most people at the Sorbonne on Monday night agreed that reuniting Germany was a good thing. "It is what the easterners wanted," said Thomas Birringer, regional representative to the Gulf States at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation. "No," he said. "Nobody wanted Alsace back, or Poland for that matter, at least nobody serious."
He said there had been a good spirit of cooperation between everybody involved in the event, and promised no more speeches. "The dinner speech was invented by the British to disguise their food," he said, to widespread sniggers.
We were invited to look at "a comic exhibition by the comic artist Flix" about life in East Germany before the Fall. I didn't like the repetition of "comic" and felt I'd had my fill of German humour, so headed back to Abu Dhabi in search of snow-covered houses, while everybody else went in search of the buffet, which looked to be mainly Lebanese.