x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Robust foreign policy relies on a skilled diplomatic corps

The UAE's Foreign Minister is working on many files, with industry and imagination. We hope the the country's diplomats and the officials at home office can keep up with the pace.

Anyone with even a passing interest in foreign policy can scarcely have failed to notice that in recent years the UAE has been adopting a more active role in international affairs.

The country's engagement with Libya has attracted attention, but there is much more besides - involvement in Afghanistan, the far-reaching diplomatic campaign that brought the renewable energy agency Irena to Abu Dhabi and the leading role the UAE has taken in stimulating the first real engagement between the Arab world and the island states of the South Pacific.

It has been a pretty frenetic process, led with skill and aplomb by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who in recent years must certainly be among the most travelled of the world's foreign ministers.

But the process of increasing the UAE's involvement in world affairs is not just a matter of Sheikh Abdullah or Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, criss-crossing the globe.

This development of foreign policy has also meant a staggering growth in the work burden placed upon the whole of the Foreign Ministry. How are diplomats managing as UAE ambassadors in world capitals such as Washington, London, Paris and Moscow, and also in the Ministry here in Abu Dhabi?

It was fascinating to read a speech given in London earlier this month by William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary. Much of it dealt with the way in which he has been seeking, with some success, to restore the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to its former position as one of Britain's key departments of state, a stature that was severely undermined during the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But the speech also included some other comments which have a broader relevance: "The most important responsibility of any foreign secretary," Mr Hague said, "is to make the right judgement about the most important challenges in foreign policy and tirelessly to promote the national interest."

"One of the axioms guiding our foreign policy is that the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline," Mr Hague went on. "We must lift our gaze to the future constantly; so that we do not neglect to put in place the relationships and capabilities we will rely on to remain a prosperous, influential and secure nation in 20 years time when configurations of global power and influence will be very different from [those of] today."

There's an enormous difference between Britain and the UAE, of course, but it seems to me that the remarks quoted above have direct relevance to our Emirates' foreign policy objectives.

Perhaps, too, there are lessons to be learnt from other comments in the speech - on areas where Mr Hague feels that his own ministry has been adversely affected by changes over the last decade. He laments, for example, the reduction of investment in language skills, which has decreased the number of diplomats able to communicate effectively in the languages of the countries to which they are posted. How many of our diplomats are fluent in, for example, Spanish, Russian or Chinese?

Mr Hague also said he regrets the way in which "the pendulum had swung too far in recent years away from policy-making expertise and towards cumbersome bureaucracy", noting that there needs to be excellence both in policy and in management.

He regretted too, the reduction of investment in gaining "geographical and regional knowledge, which is an essential feature of successful foreign relations".

I have no complaints about the way in which the UAE's foreign affairs are being conducted. The efforts being undertaken by Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues should be supported by, and anchored by, the creation of a body of diplomats who will, in the years to come, provide the depth of skills and experience, in languages and much else, to permit today's initiatives to be of consistent benefit in the decades ahead. We need nothing less than that.

 

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's culture and heritage