x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

From freedom fighter to ambassador

South Africa's new ambassador to the UAE has come a long way since the struggle against apartheid forced him to flee his homeland.

South Africa's ambassador, Yacoob Abba Omar.
South Africa's ambassador, Yacoob Abba Omar.

South Africa's new ambassador to the UAE has come a long way since the struggle against apartheid forced him to flee his homeland. Yacoob Abba Omar, 47, was at the sharp end of the African National Congress campaign to overcome forced racial separation and white minority rule. Few would guess from his softly spoken style that he spent five years in exile in the 1980s, undertaking military training in Angola and Mozambique.

He returned to South Africa in 1990, later leading the department that managed the ANC's campaign communications for the country's first post-apartheid election, in 1994. Now the political science and English graduate of the University of Natal in Durban is focused on strengthening ties between his homeland and the UAE. "There are already deep relations between South Africa and the United Arab Emirates," he said. "The embassy's role here is to continue this."

Mr Omar arrived in the UAE after five years as ambassador in Oman, where he set up South Africa's first embassy in that country. "My experience in Oman helped me understand the situation here very well," he said. "Around 90 per cent of our efforts are to further the economic side of things. We are quite happy with the level of trade." Trade between the two nations was worth about Dh5 billion (US$1.3bn) last year and links have strengthened in recent years, as demonstrated by the rapid increase in the number of South African visitors to the region.

"The number of South Africans coming here has shot up in the last five years from around 10,000 or 12,000 in 2003 to around 40,000 in 2007," Mr Omar said. Emirates and Etihad airlines have daily direct services to Johannesburg. South Africa also wants to attract UAE investment and has secured several multibillion-dollar deals. They include Dubai World's US$2 billion purchase of Cape Town waterfront, and property firm Ruwaad's plan to build the Amazulu World theme park in KwaZulu Natal, on the country's north coast.

chamilton@thenational.ae