‘I’ve known a lot of people who were killed’: veteran diplomat Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin on his work on peace efforts in Afghanistan and how he hopes to co-operate with the UAE on happiness
New Danish ambassador wants to boost profile of Danes in the UAE
As Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin sits in the Danish embassy in Abu Dhabi, mere footsteps from the serene Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, his previous life in Afghanistan seems worlds away.
The new Danish ambassador to the UAE worked in Afghanistan for five tumultuous years. During that time he was shot at, bombed and saw rocket attacks on children.
The UAE’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Juma Al Kaabi, and five UAE diplomats died in a bomb attack on Kandahar during Mr Mellbin’s time there.
“I’ve known quite a lot of people who were killed,” he said. “It affects you, seeing screaming children. But unless you have a coping mechanism you cannot work in that environment. If you can’t sleep and start waking up at 4am, then it’s over. You must check out.”
Mr Mellbin, 59, took up his new post in the UAE last Saturday. The country is home to 2,700 Danish residents and almost 250 Danish companies operate here, such as shipping giant Maersk, diabetes care leader Novo Nordisk and water security company Grundfos.
But the Danish community, who mainly work in finance, shipping and business, often fly below the radar. Mr Mellbin is seeking to raise their profile and enhance links across politics, the economy, security, and yes, even happiness.
The UAE and Denmark are small countries with globalised economies, he says. But both are challenged in a world where old alliances that allowed small states to prosper are faltering.
“Will free trade be able to flow as it did?” Mr Mellbin asks. “Will there be trade wars?”
He believes a global realignment is coming, with ideology replaced by shared interests. He points to the increased competition for water resources, something critical for the UAE.
“Water is a limited strategic resource for the UAE so you have to rethink how you make yourself less vulnerable,” Mr Mellbin says.
The Danish embassy was established in 1978 but links stretch back decades. Renowned archaeologists such as Jens Vellev and Karen Frifelt conducted early digs in the country from the 1950s, which shed light on the region’s ancient trade connections to the wider world.
Today, Mr Mellbin believes recent proposals by the UAE to lift requirements for businesses to have a local partner will foster more global connections.
Interest in the Middle East is also growing in Denmark. Islam is now the largest minority religion in the country and more universities are offering Arabic.
“We have some Emirati tourists but we’d like more,” Mr Mellbin says. “We are working with the UAE on that.”
Denmark scores well in happiness charts and the UAE has its own Minster of State for Happiness and Well-being. Mr Mellbin can see future co-operation on this.
Before starting as a diplomat, Mr Mellbin trained as a lawyer and served in Denmark’s Finance Ministry before quickly switching to foreign affairs in 1985. He focused on counter-terrorism and became ambassador to Afghanistan in 2007.
Mr Mellbin then did a stint in Japan before moving back to Afghanistan in 2013 for a four-year post as the EU’s special representative and head of delegation.
In 2016, he helped to mediate the first peace deal in Afghanistan in 20 years between the government and Hezb-e-Islami, the country’s second largest militant group, which was run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the warlord known as the Butcher of Kabul.
Covert meetings were held in hotel lobbies and rarely with the central figures because of the threat from drone attacks. So how did he function while surrounded by so much killing?
“If you sit in a car and think ‘will there be a car bomb?’, then you cannot function,” Mr Mellbin says. “But everyone has an expiry date. You just don’t know when it is.”
US troops are still entrenched in Afghanistan, years after the September 11 attacks, but he welcomes the brief Taliban ceasefire during Eid.
“Peace is possible in Afghanistan. It can be done,” Mr Mellbin says.
Now he is focused on the task at hand. And outside of his demanding brief, he hopes to indulge his passion for photography with his Canon EOS 1D Mark 2.
“I have been well known for pictures from Afghanistan and of cycling,” Mr Mellbin says. “I’m going to take a lot of pictures.”