Filipinos celebrate Philippine Independence Day in Dubai on June 10, 2023.
PHOTO BY JONATHAN YBERA/EXPAT MEDIA
The essence of the task of a diplomat is to build bridges of friendship and understanding between countries and peoples. I found, upon my arrival in January this year, that Filipinos have been successfully undertaking this task long before the first Filipino diplomat ever set foot in the UAE.
I say this as we mark, on August 19, the 49th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the UAE on August 19, 1974. The Philippines’ first diplomatic mission was opened in Abu Dhabi on June 19, 1980 at the Al Ain Palace Hotel before it moved to Janana Building along Electra Street in Khalidiya Area, now the Philippine Embassy is located in Al Mushrif.
Moreover, I would not be surprised to learn that immediately after the Founding Father Sheikh Zayed established the seven emirates in 1971 into the United Arab Emirates we know today, Filipinos were already part of the first group of expatriates that came to the UAE’s desert sands to help build the foundations of the cities of this country. They were among the first architects, builders and engineers to come to the UAE to build the first bridges and buildings of this young nation. Those Filipinos founded and cemented the strong ties between our two countries which have endured to this day.
The work that I and eight previous ambassadors before me have been doing, including countless diplomats these past 48 years, are indeed firmly founded on the strong friendship and solidarity between our Filipino compatriots with Emiratis and fellow expatriates in the UAE. Today, we take great pride in the fact that a million-strong Filipinos reside in the UAE, held in high esteem in the business, medical, construction, creative fields, holding leadership and executive rank, to mid-level down to the humblest positions. In whatever sector they may be in, whichever rank they may hold, they are always held in high regard, respected for their skill and professionalism, having found their place, and success, in the UAE. An example is the way key Dubai-based Filipino designers are widely acknowledged for helping put the UAE in the global fashion map.
I believe that this is made possible because the UAE, under the visionary leadership of Sheikh Zayed, has fostered an inclusive and tolerant society, built on the principle of peaceful coexistence with people of all nations and faiths.
On many occasions, the UAE leadership, led by UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice President, has expressed the UAE’s high regard for Filipinos. Sheikh Mohamed has given the highest honor to Filipino medical frontliners who served in the fight against coronavirus in the UAE, calling them personally, checking on their conditions, and assuring them of his support. Likewise, when I presented my credentials before the Prime Minister, and when I met with Tolerance Minister Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MOHRE) Minister Dr. Abdulrahman Al Awar, and with other high-level officials of the UAE, they repeatedly and unequivocally raised the contributions of the Filipino people to UAE’s economy and social fabric.
This recognition has generated goodwill that has been translated into many forms. One of these manifestations of goodwill is in the way the UAE has provided humanitarian support to the Philippines through the Emirates Red Crescent in many instances. Examples include UAE humanitarian assistance during the onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the eruption of Taal Volcano in 2020, the provision of PPEs and medical aid at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and the 50 RT-PCR machines with testing kits sent last year on August 19, 2022 (on the 49th anniversary of PH-UAE diplomatic relations) which was received in the airport in Manila by myself, my predecessor, the previous Philippine ambassador to the UAE, Hjayceelyn M. Quintana, and the UAE Ambassador to the Philippines and my good friend, Mohammed Obaid Salem Al Qattam Al Zaabi.
On June 12, 2023, a little over two months ago, during the Philippine’s national day celebration, the UAE sent to the Philippines a 50-ton planeload of relief goods, food and medicine for the impending eruption of Mayon volcano.
What is significant about this gesture is that even before the need arose, the UAE already made provisions. The Philippine President, Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., thanked His Highness Sheikh Mohamed in a letter and they also spoke on the phone, further discussing ways forward for the bilateral relations of the Philippines and the UAE. It was also during this phone call that my president accepted Sheikh Mohamed’s invitation to attend COP28 which the UAE is hosting by end of this year.
Underpinning the robust relations between our two countries is indeed the Filipino people’s deep bonds of kinship with Emiratis and all peoples in the UAE, the goodwill generated reaching into the highest levels as exemplified above. This wealth of trust and friendship between our two countries has allowed the Philippines and the UAE to expand and venture into new, previously uncharted areas of cooperation.
On labor, which has long been the primary basis of our strong relations, we have broken new ground in the deployment of workers in 2021 at the 3rd PH-UAE Joint Committee Meeting on Bilateral Labor Cooperation. More recently, I had a meeting with MOHRE where the UAE indicated strongly that it needs more Filipino workers across a wide range of sectors. Likewise, the PH-UAE MOU in Combatting Human Trafficking was signed in September 2019, and the PH-UAE MOU on Consular Cooperation was signed in April 2021, important agreements that ensure mechanisms are in place to protect the rights and welfare of Filipinos in the UAE. On the back of this solid foundation, many Filipinos in the UAE have built on the opportunities given them, and made the transition from employee to entrepreneur, becoming business owners through sheer determination, hard work and faith. I have come across many such success stories and had the privilege of meeting a number of them. Truly remarkable and an inspiration to all.
What will surprise most people is that in the last 15 months alone, we signed three important agreements between our two countries. First is the groundbreaking MOU on Space Cooperation signed in December 2022 between the Philippine Space Agency and the UAE Space Agency. The two space agencies will conduct joint space research and development; exchange of space data for application in climate change, disaster management and emergency response, food security, and agriculture.
Second, on June 28, 2022 we signed an MOU between the Department of Agriculture and the UAE Ministry of Climate Change, Agriculture and Environment where both countries will collaborate on soil science and management, biotechnology, post-harvest, agriculture research and development, agricultural innovation, agriculture technology, irrigation and water resources.
Third, on June 9, 2022, the Philippines and the UAE signed an investment promotion and protection agreement (IPPA) which will boost investment between the countries and pave the way for the Philippines’ enhanced access to the broader Middle Eastern region. On the field of high technology and AI, the Philippines and the UAE are finalizing an MOU that will bolster cooperation in a number of areas including on artificial intelligence. Also being finalized are MOUs on defense, culture and a free trade agreement called the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Truly, these areas of cooperation have expanded in a manner that Filipino diplomats of the early years could only have imagined.
The upcoming visit of President Marcos to the UAE for COP28 further opens opportunities for sustainable development cooperation, and we are hoping that the MOU on Climate Change Cooperation which the Philippines is proposing to the UAE, as well as the Framework Agreement on Renewable Energy, will be signed during this visit. Additionally, we are looking forward to UAE’s investment in renewable energy projects in the Philippines. A major undertaking between the Philippines and the UAE is the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which we hope will also be signed soon, as the bilateral discussions on the Terms of Reference (TOR) is ongoing, a precursor to the negotiations and signing. The UAE looks forward to the UAE’s ambitious plans for COP28 that would present real benefits for countries such as the Philippines, considered among the most vulnerable nations to climate change.
From the foregoing, we see clearly that the path for our two countries’ bilateral relations is on an upward trajectory, evolving now into areas where we see deeper complementarity and mutual benefit. For one, the Philippines, counted as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change, can benefit from the UAE’s expertise and resources, in terms of renewable energy. Likewise, the UAE’s thrust to move towards a knowledge-based economy will need a young workforce adept in science and technology and AI which the Philippines can provide.
At the end of the day, there is one driving force as to why the Philippines and the UAE are working together, this is to forge a partnership that will enable each country to prepare a bright future for the next generation of Filipinos and Emiratis. The one million-strong Filipino community in the UAE comprise of families whose children see the UAE as their home, having been educated here. There is also a growing generation of Filipino-Emiratis who speak in both Filipino and Arabic, love both adobo and khuzi, of course, with generous portions of rice. Within their hearts are the hopes and dreams of both the Philippines and the UAE, and it is for their future that both countries need to work hard for.
On the occasion of the 49th anniversary of the establishment of Philippines-UAE diplomatic relations, as we look forward to the golden anniversary next year, I and on behalf of the Filipino community in the UAE, take this singular opportunity to thank the UAE leadership under UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and UAE Prime Minister and Vice President His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, for recognizing the efforts and contributions of Filipinos towards the growth and development of UAE’s economy and society. It is our hope that moving forward, the partnership between the Philippines and the UAE will grow even deeper and more meaningful as both countries prepare a bright future for the next generation of Filipinos and Emiratis.
Alfonso A. Ver is the Ambassador of the Philippines to the UAE. Ambassador Ver arrived in Abu Dhabi in January 2023 to assume his post after serving as head of the office in the Philippine Department (Ministry) of Foreign Affairs handling bilateral relations with countries of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. He also previously served as the Philippine ambassador to Bahrain, and in various diplomatic posts.
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