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PARIS: On Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, Hend Al-Otaiba presented her credentials to French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris as the first-ever female ambassador of the UAE to France. Today, she shares with Arab News en Francais an experience she describes as “intense, full of fruitful meetings, events, visits, and projects.”
Francophone and expert in strategic communications, Al-Otaiba speaks about the recent state visit of UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to France and discusses the strong links that unite the two countries in the fields of energy, culture, and business.
Her flagship initiative during the past year has been the organization of the Majlons — a series of discussions and debates bringing together French and Emirati experts. She shares the details of the Majlons, a concept that combines Majlis of the Gulf and the salons of Enlightenment in France.
On a more personal note, the envoy reveals her favorite French discoveries and her experiences as an Emirati woman and mother living in France, a country where she feels “at home.”
Q. UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was on a state visit to France in July, the first one at such a level since 1991. Why was the visit that important and how do you assess its outcome?
The president’s state visit to France was an important milestone in the deep and longstanding relationship between the UAE and France, continuing the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed’s first presidential visit to France in 1975. It was a highly productive visit, focused on strengthening partnerships and joint investments touching on both the public and private sectors.
Many important issues were raised in discussions, with 10 memoranda of understanding developed covering education, security, culture, and sustainability. The conversations looked to the future, with commitments to innovation in areas such as space exploration and health.
Energy and the future of energy security was a major topic throughout the visit, with a number of valuable discussions looking forward to objectives ahead of COP28 (UN climate change conference) in the UAE next year.
The launch of the UAE-France Business Council, bringing together 18 French and Emirati business leaders to innovate in energy, transport, and investment, is an opportunity to collaborate further.
The UAE and France place particular emphasis on their cultural partnership and in July, Noura Al-Kaabi, the UAE minister of culture and youth, and Rima Abdul Malak, the French minister of culture met to discuss the strong cultural relationship between France and the UAE, reinforcing the partnership built on trust, openness, and dialogue.
Q. Energy was one of the main highlights of the visit, but we also know that diesel is not included into the range of oil products supplied by the UAE to France. Any changes to expect regarding this after the visit?
The sustainability of our future energy is a major shared priority. During the visit, the Comprehensive Strategic Energy Partnership was signed to acknowledge that both countries will focus on improving energy security and climate action, while reducing carbon emissions, ahead of COP28 in the UAE.
A memorandum of understanding on climate action was developed between the office of the UAE special envoy for climate change and the French government.
And it’s also very positive that during the state visit, TotalEnergies and ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.) signed a major deal which includes the provision of diesel fuel by the UAE. This agreement is now being rolled out.
We will continue to work together closely to ensure energy security across a range of areas and technologies.
Q. Post-oil economy is becoming a priority for both France and the UAE: How can your country benefit from the French experience in terms of energy transition to a non-oil economy?
We are constantly learning from each other, partnering to build technologies and systems that will benefit both our countries and others around the globe.
The UAE and France have many strong partnerships focused on energy transition. The Emerge partnership between the UAE’s Masdar (future energy company) and France’s EDF (multinational electric utility firm) looks to the future of solar technology, and they are jointly taking on large projects.
The strategic partnership between ADNOC and TotalEnergies will enable us to explore new opportunities for innovation and growth across the energy value chain. This relationship and many others highlight our commitment to both government partnerships and private-sector collaboration in tackling global energy challenges.
As part of Expo 2020, the UAE worked with Siemens Energy to start the green hydrogen project to explore options for sustainable production of hydrogen. France has committed to working with the UAE on developing hydrogen technology, with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. and EDF signing a 2021 memorandum of understanding to further research and development in this area.
Q. France is today the third-biggest investor in the UAE, how does this translate in different sectors?
France and the UAE benefit from productive investment relationships across numerous sectors. France has a significant presence in the UAE, including in energy, water, and hospitality. The UAE is home to the largest number of French companies in the Middle East, which collectively employ more than 30,000 people.
An important area of partnership is marine transport, where France’s CMA CGM (container transportation and shipping company) has invested in Abu Dhabi Ports to establish a new terminal, which will be a state-of-the-art addition to the growing port.
There is significant collaboration in technology and innovation, with Dubai being named a certified French Tech Hub since 2016, resulting in annual awards to impressive startups. This year, the UAE has launched NextGenFDI to attract further companies and talent, supporting them to launch and scale within the UAE. We expect this to be an exciting opportunity for companies in France and worldwide.


UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was on a state visit to France in July. (Supplied)

Q. What have been the learnings from the Majlon project experience, this series of events at the embassy, and how does it achieve the objective of strengthening synergies between the two countries?
The embassy’s Majlons, a series of expert-led discussions and debates, draw on traditions from both the UAE and France – the community information-sharing majlis of the Gulf, and the enlightenment-era salon discussions of France.
For example, the interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence Majlon focused on the importance of open discussion, with religious representatives coming together to share ideas.
The Majlon series allows true openness and connection between people of different backgrounds and experience. It is a unique opportunity for the people of the UAE and France to learn more about each other’s rich heritage and culture.
Q. How do you see Majlon’s future and are there any future Majlon events that you can announce now?
The Majlon series has been an excellent opportunity to deepen the relationship between the people of the UAE and France, providing participants with the chance to learn more about a range of topics and aspects of our two cultures. The series is a platform for development of initiatives by French and UAE partners, an opportunity to build and seal future partnerships, and to develop projects in various fields.
The future for the Majlon series is bright. Future events will tackle themes such as culture, media, youth, education, and investment opportunities between France and the UAE. We look forward to sharing more information about future events in due course.


Al-Otaiba shared in an interview with Arab News her favorite French discoveries and her experiences as an Emirati woman and mother living in France. (Supplied)

Q. What are the main monuments and events you have visited in France? By which ones have you been the most impressed, and why?
It has been a pleasure to live in France this past year and get to know the country and its culture better. It was very special to be in France for the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14 – it is a magnificent celebration and is a powerful political, historical, and symbolic event in France.
I have had the opportunity to visit many of the beautiful landmarks, monuments, and events that are features of French heritage. Some recent stand-out experiences include my visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, where I saw a strong commitment to arts, culture, and history. Created by Gehry Partners and open since 2014, it is a remarkable place for dialogue and reflection. With a strong emphasis on accessibility to art nationally and internationally, so many people can experience their exhibits, collections, and events.
Another highlight was my wonderful visit to Chateau de Chantilly, home to centuries of history and a hub of French cultural heritage. From the house to the garden and the great stables, we could experience so many pieces of French history.
I also enjoyed my visit to the south of France, in particular the beauty of the paysage. With gorgeous views of nature, architecture, not to mention the French cuisine, it was an enormous pleasure to travel and enjoy the tranquility.
Closer to Paris, I love to visit Fontainebleau, with walks to see the wildlife in Fontainebleau Forest and to appreciate the history of the royal Chateau de Fontainebleau. While there, it is wonderful to visit the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Theater, carefully restored to its former glory and an example of the French commitment to history and heritage.
Q. With the Louvre and the Sorbonne, France has today a strong cultural presence in the UAE. What about the UAE culture in France? Any plans?
There are strong cultural ties between France and the UAE, present in both countries, and there are always projects that are furthering this connection. This has proven invaluable for both Emiratis and the French.
We can see growing awareness and use of the Arabic language in France, as illustrated by the recent agreement between Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) and the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Center to cooperate on an Arabic language certificate. This follows similar changes in the UAE to support the teaching of French, with the introduction of French as the third compulsory language in public schools, and the inauguration of a French language radio network.
The Sheikh Zayed center at the Louvre Museum pays tribute to the UAE’s founding father and brings the cultural relationship between the two countries into the heart of Paris.
Other spaces including the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theater further represent the UAE’s commitment to being a part of French restoration and the protection of its heritage. We saw this on show again when six Emirati artists represented the UAE at the Revelations International Biennial in Paris.
We look forward to future opportunities to bring the art, history, and culture of the UAE to the Hexagon.
Q. The Arab world, Islam, and Arab communities are today at the heart of the internal French social-political debate. As an Arab ambassador, are there any specific steps you intend to take to forge better relations between the Arab world (and communities) and France?
Coming from the UAE, I am fortunate to be able to tell stories of our heritage and participate in cross-cultural meetings, allowing others to glimpse the openness and constant advancement happening within the UAE.
There are still misconceptions internationally about life in the UAE, including around the roles of women. One of my objectives for people in France and around the world is to see how many bright, strong women are in leadership positions in the UAE – both in the public and private sectors.
In our government, the participation of women is already very high as women make up 66 percent of the UAE public sector workforce and 50 percent of the Federal National Council’s seats. It is important for people to know that, for these and many other reasons, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 18th globally in the UN Development Program’s 2020 Gender Equality Index.
We will continue to build cultural partnerships – allowing residents of both countries to visit and explore each other’s stories, history, art, and architecture.
The Majlon series has been an excellent opportunity to share ideas for the future, while our newly forged business partnerships have been an opportunity for different sectors to learn from each other and create lasting ties.


Al-Otaiba said the Majlon series allows true openness and connection between people of different backgrounds and experience. (Supplied)

Q. How is life in France as an Emirati woman and mother? How is it different from life in the Emirates?
Being in France is a great opportunity for my family to experience a new culture and new ways of life, and it offers us all the chance to explore and learn. Like the UAE, France offers large cities filled with history, beautiful countryside landscapes, and strong international ties.
Although there are differences such as language, history, and climate, there are many similarities including commitment to cultural heritage, openness to discussion, and a willingness to learn from others that make France feel very familiar. I feel lucky to be able to call both countries home.
Q. After spending one year in France, what does this country mean to you today and how would you describe your interaction with the Emirati diaspora?
France is a special and important place to me, with a rich history and many shared values with my homeland. I have enjoyed getting to know the people and places of France, learning about what similarities connect France and the UAE and understanding how we can benefit from our cultural and geographical differences.
It is wonderful to meet with Emirati students and professionals who have travelled and built lives in France. Working in a variety of sectors, Emiratis living in France are both ambassadors of our culture and bring the history, heritage, and values of France back to the UAE. Of particular note are our doctors and frontline workers who worked tirelessly in France throughout the coronavirus pandemic – we are very proud of their contribution. I look forward to future opportunities to speak and meet with Emiratis living in France.
Q. Women are mostly still under-represented in many fields in many Arab countries, how long do you think is the road toward a confirmation of the real leading role of women?
The empowerment of women is a key issue for me. It is an exciting time in many sectors, including for UAE diplomacy where an impressive generation of female leaders have emerged. Women are part of creating our future and embody our country’s values of openness, tolerance, and cooperation.
I am extremely proud of our government for championing and empowering women, recognizing the value of their passion, skills, and education. Like many of my peers, I am committed to supporting the new generation, providing advice, opportunities for mentorship, and support networks.
* This interview was originally published in French on Arab News en Francais
DUBAI: Protests have spread to almost all of Iran’s 31 provinces and urban cities since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. On Sept. 13, Amini was arrested by a morality police (Gasht-e Ershad) patrol in a Tehran metro station, allegedly for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
She was hospitalized after the arrest, fell into a coma and died three days later. Iranian authorities maintain that she died of a heart attack. Her family says thart she had no pre-existing heart conditions.
Her death has sparked outrage in a country seething with anger over a long list of grievances and a wide range of socio-economic concerns.
Iranian women, fed up with the morality police’s heavy-handed approach, have been posting videos of themselves online cutting locks of their hair in support of Amini. Protesters who have taken to the streets have been chanting “Death to the moral police” and “Women, life, freedom.”
In acts of defiance, female demonstrators can be seen taking off their headscarves, burning them and dancing in the streets. State police have been cracking down on the protesters by attacking them with tear gas while volunteers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been beating them. At least 41 people have died so far.
“The Internet in Tehran has been cut off. I have not been able to reach family members, but every now and then they are able to get a message through,” an Iranian man who fled to the US during the days of the Islamic Revolution, told Arab News.
Mehdi, who did not want to give his full name, added: “We are hopeful that the government will offer concessions this time. It has been the biggest demonstration since the revolution. We take pride in what is happening in Iran.”
Writing in The Washington Post, Karim Sajdadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the protests against the killing of Amin as “led by the nation’s granddaughters against the grandfathers who have ruled their country for over four decades.”
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Sharia laws in the country require women to wear headscarves and loose garb in public. Those who do not abide by the code are fined or jailed.
Iranian authorities’ campaign to make women dress modestly and against the wearing of mandatory clothing “incorrectly” began soon after the revolution, which ended an era of unfettered sartorial freedom for women under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. During the shah’s rule, his wife Farah, who often wore Western clothing, was held up as a model of a modern woman.
By 1981, women were not allowed to show their arms in public. In 1983, Iran’s parliament decided that women who did not cover their hair in public could be punished with 74 lashes. In recent times, it added the punishment of up to 60 days in prison.
Restrictions kept evolving, and the extent of enforcement of the female dress code has varied since 1979, depending on which president was in office. The Gasht-e Ershad was formed to enforce dress codes after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultraconservative mayor of Tehran, became president in 2005.
The restrictions were eased a little under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who was considered a relative moderate. After Rouhani accused the morality police of being aggressive, the head of the force declared in 2017 women violating the modesty code would no longer be arrested.
However, the rule of President Ebrahim Raisi appears to have emboldened the morality police once again. In August, Raisi signed a decree for stricter enforcement of rules that require women to wear hijabs at all times in public.
In his speech at the UN General Assembly last week, Raisi tried to deflect blame for the protests in Iran by pointing to Canada’s treatment of indigenous people and accused the West of applying double standards when it comes to human rights.
Raisi’s government, meanwhile, is seeking some form of guarantee whereby the lifting of severe sanctions and resumed business activities by Western firms cannot be disrupted if a future US president rescinds the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranian officials also dispute the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about illicit nuclear material found at three sites and want the IAEA’s investigation to close.
Protests in Iran are not new. In 2009, the Green Movement held protests over election results believed to be fraudulent. In 2019, there were demonstrations over the spike in fuel prices and deteriorating standard of living conditions and basic needs.
This year’s protests are different in that they are feminist in nature. Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of United for Iran, a human rights NGO, said it is unprecedented for the country to see women taking off their hijabs en masse, burning police cars and tearing down pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the country’s supreme leader).
It is also unprecedented to see men chant “We’ll support our sisters and women, life, liberty.”
“Through social media, mobile apps, blogs and websites, Iranian women are actively participating in public discourse and exercising their civil rights,” Mahmoudi said. “Luckily for the growing women’s rights movements, the patriarchal and misogynistic government has not yet figured out how to completely censor and control the Internet.”
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian political activist who has been living in exile in America since 2009, said that she has been receiving many messages from women in Iran. They have been sharing with her their frustrations, videos of the protests, and their goodbyes to their parents, which they believe might be for the last time.
Saying that she can feel their anger through their messages, Alinejad said the hijab is a way for the government to control women and therefore society, adding that “their hair and their identity have been taken hostage.”
Scores of Iranian male celebrities have also voiced their support of the protests and women. Toomaj Salehi, a dissident rapper who was arrested earlier this year because of his lyrics on regime change and social and political issues, posted a video of himself walking through the streets saying: “My tears don’t dry, it’s blood, it’s anger. The end is near, history repeats itself. Be afraid of us, pull back, know that you are done.”
For its part, the movie industry released a statement on Saturday calling on the military to drop their weapons and “return to the arms of the nation.”
A number of famous actresses have taken off their hijab in support of the movement and the protests. Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, Iran’s culture minister, said that actresses who voiced their support online and removed their hijabs can no longer pursue their careers.
In a tweet on Saturday, Sajdadpour said: “To understand Iran’s protests it’s striking to juxtapose images of the young, modern women killed in Iran over the last week (Mahsa Amini, Ghazale Chelavi, Hanane Kia, Mahsa Mogoi) with the images of the country’s ruling elite, virtually all deeply traditional, geriatric men.”
Iranian authorities have shut down mobile Internet connections, disrupting WhatsApp and Instagram services. On Iranian state media, ISNA, Issa Zarepour, minister of communications, justified the act for “national security” and said it was not clear how long the blocks on social media platforms and WhatsApp would continue, as it was being implemented for “security purposes and discussions related to recent events.”
However, Mahsa Alimardani, an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies Iran’s Internet shutdowns and controls, said the authorities are targeting these platforms because they are “lifelines for information and communication that’s keeping the protests alive.”
On Twitter, the hashtag #MahsaAmini in Farsi has exceeded well over 30 million posts.
“Everyone in Iran knows that the authorities will crack down very hard on the protesters and kill them,” Mehdi, the US-based Iranian, told Arab News.
“It’s almost target practice for them. When I look at how the women there are standing up to the ruthless and vicious regime that never shied away from genocide to maintain their power, it gives me goose bumps. It takes a certain courage to do what they are doing.”
Looking forward to the future with hope, he said: “The flame has been ignited and we are not the kind of people who back out.”
CASABLANCA: A Moroccan prisoner of war released as part of an exchange between Moscow and Kyiv said he wanted to draw attention to the “struggle” of Ukraine as he returned home Saturday.
“I’m happy to come home after going through very difficult times,” said Brahim Saadoun, 21, an aeronautical engineering student who had been based in Ukraine since 2019.
“I want to draw attention to the difficult situation in Ukraine and the struggle of its people in this painful time,” he said at his family home, in a working-class district of Casablanca.
Saadoun was freed on Wednesday, one of 10 foreign prisoners of war — including five British and two American citizens — transferred to Saudi Arabia as part of the exchange between Moscow and Kyiv.
Smiling and appearing in good health alongside his mother, Saadoun thanked Saudi Arabia, the Turkish government and the Moroccan people “who stood in solidarity with us.”
His father, Taher Saadoun, said he had “an indescribable feeling of joy,” and also praised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the release.
Brahim “has suffered from the imprisonment but he will recover and get back to his studies,” he said.
Brahim Saadoun was sentenced to death alongside two British men by the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic in early June.
After his trial, the Moroccan government said that Saadoun had been “captured while wearing the uniform of the military of the state of Ukraine, as a member of a Ukrainian naval unit.”
It said he had been “imprisoned by an entity that is recognized by neither the United Nations nor Morocco.”
Rabat has adopted a position of neutrality in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Morocco is keen not to alienate Moscow, a UN Security Council member, on the issue of the disputed status of Western Sahara, a vast stretch of mineral-rich desert which Rabat considers part of its own territory.
BRUSSELS: The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Sunday that Iran’s crackdown on protests is “unjustifiable” and “unacceptable,” as Tehran vowed no leniency against the unrest gripping the country.
A wave of protests has rocked Iran since the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
At least 41 people have died, mostly protesters but including members of the Islamic republic’s security forces, according to an official toll, although human rights groups say the real figure is higher.
In a statement on behalf of the EU, Borrell said: “For the European Union and its member states, the widespread and disproportionate use of force against nonviolent protesters is unjustifiable and unacceptable.”
Moves “to severely restrict Internet access by the relevant Iranian authorities and to block instant messaging platforms is a further cause for concern, as it blatantly violates freedom of expression,” he added.
Amini was arrested on September 13, accused of having breached rules that mandate tightly fitted hijab head coverings as well as ripped jeans and brightly colored clothes.
Iran’s judiciary chief on Sunday “emphasised the need for decisive action without leniency.”
LONDON: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the US have condemned the Houthis’ large scale military reinforcement and all attacks that threaten to derail the truce in Yemen.
The countries, known as the Quad, recently met to discuss the situation in Yemen and also condemned recent Houthi attacks on Taiz and a Houthi military parade that was put on in Hodeidah at the beginning of this month which violated the Hodeidah Agreement.
The Quad welcomed the tangible benefits of the truce in Yemen for the country’s people since it began on April. 2 and the continued implementation of agreed confidence building measures by its government.
The countries welcomed the flow of fuel into Hodeidah Port despite a Houthi order that delayed the established process for clearing ships, and the resumption of flights in and out of Sanaa airport.
They called for the implementation of outstanding measures including the opening by the Houthis of the main roads around Taiz and an agreement on a joint mechanism for the payment of civil servant salaries.
The Quad said it fully supports the efforts of UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg to extend and expand the truce which is due for renewal on Oct. 2, and that all terms of the truce must be fully implemented.
The governments of the four countries also agreed that a permanent ceasefire and a durable political settlement must be the ultimate objectives of the Yemeni political process, under UN auspices, and that such a settlement must be based on the agreed references and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
They reaffirmed their support to Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, stressed the importance of cohesion in the council, and welcomed the council’s commitment to improving basic services and economic stability in the war-torn country.
DUBAI: Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday it summoned Britain’s ambassador to protest what it described as a hostile atmosphere created by London-based Farsi language media outlets. The move comes amid violent unrest in Iran triggered by the death of a young woman in police custody.
The state-run IRNA news agency reported the ministry also summoned Norway’s ambassador to Iran and strongly protested recent remarks by the president of the Norwegian parliament, Masud Gharahkhani.
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody after being detained by Iranian morality police launched unrest across Iran’s provinces and the capital of Tehran.
Protests over Amini’s death have spread across at least 46 cities, towns and villages in Iran. State TV has suggested that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the protests began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities put the toll at least 11, with more than 1,200 demonstrators arrested.
The Foreign Ministry’s website said it summoned Simon Shercliff, the UK’s ambassador to Iran, on Saturday and protested the hosting of critical Farsi-language media outlets. The ministry alleges the news outlets have provoked disturbances and the spread of riots in Iran at the top of their programs.
Iran said it considers the news agencies’ reporting to be interference in Iran’s internal affairs and acts against its sovereignty.
The crisis in Iran began as a public outpouring of anger over the the death of Amini, who was arrested by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf too loosely. The police said she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, but her family has cast doubt on that account.
Amini’s death has sparked sharp condemnation from Western countries and the United Nations.

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