Abu Dhabi, Dec 2011 – His Excellency Michael H. Corbin, Ambassador of the United States of America to the United Arab Emirates spoke exclusively to Javed Malik, Publisher & Editor in Chief of International Diplomat about the long-standing relationship between the United States and the UAE and his personal familiarity and fondness for a region he has spent many years working in. Never one to miss an opportunity to meet people, the US Ambassador reaches out to Emiratis and US communities alike, knowing his role as US Ambassador is “to be a link between our two countries and to think of innovative ways of reaching out to the populations of the countries I serve. I’ve spent a long time serving in the region and I love it here”.
HE Mr Michael H. Corbin arrived in the UAE on July 27th, 2011 and was formally nominated as the US Ambassador by President Barack Obama on May 5th, 2011. He joined the Foreign Service in 1985 and by January 2012, will have served 26 years in various diplomatic assignments around the Middle East. He has served twice in Kuwait, Egypt and Tunisia, and spent some years too in Syria and Iraq.
Such longevity in the region has afforded Mr Corbin advantages, which he modestly admits to, “I do understand and speak some Arabic and I do understand the culture. I think I bring knowledge and a willingness to learn about the Emirates. I see my role as being as engaged as possible in society. I’ve only been here three months and my goal is to get out more”.
Co-operative Relations between UAE and the US:
Since the establishment of the US Embassy in 1972, the relationship between the US and the UAE has always been one of close collaboration. These co-operative ties remain strong today and will continue to grow, according to HE Ambassador Michael Corbin, “I would say in all the areas whether economical, political, military, cultural and educational, we have enormous co-operation and its grown across all the areas. In terms of political co-operation, we have an extremely close co-operative relationship with the leadership of the UAE”.
US Trade Focus:
Already satisfied that the US has sound policies regarding the US-UAE political, military and economic areas, on trade, there remains work to do. Furthering business interests between the US and the UAE is one of Mr Corbin’s primary focuses as an incoming Ambassador, “Business is one of the areas that I am going to prioritise. I think US businesses have been drawn to Abu Dhabi, and to some of the other Northern Emirates because of the atmosphere here, which is so positive, but there hasn’t been so much institutional organization of business relationships. I think that the Embassy and the US Government can usefully serve the purpose of facilitating trade, helping to support organisations such as the American Business Council of Dubai and the Northern Emirates and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) to be voices and connectors for American businesses with Emirati businesses and government”.
Mr Corbin recognises that US trade and business here is a key area of growth, which he hopes to tap into, “There is enormous potential here and it is a hugely evolving area. Just in the time I have been here in June 2011, there were 700 US businesses and companies in various forms, and by November there are 750 – we see enormous change”.
A large number of US companies have established themselves in the UAE due to the open and investor-friendly policies of the UAE, particularly in oil and the energy sectors. However, from both sides, steps are being taken to further enhance economic cooperation between the US and the UAE, as Mr Corbin adds, “In addition to oil and gas – we are focused on other areas because oil and gas are going so well. We have just had a trade mission here led by our under-secretary of Commerce Franscisco Sanchez that focused on transportation and infrastructure”.
In Abu Dhabi, the Etihad Rail programme and the structured airport development plan are proven joint US/UAE initiatives that can be commended for improving infrastructure in the region. Road projects continue to move forward, and there is a great deal of success and co-operation between the two countries, as Mr Corbin notes, “there is so much potential and also in the alternative energy side of the equation. We’re very involved in MASDAR and in projects and joint-ventures in the alternative energy sectors”.
UAE Investment in the US:
Similarly, UAE companies continue to invest in the US and remain ambitious there. One example among many others is the $2 billion AMD Shipping Plant, a huge UAE investment in the Eastern Upstate of New York that has created 6,000 jobs in that area. The news for the future is positive, as Mr Corbin outlines, “There is enormous potential in the US economy and a lot of job creation going on. It is an engine for growth and UAE investment in the US is important to us”.
There are always a string of high-level visitors from all countries to further support bilateral relations between the two countries. “There is a natural coordination of visitors when you have so many shared interests”.
The food industry is one expanding market that Mr Corbin has identified which might come as a surprise to some, “A sector that everyone knows about but they really don’t focus on is food. There is an enormous appetite literally for American brand food products here, whether its potato chips or popcorn. When I talk to merchants and business people in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is enormous growth in the imports of American food projects, both at the bulk level and packaging”.
Small-Medium Enterprise Market:
The US Embassy, remaining focused on bringing in more US business to the UAE hopes to attract smaller firms, “There are a number of large companies here but we need to get the small and medium companies here and that’s one of the areas in the food industries”.
Other areas to be targeted are the healthcare facilities in the UAE. The US have already successfully launched some visionary projects in the UAE, such as the Cleveland Clinic of Abu Dhabi, Dubai Medical City and as Mr Corbin says, they plan to build on these initiatives, “the US has a strong offering of services, equipment and know-how that we think have an enormous potential for co-operation here still”.
US Expatriates in the UAE:
Attracted by work and investment prospects, the US population forms one of the largest Western expatriate communities in the UAE, which is estimated to number up to 15,000 US nationals. Working in numerous sectors across the board, such as IT, Law, Construction, Oil and Gas and Infrastructure, the potential for US business and population numbers to increase here is strong, as Mr Corbin recognises, “the UAE can be rightly proud of establishing a community where businesses want to come and bring their families. There is more that can be done. This is a place that attracts expatriates because of its moderate model. I would say that as the US economy continues to grow and develop, there is enormous potential in many different sectors”.
Mr Corbin’s responsibility is also to expand US participation throughout the UAE and to make the US people better understood here, “I plan to get out and visit each of the Emirates. There is an enormous potential for growth and it is important that we listen”.
Learning more about the UAE is important too and the new US Consulate building in Dubai will serve the Northern Emirates as well as Dubai and consequently, there is a lot of collaboration between all parts of the UAE, but as Mr Corbin suggests, there is more ‘innovative outreach’ to be done. The cultural exchange programme, ‘American Corners’, is one example of this. A music group from New York performed recently and held workshops in Fujairah and Sharjah.
Relations with the Arab World:
The US government has an important task within the Muslim World, with both the UAE and US working together to build a vital understanding of this relationship. As with all issues, the US and UAE remain coordinated on the unfolding situation in countries in the Arab region, such as Yemen, Libya and Tunisia and on the concept of ‘Arab Spring’. Mr Corbin too is keen to stress the importance of remembering that these countries remain different, as he highlights, “I’m not so keen on the term ‘Arab Spring’ because every country is different. For example, Libya is next door to Tunisia and you couldn’t find two countries that are more different in every way. It is very important that we understand the differences between these countries and it requires knowledge of the region to be able to talk. We share the UAE desire to have moderate positive policies flourish in this region”.
The Ambassador’s key point is to understand and respect the transitions that are going on in every country. He mentions too the real current that’s been present in the Arab world for some time and the tide of change going on today. The message is that there is a continuous desire from the US and the UAE to support stability and prosperity in the region, as Mr Ambassador Corbin conveys, “My government is committed to supporting a transition to economic prosperity, to stability, to success in this critical region of the world. I think our policies demonstrate commitment and we’ll keep working towards that”.
Emirati students are travelling to the US in record numbers from the UAE. In 2011, this figure increased by 35% as various US educational and medical institutions continue to cooperate with their UAE partners. Culturally and educationally the US Embassy focuses on bringing Emirati students to the US to study and institutions, such as New York University in Abu Dhabi organize exchange programmes. These to give Emirati citizens enriching academic, professional, and personal experiences in the United States, and provide them with a chance to exchange ideas with their American colleagues. Mr Corbin points out that there are always plans to expand, “My team’s job is to encourage more Emirati students to go to the US. We have short-and long-term programmes and its very important of build those links. We are doing everything possible to increase the amount of Emirati students going to the US and the main thing is to facilitate the visa process and make that easier”.
UAE’s Phenomenal Pace of Change:
Mindful of the recent UAE’s 40th National Day celebrations, Mr Corbin praises the UAE on its unprecedented rate of progress and development over the last four decades. Remarking on this milestone, his message is undeniably positive, “Congratulations on 40 years of progress. The US is honoured to be a part of this progress as all of the different sectors from the US have contributed to what has been a very important and dynamic vision that this country has led with. It’s a great testament to the success of this country that the 40th anniversary can be such an occasion for celebration”.
The future of the UAE too from a US perspective is equally positive, “I think the UAE has managed its growth and continues to manage its growth. It is looking very carefully at its 2030 plan of what to do for future generations, what to do for its expat community, how to manage its oil resources in a way that will grow the other parts of its economy. Its taking advantage of its trends, taking advantage of the central location it has and the population it has engaged in – in building this country but is sending out a positive message for this region”.
UAE–US Business Council:
Private sector cooperation is key towards building a strong relationship between both countries, and Mr Corbin regards the UAE-US Business Council as playing a role in this context, “The US-UAE business Council is an extremely vibrant and successful tool that helps to bring our two countries together and it is a model for bilateral business partnerships”.
The US Embassy is intrinsically linked to the American Business Council of Dubai and the Northern Emirates, supports Mubadala to facilitate the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy, and of course, AmCham. These are the organisations here that represent US business. They also work closely with the UAE-US Business Council and their US counterparts in Washington, looking continuously to expand those private sector relationships.
Art and Cycling:
When Mr Corbin is not officially working, his passion is for cycling, something he has done since he was just 6 years old. “I enjoy cycling and it is a great way of meeting people and of seeing the country”.
Mr Corbin also has a love of art and is excited about the evolving art scene in the UAE and to Art Dubai (in March 2012). “I’m very interested in art in this part of the world and I’ve been going to Dubai to art galleries to see what is going on. The UAE is somewhat rare in having such a focus on new creative ways of presenting art”.
As well as Mr Corbin’s own interest in cycling, he also supports ‘sport diplomacy acknowledging that sport connects people and brings them together. “I look for every opportunity to support sport diplomacy, for example a female Emirati team of soccer players recently went to the US which was a great initiative of the UAE Embassy in Washington. It is also important in our society to focus on health and fitness”.
So, returning to his love of cycling, this seems the ideal past time for the sociable US Ambassador, who can combine his love of exploring the country and culture, of the UAE, to meeting people. “I plan to cycle around the country, meeting people and talking to people”.
For further information about the US Embassy, please visit www.abudhabi.usembassy.gov
Exclusive Interview by:
Javed Malik, Editor in Chief International Diplomat Magazine
& Lisa Crowther, Deputy Editor.