The Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Nigeria, Dr Fahad Al Taffaq, speaks about the steps being taken by his country to strengthen relations with Nigeria and how the UAE is leveraging technology for development in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA
How would you describe the relations between the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria?
To start with, I think the relations between UAE and Nigeria is excellent and one of mutual respect and it is based on the historic relationship that we have between the two countries. We have enjoyed several success stories in our bilateral relations, in the economic and political aspect as well as the humanitarian and other areas. In 2016, we had President Muhammadu Buhari in the UAE on the occasion of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. During that visit, we witnessed the signing of six agreements, some of which are on the judiciary and cooperation with the UAE and the other two is on the economic cooperation, investment and protection of foreign investment and the other one is the avoidance of double taxation which provides the legal infrastructure for business and finance. The visit of President Buhari in April this year was to deliver the opening remarks of the annual investment meeting in Dubai and he had several meetings with investors from the UAE in various sectors like healthcare, utilities and power and so on. He also had excellent deliberations with His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of the UAE Armed Forces and the deputy Commander-in-Chief. The discussions were very fruitful, they discussed many areas of potential cooperation like climate change, security and political cooperation. Dubai health authorities have visited Nigeria to explore medical tourism and cooperation. We had also Dubai Export in December 2018, when they had more than 22 business owners from the UAE who were keen to establish business relations with Nigeria. We are very proud that one of the companies in food processing has partnered with a Nigerian company in Lagos and they have already established their presence in Lagos to move forward with the discussion they had in December. We also had the Akwaba Tourism group which visited Nigeria in September this year.
Why do you think Dubai is one of Nigerians’ top tourist destination?
I think when it comes to the UAE as a whole, you would be surprised that Nigerians in the diaspora are not only in Dubai, we have people working in Fuijarah, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. One of the reasons is, of course, the diverse and welcoming nature of the UAE and our attitude towards all nationalities. Today, we are proud to have more than 200 nationalities living in and calling the UAE their second home and of course, a big proportion is from Nigeria. The reason is the infrastructure and services as well as the business opportunities there. Today, Dubai is a hub that gives you access to the Far East and Europe, and if you look at Far East Asia, India, China, it is a huge market that enables people to do their business in a seamless manner. Another attractiveness of Dubai is the infrastructure, of course, the atmosphere and the living conditions of the city. The opportunity also to explore not only the UAE culture but the cultures of other people. I have heard some of my colleagues in Nigeria who told me that they went to Dubai and arrived at the passport control and finished within five or 10 minutes and the beauty of it is that they didn’t get asked ’where do you come from or what is your religion.’ We don’t have any issues with that. On the contrary, the UAE leadership has declared this year as the year of tolerance to show human fraternity, to embrace each other regardless of where you are from or what religion you practice. We treat people as humans and accept people for what they are regardless of their beliefs and backgrounds and this year commemorates this essence, the core value of the United Arab Emirates.
Your neighbour, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to tourists and entertainers. Do you think it is trying to copy UAE?
I think the Saudi leadership has brought a lot of momentum and value to move forward Saudi Arabia and reinforce the weight of Saudi Arabia in the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been working hand in hand to synergise and a strategic relationship has been established which explores the value-adding that one country can bring to the other. Saudi Arabia and the UAE today enjoy more than an excellent relationship. We are strategising together, we are synergising on the political, economic and humanitarian fronts. I think the value that has been put in place by the leadership of Saudi Arabia is commendable and we at the UAE are in support and will support the government of Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy and to reinforce its position as a regional weight in the Middle East.
Can you tell us how much you generate from tourism annually?
Tourism is an important component of the economy of UAE and more than five per cent of our GDP is from tourism. Dubai is the number one destination point. Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are also investing heavily in tourism and also in hospitality and how to also diversify their economies but Dubai has been a role model in tourism not only in the region but in the world. More than 15 million tourists were received in Dubai in 2018 and we expect more than 25 million next year in Expo 2020 which is an opportunity to witness the cultural diversity of the UAE and also see the alliance between music, arts, culture as well as Artificial Intelligence and how humanity has advanced in the region. The UAE is looking forward to welcoming the world to Expo 2020.
Has Nigeria requested information on its citizens with properties in UAE for purposes of taxation?
The Mutual Legal Agreement has two types: One is the mutual legal agreement on civil matters, the second is the mutual legal agreement on criminal matters and of course, the cooperation between the Ministry of Justice of the UAE and the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria has been commendable. The requests that are made from Nigeria to the UAE should have certain preliminary import and documentation for the UAE side also to look at it from the legal perspective. We have had several cases over the past few years and those cases are already in the court of law and the requests when they come have to come from the court of law. The case should be in the court before the legal assistance agreement can come in. The UAE is committed to the agreements that we signed with Nigeria and we remain in cooperation with Nigeria.
How many repatriation requests has the Federal Government made in respect of Nigerians living in UAE?
I don’t have the statistics because usually, many of these requests were handled by my colleagues in Abu Dhabi.
It appears UAE has big plans for the deployment of AI. Can you tell us about it?
One of our achievements is in space exploration in collaboration with France and Russia. We had our astronaut, Engineer Hazzaa Al Mansoori, the first UAE national to visit the international space station who has made history for the UAE. This, of course, is the dreams of our founding father when he discussed this in his time to plan for the UAE nationals to be in space. Today, we are moving forward in our space exploration programme and we have several initiatives to have space exploration in the future. We have also tapped into the Artificial Intelligence, we established a full-fledged ministry, we have a minister of state in charge of Artificial Intelligence who has put together the UAE Artificial Intelligence strategy on how to leap forward in the Artificial Intelligence sector. The UAE is very ambitious in its plans, it is very serious, it is very committed and our government aims to be the government of the future.
What aspect of UAE national life do you plan to impact with AI and technology?
I think quality of living is one of the key areas; automation of government services, achieving excellence in providing services to the nationals and residents of the UAE, using artificial intelligence to improve the economic aspect. Today, we are using technologies in our ports in the UAE and at our airports in order to provide services to our visitors and to the business community and to big companies. Our leaders have placed human development as a top agenda as a government policy.
What is your government doing to curb human trafficking and prostitution in the UAE?
As you may be aware, the UAE has a very sophisticated security measure in place in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and all over the emirates, it is very hard for anybody to commit a crime without being caught. And many of these criminals are caught within minutes or hours and almost all visitors to the UAE understand this very well. We are aware of negative criminal practices, but the UAE has been implementing measures through its security forces and the police to ensure that the UAE is a safe haven for everyone to live in. We have implemented sophisticated security systems which can identify people with records through our visa centre here in Abuja. Before we issue a visa, we know the person very well through his biometrics and all of these measures. The ports and airports have similar technologies in place to identify criminals and not to allow them in the UAE if they have any court order for them to be deported. You mentioned about prostitution. This came to my attention last year when I realised is that the major issue of prostitution was not in Dubai, but here in Nigeria. Most of the people who are running this network, unfortunately, are coming from here. We hope that through the cooperation of our paramilitary, our police and intelligence forces, we can put an end to these practices between UAE and Nigeria because the UAE will always fight these kinds of practices not only in the UAE but also we are doing humanitarian work all over the world to empower women and the girl-child and adolescents and provide them education and prevent their being used for prostitution. We hope we can work together to put an end to these practices.
What specific measures are you taking against irregular migrants?
Our immigration service has put together some measures to tackle illegal migrants and people who over-stayed from the roots. The root is the travel agents, there have been very strict measures given to travel agents in the UAE and also in Nigeria. If a person over-stays, it is all automated, we can see it in the system that certain people have entered and have over-stayed. We can relate the people with their travel agents and ultimately, if these things continued, the travel agents would be facing consequences, including banning the travel agent from issuing UAE visas. There are many internal measures we are implementing in the UAE to minimise human trafficking.
Why do you have to hold a travel agent responsible for a visitor’s misconduct?
Because there are certain checks and balances a travel agent has to observe before issuing a visa. We have different categories of visas; some people apply as tourists, whereas, they are not tourists, they go there for something else. So, the travel agent has to make sure the visa applicant is not a job seeker because if he is a job seeker, he has to apply for a work visa and a work visa has a totally different process. He would have to come to our visa centre to do some biometrics, interviews and so on. Before he goes to the UAE, you have to check many things, there are a lot of checks and balances to be done.