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Sat 13 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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East meets West

HM Ambassador Edward Oakden describes how he plans to build trade relations between Britain and the UAE.

HM Ambassador Edward Oakden describes how he plans to build trade relations between Britain and the UAE and what makes his job so great.

Entering the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi is a little like stepping into a small corner of England. Tea is served in china cups with a plate of biscuits and a British flag and framed photographs of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II decorate the walls.

Despite the tight security, it's all very low key - an atmosphere that belies the powerful influence HM Ambassador Edward Oakden has among the business community in the UAE.

Over the last two years we've had more than 60 very senior visitors to the UAE. You can only waste a senior person's time once, and if you waste it once, you won't see them again.

A major part of his role is to develop trade and economic ties between the UAE and Britain and to encourage his country's business leaders to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities the region offers.

And he says that drumming the message home that now is the time for British business to act on these opportunities is one of the biggest challenges he faces.

"There is already an enormous British commercial presence here, but I think there is always more that can be done," he says.

"Without wanting to drop into clichés, the pace of globalisation and the pace of change in this region are literally phenomenal."

"And British companies need to work hard because their competitors are already working hard to keep up with that change, and to take maximum advantage of the opportunities it offers."

Oakden meets regularly with the rulers of both countries and is involved in high-profile negotiations between British and Emirati business leaders over deals that could shape the future of the UAE.

One of the areas where he sees the highest potential for British companies is in the energy sector - both renewable and nuclear.

He says he has been building links between British interests and Abu Dhabi's Masdar Initiative - relationships that, if successful, could lead to multi-million dollar deals being signed.

"I continue to go back to the UK to explain to British companies what the opportunities are," he says.

"Recently His Royal Highness the Duke of York organised a very high-profile seminar in Buckingham Palace, which brought together well over 100 leading British energy companies with the Masdar team so that they could join up Madar's wish to invest in British technology in the renewable energy area with the desire of those British companies to find the right sort of opportunities for investment.

"In fact, since that event just two weeks ago there have been a number of very promising partnerships that have started to be developed."

On the civil nuclear energy side, he says that he is keen to build business partnerships between British companies and the Abu Dhabi government to discuss opportunities to develop technology that will address the country's looming energy shortages.

He sees particularly strong potential in this area for Rolls Royce.

"We've been glad to support very fervently the aspirations of the Abu Dhabi leadership, and indeed the federal government, to develop a civil nuclear industry to be fully in conformity with international requirements, and that will also serve to meet the urgent energy gap that the country will be facing over the next 10 years," he says.

"We firmly believe, for example, that the UK has got an extremely strong offer to make. For instance, Rolls Royce provides the instrumentation panels for all the civil reactors in France.

"A new division has been set up within Rolls Royce specifically to take forward the opportunities in the civil nuclear industry that are likely to emerge worldwide in the next 20 or 30 years."

Oakden says the only way potential British investors can understand the scale of change and opportunity in the UAE is to visit the country firsthand - and he frequently hosts high-profile visitors to the region, including politicians, business leaders and members of the royal family.

This, he says, is one of the most enjoyable - and most stressful - parts of his job.

"Very often when one has senior visitors to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, they are only here for a couple of hours and one has to make sure that they meet the right people to make the best use of their time. You can only waste a senior person's time once, and if you waste it once, you won't see them again," says Oakden.

"Over the last two years, we've had more than 60 very senior visitors to the UAE, ranging from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at the end of 2006 to HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York many times."

The foreign and commonwealth office

The aim of the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is to promote internationally the interests of the United Kingdom. This, and the FCO's more detailed objectives, are achieved through the work of policy makers in the FCO in London and the work of diplomatic missions overseas.

These missions are known as embassies, except in Commonwealth countries where they are called high commissions. Britain also has delegations accredited to the EU, the UN and other international organisations.

The FCO has some 5,800 UK-based staff, but around 2,400 of these are serving in 221 UK posts overseas. Staff must be prepared to work anywhere in the world, from Abu Dhabi to Zagreb. UK-based staffs are supported in overseas missions by locally engaged staff, who provide essential continuity and knowledge of their countries. The Ambassador is appointed by the Queen to represent Britain in the host country.

The work of Britain's diplomats is wide and various. Political and commercial work forms the basis of most Embassy activity. This involves negotiating, lobbying, analysing and reporting on local developments, while building up links with people and organisations of influence. The aim is to promote understanding of Britain and to foster relations with the host country, and thus advance British interests.

These activities are backed up by a press and public affairs team, and by management staff. Missions also provide consular assistance and passport services to British nationals, and issue entry clearance visas for entering the UK.

The British embassies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai represent Her Majesty's Government in the United Arab Emirates. The embassy in Abu Dhabi is the focus for bilateral relations between Britain and the Federal Government. The embassy in Dubai supports the bilateral relationship, but with a strong focus on developing trade and economic ties between Britain and Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

The visit he has most enjoyed was that of Tony Blair, who he says continues to come to the UAE on a regular basis.

"I think inevitably when your Prime Minister visits, that tends to be a highlight."

"He has now become a regular visitor here."

His Royal Highness the Duke of York brought together well over 100 leading British companies with the Masdar team.

"And of course the other visit that sticks in my mind is that of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

"They had a rapturous reception wherever they went but also enjoyed just being here."

As well as representing and promoting the interests of Western residents and businesses in the UAE, Oakden also has an important role to play in helping to identify investment opportunities for Arab companies and, in particular, sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) in the West.

He plays a key role in spreading the message in the region that investment from Arab-based sovereign wealth funds in the UK is welcome.

"We have always welcomed and continue to welcome investment by sovereign wealth funds into the UK," he states.

"And we've gone to some lengths to explain to all of those funds here that the UK market remains absolutely open to them and welcoming of their investment."

He is keen, though, to emphasise the importance of introducing international regulations to govern the conduct of sovereign wealth funds - work that has been undertaken by the IMF, and which he says will increase the confidence of Western governments in sovereign wealth funds.

"I think it's important that there should be a code of conduct that guides the behaviour of SWFs worldwide.

"We very much welcome the fact that the UAE is leading work with the IMF and others in drawing up such a code of conduct.

"It will remain important that SWFs continue to show that they are ready to take on the sort of commitments discussed in the code of conduct, which broadly speaking will require them to do no more than would be required of domestic investors in most markets."

He has particular praise for the conduct of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), which he says has inspired confidence in the Western world.

"ADIA has made it very clear that it is not a strategic investor that is attempting to take over an energy industry in the UK, for example, and it judges all its investments on their individual commercial merits. We think that's an excellent approach."

While Oakden certainly has an important role to play in representing and promoting British business interests in the UAE, he also represents the interests of the growing community of British residents in the country.

Having been in the UAE now for two years, Oakden says he has seen an increasing trend for British residents to remain in the country on a long-term basis, as well as a huge increase in the number of British tourists visiting.

The same is true for UAE visitors to the UK too, he says, reflecting the strong relationship between the countries.

"I've lost count of the number of people here that have said to me, ‘I came here for two years and here I am 20 years later'," he says.

"The living conditions here are so good and the type of work that people can do is exciting and groundbreaking, and that energises people.

"There is an instinctive understanding between our two countries, which means not just that we have almost a million visitors to the UAE each year but that we have very nearly half a million visitors back in the other direction to the UK.

"In fact London is often called ‘The Eighth Emirate'."

Because of the strong British influence in the UAE, Oakden says he hopes some aspects of British culture will become a part of the country's heritage and can be incorporated into future plans for the city.

He is particularly keen for British cultural institutions to become involved in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island project, which aims to make the emirate a cultural focal point in the Middle East.

"Saadiyat Island is a fantastically exciting project," he says with real enthusiasm.

"And there are enormous opportunities for Britain and other countries. Inevitably there has been a certain amount of focus on a couple of the museums. But I also have confidence that I will be coming back in a few years' time to look at some important British contributions to Saadiyat Island and, indeed, to the wider cultural life of the emirates too."

With around two years left in the UAE before he leaves for his next posting, Oakden says he is keen to continue building these relationships and helping to create a place in the UAE that will be forever England.

"To have the chance to live in a country like this for four years, to have the privilege of regular contact with its leadership and with the people who are driving change here, and then to be some sort of transmission mechanism between leadership in the UK and the leadership here is a fantastic opportunity," he says.


Edward Oakden CMG is married with three daughters and has worked for the Foreign Commonwealth Office since 1981. His first posting was at the British Embassy in Baghdad between 1984 and 1985. Describing this time, he says: "It was a very, very sad city in the middle of a dreadful war with Iran.

"The completely arbitrary terror inspired by the regimes and the secret services dominated society, as did the war, and all personal freedoms were in consequence extremely restricted."

He says that while there have undeniably been many problems as a result of the Second Gulf War, the future is now bright for the country: "While there have certainly been real difficulties following the Second Gulf War, and no one pretends that mistakes haven't been made along the way, the opportunities that now exist in Iraq for people to live the sort of lives they want to live rather than what the regime determines they should live are enormous."

He then went on to work at the British Embassy in Khartoum between 1985 and 1988, before becoming Private Secretary to the British Ambassador in Washington. Between 1992 and 2004 he held various posts within the British Government, including Private Secretary to the Prime Minister between 1995 and 1998, and was deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Madrid.

He spent two years as director for defence and strategic threats and ambassador for counter-terrorism at the Foreign Commonwealth Office before becoming British Ambassador to the UAE in August 2006.

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