UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan has the world's most unique cabinet post. His mission? Dispel stereotypes and build bridges between people of various faiths
“Intolerance stems from our ignorance of each other,” says Sheikh Nahayan Al Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s Minister of Tolerance. “It’s a pity that we try to put one religion over the others.”
Just a few minutes into our conversation at his Friday Majlis, it is clear that he is the right man for the job. And being the UAE’s – and the world’s only – minister of tolerance is no easy feat.
While the country prides itself on being home to over 200 nationalities with various religions and traditions, Sheikh Nahayan must work to maintain that mindset in a time of heightened conflicts, in which millions of people around the world face discrimination, intolerance and even violence.
The UAE, however, does not face these ills. It’s considered the most tolerant of its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) neighbours.
In the 47 years since its independence, it has shaped its economy on the basis that business and opportunity are available to anyone and everyone; that the UAE is a home for all.
And Sheikh Nahayan plans to keep it that way.
“You want to send the message, and keep getting this into people’s minds – especially children’s minds – that tolerance is respect, understanding and having a dialogue to strengthen our bonds,” he says.
It is this message that drives his ministry’s mission in 2019, the ‘Year of Tolerance’, during which he plans to reach out to people of different faiths to “build bridges, dispel stereotypes about each other, and eliminate what is sometimes mistrust and fear,” he says.
For the minister, February’s historic visit of Pope Francis to the UAE could not have come at a better time. It marked the first visit of any head of the Catholic Church in the Arabian Peninsula, setting all eyes on the UAE and bolstering its reputation as a tolerant safe haven.
The Papal Mass in Abu Dhabi was especially significant, drawing more than 170,000 of the country’s Catholic expat community to the internationally televised gathering, where a sizable group of Muslim volunteers helped run the event smoothly and celebrate the occasion with their fellow residents.
The Pope’s visit will be looked back upon as a game-changer, Sheikh Nahayan says, not just for the UAE, but for the wider region, referring to the communities of Yazidis in Iraq or Coptic Christians in Egypt facing harsh realities of intolerance and discrimination.
“Hopefully, this visit of Pope Francis will close this gap, and in fact contribute to the peaceful co-existence, understanding and respect of all religions, not only Christianity and Islam,” he says.
For the soft-spoken minister, the most touching moment of the visit was the sight of Pope Francis standing alongside Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prominent seat of learning. It was a reflection of his most important message, “Dialogue does not mean everyone at the table will agree with one another,” he says.
“Dialogue requires the resolve to be actively involved at the table, with one’s commitments and an open mind. This is the message of tolerance from the UAE to the world.”
And who better to give this message than Sheikh Nahayan, whose work has already begun in the form of 20 projects in the UAE and abroad, with many focusing particularly on education. This, of course, comes as no surprise given the minister’s previous tenures as the UAE’s Minister of Education, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development and Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, as well as the chancellor and chairman of a number of UAE universities. Sheikh Nahayan is right in his element.
Tolerance is respect, understanding and having a dialogue to strengthen our bonds
His plans including the launch of workshops designed to prepare ‘Champions of Tolerance’, educational programmes in private and public schools, initiatives aimed at establishing “tolerance lighthouses” and support towards young authors producing books promoting the values.
Sheikh Nahayan has also been tasked with a comprehensive review of the UAE’s laws to identify intolerance gaps, with legislation playing an important pillar in the change.
But even before taking on his role as Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahayan had a reputation as a ‘people person.’ In his previous government positions, he’d often zip across the country – sometimes aboard a helicopter – to attend as many as 400 events a year.
Frequently, Sheikh Nahayan opens his palace for visitors to attend his Friday Majlis, an Emirati tradition he particularly cherishes.
“The Majlis is an expression of the Arab and Islamic concept of hospitality, getting to know one another and creating a spirit of community solidarity,” he says. “I personally enjoy very much the opportunities my Majlis afford me.”
One way the minister has found a way to express himself is cricket. He has, it turns out, a lifelong love for the sport. Acting as chairman of the UAE Cricket Board, Sheikh Nahayan last year organised the Tolerance Cricket Cup even before the announcement of the Year of Tolerance. The event saw nearly 300 players drawn from the UAE’s labour camps compete. Many came from India and Pakistan, countries that have been at odds for decades.
But Sheikh Nahayan says the Year of Tolerance was not declared in response to current conflicts, events or consequences of intolerance. On the contrary, the theme celebrates beliefs championed by the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
“Sheikh Zayed, in particular, left us an important tolerance legacy. He believed absolutely that recognition and appreciation of others, and the ability to live together with and listen to others, would provide the foundation for a civil, peaceful and prosperous country.”
Just as Sheikh Zayed practiced tolerance across the UAE during his time, families should also practice tolerance in their homes, Sheikh Nahayan believes.
“Families are the basis. Families are the foundation for future generations. Between the family and the school, you mould your future generations. You want them to be good human beings that are global in their thinking, respecting others and understanding that there are many different people in this world. They should respect others as they want to be respected,” he says.
And he believes they will, indeed, respect one another.
“They are optimistic and care for others. The world will be a better place because of them,” he says.
His enthusiasm extends to members of more than 200 nationalities who live and work in the UAE. According to Sheikh Nahayan, they are equal partners in setting up a tolerant world.
“We appreciate them very much… they are our partners in implementing all our initiatives, activities and events. Tolerance requires that we all work together,” he says.
The success of Sheikh Nahayan and the ministry’s is a difficult one to measure. How does one quantify tolerance? According to him, it is the extent to which the people of the UAE embrace one another as equals.
The coming together of Christians and Muslims at the Papal Mass in Abu Dhabi this month is just one example of the UAE’s successes in promoting tolerance.
And while Sheikh Nahayan’s job is undoubtedly unique (he is the world’s only tolerance minister after all), he says he is on a “never-ending” mission: to promote tolerance long after the Year of Tolerance has ended.
“My work as Minister of Tolerance is never-ending, because we must be ever vigilant in fighting intolerance while continuously nurturing and promoting tolerance. But the ministry working alone cannot do this. As I always say, the Ministry of Tolerance is a ministry for all the country’s residents.”
Sheikh Nahayan became Minister of Tolerance in the new UAE cabinet announced in October 2017. He first joined the federal government in 1992 and held a number of positions, including Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Minister of Education and Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development.
He was Chancellor of UAE University from 1983 to 2013, Chancellor of Higher Colleges of Technology from 1983 and President of Zayed University from 1998 to 2013. He studied secondary school at British Millfield School before joining Oxford University’s Magdalen College.
In early February, the UAE’s national tree – the Ghaf – was selected as the official logo of the Year of Tolerance. It will be used by all UAE government, private and media entities for all campaigns, programmes and initiatives launched in 2019.
“Tolerance is a universal value and the Ghaf is our authentic national tree, a source of life and symbol of stability in the middle of the desert,” Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum said in a tweet. “In the Year of Tolerance, we chose the Ghaf as a logo for all of us to live by the principles of tolerance, co-existence and diversity.”