H.E. Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh
UAE’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, discusses gender equality, renewable energy, sustainable development, and data- and evidencebased policy making in the region.
For those who do not know very much about the UAE, it’s often surprising to find out how multicultural this country is—both historically and currently. Was exposure to so many cultures in your early life an inspiration, in terms of the professional path you’ve pursued?
It is always hard to identify the building blocks in one’s personality. I grew up at a time that is quite different from that of today, when looking at the environment and challenges facing our country and region in 2017. My early years spent in the UAE certainly had an impact on me. Educated at the British School Al Khubairat until the age of 10, I was surrounded by many nationalities, languages, and religions alongside other Emiratis—and I grew up appreciating Christmas carol singing season and Diwali, alongside Eid al-Adha and the holy month of Ramadan. My best friend at school was from India, and I spent a great deal of time with her and her family. We never asked about people’s religious or ethnic identities, and we always celebrated their festivities and moments of joy and mourned with them in their times of loss. We were all part of a community in the UAE that was blessed by its variety and richness.
In my own home, I grew up hearing the story of how my family, a Muslim family from Jerusalem, has been the steward of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land for over a thousand years. The symbol of religious tolerance and interfaith peace that this historic stewardship represented is remarkable to me today as we watch our region and the world be convulsed by intolerance and hatred. My father moved from Jerusalem to the UAE in 1967 after graduating from Cambridge University in England (where, 40 years later, I followed in his footsteps), and the life he built for himself in Abu Dhabi is a living example to my siblings and me of what can be achieved in the UAE. We are proud to be part of this great nation-building story in our own small way.
As tensions began to rise in the Gulf region, I was sent to boarding school in the United Kingdom at the age of 11. I spent the majority of my formative years there, completing secondary school and university, as well as my postgraduate studies. Naturally, this experience played a role in who I have become and contributed to my mind-set. Living in such a homogeneous environment, combined with the distance away from home, allowed me to develop a deep appreciation for history and for maintaining a connection to both my Arab and Emirati roots and identity. Coming home for the holidays was a bittersweet explosion of different cultures and ideas.
Over the years, I learned to appreciate what is unique about the UAE even more. One aspect I have always valued is that anyone can come to the UAE from the far corners of the globe and help contribute to the dream: building a stable, peaceful, and educated society for all. Many people changed their lives and the destinies of their families by coming and working in the UAE, and in pursuit of their hopes and ambitions, they also contributed to the rich tapestry that has been woven over my lifetime.
When I look at the nihilistic model put forth by terrorists and extremists in the name of religion to youth across the region and the world, it makes me more determined to preserve the country I grew up in and to fight for it every step of the way. I often recall the words of H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who used to say that if the Almighty God, in all his power and wisdom, had wanted all of mankind to be of one religion, then He could have created them that way, and the fact that He didn’t should be enough of a reason for us to cherish our diversity.
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates, was dedicated to the education of women and girls. You are an outspoken proponent of this legacy. What advances pertaining to gender equality, education, and empowerment are you involved with?
H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s commitment to the education and empowerment of women and girls was key to the progress and development of the UAE. Central to this work was his wife, our first lady, H.H. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation, President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Mother of the Nation, who continues to be a tireless advocate promoting education and opportunity for women and girls everywhere. Their vision and ideals continue to guide and inspire our leaders and people.
I often recall the words of H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who used to say that if the Almighty God, in all his power and wisdom, had wanted all of mankind to be of one religion, then He could have created them that way, and the fact that He didn’t should be enough of a reason for us to cherish our diversity.
As a principle enshrined in our foreign policy agenda, I have worked to amplify this legacy of women’s empowerment in my work at the United Nations. The UAE advocates for the rights, empowerment, and protection of women and girls by lobbying for and supporting key language in UN resolutions. This spans from supporting girls’ education everywhere, to empowering girls and young women with disabilities, to recognizing the key role that women and girls play in creating peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable societies. At the end of 2016, the UAE foreign aid strategy for 2017–2021 was formally launched by H.E. Reem Al Hashimi, Minister of State for International Cooperation, under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation—and one of its three pillars is women’s empowerment and protection, which sends a strong signal of our commitment.
With my team, I work to promote the UAE’s core value of empowering women in the multilateral context. In 2017, I will serve as President of the Executive Board of UN Women, the UN entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. In this role, I aim to provide policy guidance to the inner workings of UN Women in support of the entity’s overall mandate. As the first president of the Executive Board from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the second woman ever to serve in this position, I hope to demonstrate the priority role that women play in senior leadership and decision making in the UAE.
In expanding our partnership with UN Women, the UAE recently launched a UN Women Liaison Office in Abu Dhabi—the first of its kind in the Gulf. Through this office, we hope to strengthen UN Women’s partnership with the GCC in support of UN Women’s work in accelerating efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment around the world, and to showcase our successful model as a nation to the UN. In the UAE, women are core partners in building and leading a prosperous society, and that is a success story that we want to share around the world.
Over 50 percent of the world’s population are women and girls, and the UAE has long acknowledged the importance of investing in women to maximize their full potential for our country’s development. Research by the McKinsey Global Institute has demonstrated that global GDP has the potential to rise by 12 trillion USD by 2025 by narrowing the global gender gap in the workplace, particularly if each country were to match the fastest historical rate of progress toward gender parity in its region. In the Middle East and North Africa, this would mean an additional 15 percent GDP increase by 2025, on top of long-term expected growth. The UAE recognizes the potential of women and girls in contributing to the progress and development of the UAE, and the world. We will do all that we can to empower women and girls because it is our national strategy, because it is smart foreign policy, and because it is the cornerstone of a more sustainable global economic model.
At the UN, we therefore leverage our national experience to promote gender parity. We cofounded the Group of Friends for Gender Parity, a group of almost 80 countries seeking to promote gender balance within their own governments at home and within the ranks of the UN. To close the persisting gender gap, the Group of Friends has established a Task Force on Gender Parity. The UAE both leads and provides technical assistance to the Task Force, and advocates for gender parity throughout the UN, and particularly in its senior leadership. In late 2016, we launched an exhibition in New York in partnership with other countries, entitled HERstory: A Celebration of Leading Women in the United Nations, which profiled women “firsts” of the organization and honored their contributions to the UN in the presence of the new UN Secretary- General, António Guterres.
With the onset of the term of the new UN Secretary-General, the UAE and its partners in the Task Force will be producing a policy paper for UN leadership with recommendations to address the UN’s gender gap at an institutional level. Representation matters because the UN must mirror the ideals of the global community— not the reality with all of its geopolitical tensions and gender biases. We need to empower the new Secretary-General to reverse those setbacks because in the 21st century, unlocking the potential of 50 percent of the world is a strategic imperative.
Building on the legacy of the late founder of our nation, H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE therefore maintains its commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment as a key component of its agenda at home and abroad, and as a cornerstone to peace and security. I, along with my extraordinary and dedicated team here in New York, will do my part to continue this work through the United Nations.
In 2015, the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agreement puts forth 17 aspirational goals to all of its 193 member states concerning a broad range of sustainable development issues. How has the UAE responded to this Agenda?
With great enthusiasm! The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals [SDG] are a once-in-a-generation achievement for the UN and the international community. After years of negotiations at the UN, we agreed on a far-reaching, universal development agenda that includes clear goals and targets and addresses social, economic, and environmental aspects of development alike.
Our foreign minister, H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was on the task force that proposed the SDGs, and we contributed to their formation over several years of negotiation, especially by bringing new prominence to areas like gender and energy. We are committed to realizing the Agenda’s promises, and we work closely with our partners at the United Nations to achieve the SDGs both domestically and internationally. One small yet impactful example is an initiative we worked on with UNICEF in translating the goals into a “child-friendly” Arabic version for our children and others around the Arab world so that it becomes part of the educational curriculum. As we translate the SDG framework at the national level, we are aligning it with Vision 2021, our national development framework, and a government committee to drive and monitor implementation has just been established.
Globally, the UAE is one of the top foreign aid donors, and we are working to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs around the world. To this end, the new UAE foreign aid strategy formally links all UAE development activities to the 2030 Agenda. At the UN, we are sharing our experience and are showcasing successful UAE practices. Building on our own national experience, the UAE is committed to fostering partnerships and creating an environment in which the capabilities of the private sector are leveraged for sustainable development.
As the director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Task Force at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you contributed diplomatic efforts to bringing the headquarters of IRENA to Abu Dhabi. From your current vantage point within the UN, where does the UAE stand in terms of development and progress concerning issues of renewable energy and environmental protection vis-à-vis other member states?
The UAE is a leading voice in the promotion of renewable energy and sustainability internationally. When a major hydrocarbon exporter says that renewables are affordable, reliable, and critical for the health of the planet, and that we need to increase global ambitions on climate change, there is a unique credibility to the message. It catches people’s attention, and it indicates that a paradigm shift in development thinking is underway. Of course, it also invites scrutiny. And thus, it matters a lot that we have significant concrete action on the ground to demonstrate that the shift is actually feasible. Winning the campaign to headquarter IRENA in the UAE—against countries that were much more established in the renewable energy space—was a big part of how we see ourselves as a country: ambitious, driven by a clear vision, and a bridge for South-South cooperation with a foot in both the developed and developing worlds.
Last year, we set—and then broke—the world-record low on solar costs in the UAE, showing that solar is now cheaper than any other power source in a huge number of markets. On the federal level, we committed to reach 27 percent clean energy by 2021, and Dubai has recently announced a target of 75 percent clean energy by 2050, the most ambitious in the Middle East. At the UN, we leverage the UAE’s knowledge and experience in the field of renewables and use our convening power to make sure that issues of sustainability remain on top of the international agenda. Renewables make economic sense in developing countries, and we believe that concessional finance can kick-start local industries. We are, therefore, supporting action in a number of countries, approaching almost 1 billion USD of development assistance for renewable energy since 2013. In January 2017, we launched a 50 million USD grant fund for the Caribbean and separately announced 44.5 million USD for projects in four countries. Clean energy for all is not only an energy policy but a foreign policy priority that is part of our holistic approach to development. In terms of environmental protection, we were fortunate that our founders saw themselves as stewards of the land and its resources for succeeding generations. This outlook has translated into the region’s most rigorous environmental regulation, which continues to improve, especially alongside the expansion of environmental education in schools and the preservation of our unique ecosystem and wildlife.
Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi (EAD) is a prime example of this focus on progress. The Agency’s work spans across the Emirates, where they work with the federal government to protect our natural resources—whether it be the water we drink or the air we breathe. It also developed the region’s first real greenhouse gas inventory and established an unprecedented data-collection-and-analysis platform. The Agency’s conservation of wildlife efforts are extensive, ranging from maintaining the homes of rare birds in our wetlands to working with partners in Africa to reintroduce an endangered species of the lynx into its original habitat. I know all of this because EAD does a great job of building awareness and lobbying across all sectors in an effort to preserve our environment for future generations.
You support the drive to increase data-and-evidencebased policy making in the region. How is this process being transformed in the UAE, and what are some of the results of these changes?
At the UN, reliable data collection is being widely discussed as a central means to ensure the monitoring and accountability of our common development agenda, a necessity for driving innovation and supporting evidence-based policy making. It is high time that we harness the power of data for sustainable development. I believe that the UAE has a lot to share in this regard and can contribute to the promotion of international good practices.
There has been a sea change in the way the UAE government generates and analyzes data in the last few years. Today, we are one of the most connected countries in an increasingly wired world, and it only makes sense to start using that data to improve policy making, from issuing Emirates ID cards to designing aid programs. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the UAE ranks fifth globally for mobile phone penetration, and nine in ten people in the UAE use the Internet. This has not only revolutionized the way people and businesses exchange information but also transformed the way in which government works and delivers services in a way that is more direct, tailored, and efficient.
The establishment of the UAE Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority was a milestone in centralizing and professionalizing our data collection, enhancing the UAE’s attractiveness to investors and residents, and institutionalizing policy making that is grounded in reliable data. The Prime Minister’s Office has been leading the government’s efforts to strengthen data-driven policy making across agencies and has elevated the importance of shaping the future of government as a mainstay of our international partnerships and the World Government Summit. The 2017 Summit draws particular attention to the potential of science, technology, and innovation to reform government services. We look forward to working closely with the UN in reflecting how this can support the implementation of the SDGs and address challenges and opportunities going forward.