“Instead of sending unskilled labourers, it is more worthy and creditable if Sri Lanka could focus on sending semi-skilled, skilled and professionals to the UAE in the fields of health services, IT services, culinary, and engineering,” Sri Lankan Ambassador to UAE Mr Malraj De Silva said in an interview with Lanka Courier.
“As an Ambassador, I have a great challenge on how to attract more investors, business entrepreneurs towards Sri Lanka as each and every movement has been narrowed with COVID-19 restrictions”, he experienced.
In this interview, he talks his role as the Ambassador and prevailing challenges due to the pandemic, Sri Lankan expatriates in UAE, as well as the future plans for the Sri Lanka-UAE bilateral relationship.
Excerpts from the interview;
Tell us about your role as the Sri Lankan Ambassador in the United Arab Emirates.
Nowadays, the role of the diplomat has become more diverse and dynamic with the global challenges as well as the economic focus. Being the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the UAE, while enhancing bilateral political friendly relations between two countries, I am much focused on increasing foreign direct investments towards my country by attracting more investments through well-established business entrepreneurs in UAE.
As soon as I resumed duties a year ago, I personally met with the high level delegation from Chambers in Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, in addition to conducting a virtual meeting with the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately, from time to time our visits with high level delegations to Sri Lanka had to be postponed due to Covid -19 situation in Sri Lanka.
Apart from the above, being an Ambassador to a Middle East country where nearly 350,000 Sri Lankan expatriates are living in UAE, my role as the Ambassador for Sri Lanka has been more vital in terms of labour migration issues, especially during this world pandemic situation due to COVI-19.
During the peak of the pandemic, it was a real change for me to find out ways and means to address numerous quarries, issues that arose from the vulnerable Sri Lankan migrant workers, especially from our unskilled workforce, when they were at risk of losing their jobs. Every day, hundreds of Sri Lankan expatriates were at the doorstep of the Embassy, looking forward to returning to the motherland. Amidst many troubles, our Embassy was the first among the other Sri Lanka Embassies in the Middle East region where the repatriation process was successfully handled. Being the Ambassador to the UAE, I have self-satisfaction, as there is no single matter pending from my side with regard to the repatriation as of today.
Secret of my success is respect and communication. I have opened my office doors to all expatriates where they can meet me to discuss their grievances. Improving communication between expatriates and the Mission, providing respectful dignified services and equal treatment to all expatriates is important. I think I have won the hearts and the minds of our own. Frequently met with the Sri Lankan community associations, business leaders, and restaurant owners professionals to discuss how to improve our services and provide efficient, professional service from the Mission. We started mobile services to far away cities like Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah to provide consular and labour services which saved a tremendous amount of time and money to our expatriates. We are going to commence an automated appointment system for consular division and labour division to provide more efficient professional services to our Lankans.
As per your reading, what is the secret behind the development of the UAE?
I would simply answer your question by saying that the secret behind the development of the UAE is nothing else, that is the leadership. No doubt, UAE’s growth and resilience is attributable to its former leaders and the current leaders. All the leaders are focused on Country first attitude and bring in the world’s best systems to the UAE. Further need to point out the difference of Governance. We have a Democratic system where the public has a strong voice in electing their political leaders and UAE has a completely different system where the leaders have the sovereign power.
My personal view is that the proactive and the visionary leadership of former leaders, especially H.H. Shaikh Zayed Bin Al Nahyan, founder of UAE as well as H.H. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Vice President of UAE and the late ruler of Dubai were the main reason behind the success of the UAE.
The political stability will support a country to continue its development projects without disturbances. If a creative as well as foresight thinker with the strong capacity will have the full power for a longer period, it would ease a country to reach out its development goals. Not only that but also the distribution of power among the subordinate administrative staff while holding them accountable for the outcome is somewhat important as the entire system should have to have one vision.
Further UAE is a country majority of the population is expatriate work force from many parts of the world, therefore providing each ethnicity, language, religion equal treatment is another secret for the success where they have a separate Ministry for Tolerance, Human Rights etc., In this regard UAE has a very high recognition of Sri Lankan expatriates who have contributed many years of expertise to the success of UAE in Construction, Banking, Insurance, Hospitality, Culinary, Engineering, Architecture, Quantity Surveying and many other trades.
I can clearly see that the powerful caliber leaders of UAE have geared the UAE to this end, where it stands today.
Understanding the UAE is impossible without understanding the life of Sheikh Zayed, Founder of the UAE and his faith, vision, determination and hard work. How do you see his leadership and the contribution of those who have sincerely worked with him to develop the UAE?
The extraordinary inter-personal skills of H.H. Shaikh Zayed Bin Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE is impressive. The Spirit of the unity country is derived from the vision, determination and leadership of H.H Sheikh Zayed. I believe that the binding of the cosmopolitan community of the UAE, connecting under one flag while recognizing diversity at all levels, was the core factor of the Unity that was engraved by H.H. Sheikh Zayed.
Since the date from the formation of the Federation of UAE, Sheikh Zayed as the President, with a mandate to develop the entire country, he geared the State towards success with his past experience as well as his utmost determination. His handiness in the administration, the way he developed the State in all sectors health, education, economy and the infrastructure i.e is impressive for the leaders in the modern day. His character was further embellished with his attitudes on equity and equality for all people even for women. His strong will and the determination for the reformation of the country made him an iconic character and his name flourished with his attributes of humanitarianism and compassion towards the people. Not only among the Emirates but also in the international arena, H.H. Sheikh Zayed was well reputed due to his balanced foreign policy in which he showed a magnificent role being a dispute mediator in several political issues. He supported the truth and justice in all international political dilemmas which resulted in him being recognized as a balanced and moderate leader by the international community.
While giving due praises to H.H. Sheikh Zayed, I would like to highlight the significant role played by the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, with vast knowledge and the experience for the betterment of the country. His cooperation rendered to H.H. Sheikh Zayed for building a united country is a good example for the rest of the world leaders.
What lessons can Sri Lanka learn from the UAE on how to encourage foreign investments, attract skilled workers while promoting social cohesion for greater economic-social development?
We cannot compare all corners of this expansive country in the same way with ours. One shoe is not fit for all legs. Based on the political factors as well as the geographical factors i.e potentials, resources that country’s have, it is needed to create their own mechanism to enhance opportunities for foreign investments, trade i,e.
But there are certain lessons that can be learned from the UAE. Rather than going through a cumbersome process, there should be a fast track for foreign investors to access the industry without fear. UAE has an investor-friendly policy which is very lucrative and due to that reason there are several Indian investors who are doing well in their businesses in UAE. UAE has a one stop shop for investors with an online facility to maximize the efficiency of their government departments.
Not only that but also the infrastructure i.e buildings, roads, transportation plays a big role in terms of attracting foreign investors towards the country. That’s how the UAE has attracted global investors, beating other similar countries at the same time.
Do you think our foreign policy supports addressing global trends and market values?
Rather than saying about the past, I would much like to say that following the election of His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka, one of his main directives was to reform the Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy, aiming to harness Sri Lanka’s determination to play a key role as a sovereign country in the international arena while converging economic development in the country.
Guided by the National Policy Framework “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” and its sectoral policies, the Government has formulated “20 Point Key Foreign Policy Directives” and the Foreign Ministry is now governed by them. Under these policy directives, ‘foster and promote our traditional and non-traditional exports to the international market, develop economic and trade links with regional and global economic players and project Sri Lanka’s image as an investor-friendly country to attract sustainable foreign direct investments’ have been identified as the priority areas that all Sri Lankan diplomats are required to work for.
Diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates were established in July, 1979 and in 1983, the Mission was upgraded to the Ambassadorial level. Tell us more about this long standing bilateral relationship and potential between two countries.
As you mentioned, the Diplomatic relations between our two countries were established in July 1979 with the opening of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Since then, bilateral relations between the two countries have been significantly enhanced over the decades with the exchange of high-level visits.
Further tightening the friendly relations, UAE opened an Embassy in Colombo in 1999 and the Sri Lankan Consulate was established in Dubai in 1993 and it was subsequently elevated to a Consulate General in 1993.
Coming through a long journey, the year 2019 was a landmark for both countries that marked the 40th Anniversary of the establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka.
In view of fortifying bilateral relations through legal instruments, both countries have entered into several Agreements as well as Memorandum of Understandings in various fields.
Not only in the bilateral aspect but also in multilateral perspective, both countries maintain friendly relations with the mutual understanding in various multilateral forums i.e. IORA, IRENA, UNSC, UNHRC, and other UN sub-organs. In view of further consolidating our bilateral friendly relations, several activities are in the pipeline to take place in the coming year. There are plans to arrange several high-level visits from the UAE to Sri Lanka and vice versa. Further, we are planning to convene the UAE–Sri Lanka 2nd Joint Committee in the coming year, in the COVID-19 new normal to open avenues in various fields to further collaborate.
We are going through a difficult time due to the pandemic. What are your strategies to overcome the challenges you face in these uncertain times?
It is very clear that this is a hard time for the entire world, where economies have been hit by COVID-19 world pandemic. However, as an emerging country, Sri Lanka cannot further hold back its development projects, as our economy has been already beaten from thirty years of war.
As an Ambassador, I have a great challenge on how to attract more investors, business entrepreneurs towards Sri Lanka as each and every movement has been narrowed with COVID-19 restrictions. But, we need to find out ways to overcome these challenges.
In modern days, most of the services are run through the online system and the use of technologies would be useful to mitigate obstacles as a solution for not having physical presence. To provide a safe and better service to our fellow Sri Lankans in UAE, a consular automated system which makes it easier for people to get online appointments, will be implemented at the Embassy very soon. Amidst the COVID-19 situation, we are in action to convene consular mobile services in other Emirates constantly. Executing Sri Lanka’s traditional and non-traditional products, Ceylon tea and tourism sectors on a global platform, we are in the process of participating at EXPO-2020 in Dubai from October 2021 to March 2022.
Now in the post Covid era, we are soliciting major companies for new professional job opportunities for Lankans in view of increasing foreign remittance in the country.
What are the areas in which mutual benefits between Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates can be further enhanced?
It is pleased to say that after several years of preparation, now both sides are about to commence the negotiations on the Investment Promotion and Reciprocal Protection Agreement in mid September 2021. I strongly believe that entering into this Agreement would create more avenues to attract more sustainable UAE investors towards the country as there are provisions prevailing in the Agreement to safeguard investors for safe and secure investments. Moreover, UAE is the 11th export market for Sri Lanka and tea is the main export item accounting for 19.96% of the value of Sri Lanka‘s exports to UAE in 2020. Diversification of export products is one of the main goals that we are now focusing on. Targeting the high-end consumers, exporting eco-friendly food items would be beneficial to Sri Lanka.
Instead of sending unskilled labourers, it is more worthy and creditable if Sri Lanka could focus on sending semi-skilled, skilled and professionals to the UAE in the fields of health services, IT services, culinary, and engineering.
We are in discussion to enroll foreign Emiratee and expatriate students from UAE to private universities in Sri Lanka and also to commence a Sri Lankan School in the UAE which will mutually benefit both countries and mainly benefit the expatriate community.