Greek Ambassador in UAE
Tell us about the Greek Embassy presence in the Emirates and about your role as our distinguished ambassador.
First of all, I would like to congratulate you and wish you every success for your initiative of publishing the “Ellines in Emirates” magazine.
The Greek Embassy began functioning in Abu Dhabi June 23, 1989. Until then the Greek embassy in Kuwait was responsible for the UAE, as well as Qatar and Bahrain. I had the honor of contributing at the beginning of our embassy in this country. As a young diplomat placed for the first time abroad, I accompanied the first Greek ambassador to Abu Dhabi and worked together with him to establish our presence and create the basis for bilateral collaboration.
As you know, founding an embassy is not an easy task. Over here there was no infrastructure and no experience of the culture and customs of the country, so the infrastructure had to be created from the beginning. We had to find staff with good potential for the Embassy, supply the necessary equipment and initiate a series of contacts across the whole range of the Emirates’ administration and society. That takes time, patience, and persistence, aiming at promoting our country in the UAE. It was a big challenge for me, but I have to admit that it was an extremely useful experience for my career afterwards.
During the first months the Embassy was accommodated in the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental Hotel. After the November of 1989 we rented a flat in a multi-story building on Hamdan Street, which of course had to be furnished and equipped with the essential technical infrastructure. Since then, ambassadors have changed the location twice, and today the Embassy is in the building that most Greeks here know well. The floor where the Embassy was accommodated at first, now accommodates the Health Ministry of the UAE. When I visited ceremonially, as ambassador, the UAE Health Minister with surprise heard me say, “Where you sit, I was sitting many years ago.” He answered me jokingly, “Then I grant you my seat for you to use again.” On the back side of the building and in front of its entrance are still found the big poles on which the Greek flag was raised for the first time in the UAE and I look on them with emotion every time I pass by there.
When the embassy had just started normal operations, the invasion of Iraq into Kuwait unfortunately happened on August 2, 1990. We were called to respond to the crisis with the rudimentary means that we had on hand. As we know, this crisis led to the First Gulf War in the January of 1991. Our Embassy in Kuwait was shut down and we were given instructions from Athens to be of service to the Greeks who were living in Bahrain and Qatar, besides those who lived in the UAE. Consequently there was no time for the slightest rest and I still remember working night and day with the ambassador at that time since the embassy was not yet staffed with other personnel. I remember, and I want to underline that it was touching, the help and support we had from the Greeks who lived in the UAE and especially those who were working in the shipping companies based (and continue to be based) in Fujairah, with whom we had excellent and continuous contact, and I don’t exaggerate to say excellent coordination and cooperation.
All these memories move me even today, and they contributed to my emotional attachment to this country. I asked, when I rose to the rank of ambassador, to serve Greece from the honorable post of the Greek ambassador in the UAE, considering that, from my experience and the contacts I had from my first service here, I could contribute substantially in the reinforcement of our bilateral relations. I have the honor to have represented Greece in the UAE since the end of November 2008, and I feel proud that our bilateral relations have evolved into close collaboration on all levels. Greece today is considered by the UAE as one of its closest and most trustworthy partners.
The position of Ambassador to the UAE which, with the passage of time, as everyone well knows, has evolved into one of the most powerful and active countries internationally, demands continuous vigilance, continuous maintenance of contacts and growth of initiatives which can become beneficial for both countries. Because of the dynamics that the country presents, especially in the business/investment field, the priorities of the Greek Ambassador, and those of other countries, include, besides actions purely within the political field, activity in the fields of economics and commerce. Consequently, I try whenever I have a chance to develop new acquaintances connected to governmental and business entities in the UAE, who may be able to create possibilities for new cooperation or strengthening of the already existing projects.
As you can see, your question took me back 25 years, reminding me of the first steps of the Greek Embassy here and its everyday presence from then until today.
How many Greek citizens are currently residing in the Emirates ? What is their profile, and has it changed over the years ?
Unfortunately, I cannot give a clear and precise answer, because many Greeks who have entered the country over the last years don’t contact the Embassy straight away. They do so only when the need for consular advice or action arises. I would like to take this opportunity to ask from our compatriots who have not yet contacted the Embassy, to inform us via telephone or email of their presence here, the Emirate in which they reside and the nature of their activities. This will provide us with valuable information and will help us have a better knowledge of their exact number as well as the sectors in which they are active, which, from what I know, covers quite a wide spectrum. This information would further enhance my ability to promote Greek interests in a more proper and effective way in my meetings with the Leadership here. Thus, I would be able to promote better way the high standards of professionalism and the capabilities that characterize the Greeks residing in the Emirates who contribute in many and valuable ways to the further development of the Federation.
I estimate that Greek citizens residing nowadays in the UAE probably exceed 4000. Most Greek citizens reside in the Emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Fujairah. The increase over the last four years is rather significant, considering that when the Embassy opened, the number of the Greeks was estimated to be around 700 in all the Emirates.
Regarding their profile, as I mentioned above, Greeks are active in a wide spectrum of sectors. They either have their own businesses or work in local companies, hotels, restaurants, banks, hospitals, the major air carriers Etihad Airways and Emirates Airlines, universities, construction companies, and other businesses. Of course, there are many companies that started operating well before the time that the Embassy opened, such as the shipping companies in Dubai and Fujairah, which continue to operate and constitute solid value. With pleasure I note also that Greek doctors, architects, painters, musicians, and decorators, are active in this country. Many of our compatriots have developed strong business bonds with local entrepreneurs, and I am pleased to hear directly from them highly praising words about the level and the quality of collaboration with their Greek business partners.
The Consular Office of the Embassy makes every effort to respond in a short time to an ever-growing workload regarding consular affairs of the Greek citizens residing in the UAE. Despite our desire to deal rapidly with any issues that Greeks may face, our Consular Office is staffed by only two employees, of which one deals solely with Greek citizens’ affairs, while the other deals basically with visa applications (we receive on average 50-60 applications each day) and the Embassy’s economic management. The latter requires an special attention and diligence, as it involves public funds.
I should also note that, apart from the daily routine matters, we also have to deal with urgent matters regarding Greek citizens (deaths, arrests, detentions, court trials, etc.). Urgent matters are given top priority by the Consular Office. Therefore, I would like to request the understanding and patience of our fellow citizens regarding urgent matters with a humanitarian dimension that may lead to possible delays of various consular cases that do not have the same urgent nature.
Honestly, I wish we also had a Consulate General in Dubai. This, would decrease significantly the workload of the Consular Office in Abu Dhabi and make the lives of Greeks residing in Dubai and the Northern Emirates easier, as they need now to travel a long distance to Abu Dhabi even for a minor consular matter. I cannot deny that there was such intention for opening a Consulate General in Dubai in 2009, but due to the very difficult economic situation that our country currently faces, the materialization of this has been postponed for the moment.
Which are the characteristic features of the Greek community in the Emirati world?
It is well known that, throughout its history, Greece and the Greek people has had traditionally close bonds of friendship with the entire Arab world. This creates a solid basis and opens up many perspectives for easier and faster integration into the Emirati society.
I am pretty sure that every Greek person who lives here has encountered a broad smile of approval from all the Emirati people they meet, when they learn the person’s nationality. It is a fact that Emiratis have very friendly feelings for Greeks and speak about them in positive terms, either judging from their experiences here with local Greek associates and friends or from their travels to our country for tourism and business purposes. Indeed, we have a lot of common ground that constitutes for both people the very core of their society and their cultural habits such as hospitality, dedication to principles and tradition, family ties, devotion to friendship, and love for good food and entertainment.
The UAE, as is widely known, is an open and multicultural society where people of many nationalities live together in harmony, regardless of their language, religion, color, or cultural identity, under the precondition of having deep respect for the laws and the Islamic character of the country. This is something well appreciated and respected by the Greek people and I have to admit that I am very proud when during my meetings with the Rulers of the Emirates, they use very flattering words for our compatriots. They tend to describe Greeks as peaceful citizens who never cause any trouble, unlike some other nationalities, and that they are hard-working with great conscientiousness and professionalism. These attributes are greatly appreciated and they encourage me saying, “Bring here more people from your country.” And I don’t think that they are exaggerating nor that they say that out of courtesy, because I have been really impressed by every Greek man and woman I have met here so far, due to their kindness, conscientiousness, punctuality and professionalism. After all, Greece and its people are represented in the face of every Greek person individually, and thus the positive impressions that they bring about reflect not only to them as individuals but also to the whole Greek population. I believe in my heart that the Ambassador is not the only person who represents the country. Every Greek man or woman that lives and works in a foreign country represents Greece there. So I would like to take this opportunity to cordially thank all Greek men and women who live in the Emirates, as by leaving such good impressions in the country they contribute both to the formation of close and friendly relations with the Emirates and at the same time to the reputation and the work of the Embassy as far as the representation of our country is concerned.
Do you think that Greece is facing one of the biggest challenges in its course as a nation? How does this challenge affect the Greek community in the Emirates and what kind of developments it entails?
Undoubtedly, Greece and the Greek people are facing, with the current economic crisis, one of the biggest challenges in our history. Allow me to express my conviction that we will deal with this challenge with determination, as we have dealt with others in the past, and that our country will emerge from the current crisis. I would like to repeat what a member of the UAE Supreme Leadership said to me, that “A nation with such a long History and rich Culture, which taught the world, there is no way it will not overcome this crisis.” This extremely apt statement shows how third parties perceive the crisis in our country, but also their deep conviction that there will be a positive outcome.
The Greek men and women living in the Emirates undoubtedly experience from here the crisis in the Greek economy, especially since many of them came here in search of work because of this crisis. You know, on the one hand I am sorry that good minds and capable hands that we have are forced to leave Greece, but on the other hand I am glad that with their presence here we demonstrate the Greek potential and the enormous capabilities of Greek people. Also, it is very touching that the Greeks here always have their gaze directed at our compatriots in Greece, particularly on those who are experiencing hard times. Many, either collectively or individually undertake initiatives to relieve, if they can, our compatriots who are being tested. I want to mention the initiative of volunteers who participate in the philanthropic events of the Small World in Abu Dhabi and send contributions to the “The Smile of the Child”. I would also like to highlight the rich work and the intense activity of Emfasis Foundation, founded in Dubai and which, among other efforts, organized an excellent theater performance by Greek volunteers as a fund-raiser to support humanitarian efforts in Greece. These examples are just two of the many signs of solidarity that the Greeks in the UAE deeply feel and express in practice, which is another testament to the quality of their character and their degree of commitment to a noble cause.
Having the experience of this country from your current presence but also from 25 years ago, what are the most important changes you notice?
Indeed, from then till now there have been very significant changes, both in development of the infrastructure, and in the priorities and thus the way of working in both public and private fields. I would say that the biggest and most impressive changes have happened mainly in the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You know, in Dubai there were no high-rise buildings in the past and the highest was the “Trade Center”, this white building that still exists today and that is one of the historic symbols of the Emirate. From the beginning of the new millennium, and especially when the current Ruler took the reins of the Emirate, a huge effort was observed in the construction of impressive multi-story buildings, culminating in the “Burj Khalifa”, the tallest building in the world, and the “Burj Al Arab” Hotel, an emblematic building of Dubai. At the same time there were created many luxurious shopping malls totalling thousands of square meters each, efficient road system and public transit network, the world’s second-biggest airport (“Al Maktoum Airport”) while expanding the existing one in Deira, luxurious hotels of known international chains, and above all the famous artificial island “The Palm”. Dubai became an international tourist destination, and its airline company “Emirates Airlines” became one of the biggest in the world. Also the international trade fairs held in Dubai were developed in quantity and quality in a number of areas, as the Emirate has become a commercial hub of the region.
Dubai was always considered the business center of the Federation, and I remember from my presence here in the past the hectic pace of business at which it was moving but also the very well organized international exhibitions, which were impressive in their day and which have evolved to meet the highest standards nowadays. Commerce and tourism are the main sources of income for the Emirate of Dubai and all the efforts of the competent Authorities have focused on continuous improvement of services to facilitates these sectors. Of course compared to 25 years ago, when life in Dubai was clearly cheaper, today the cost of living there has sharply risen, and this is experienced by the Greek inhabitants as well.
Awarding EXPO 2020 to Dubai has given a new momentum, as construction and preparation for some projects have already begun. Hosting the EXPO. which has international reach, will contribute, to Dubai’s further development and will burnish the Emirates’ world reputation.
In Abu Dhabi 25 years ago, some multi-storey and elegant buildings were already existing, especially in Corniche, where we still see them; but over the last few years a huge development has taken place in the Emirate with emblematic buildings like Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Emirates Palace, and Etihad Towers. We have seen a spectacular expansion of the city beyond the island of Abu Dhabi, new major roads and bridges, construction of the largest harbor “Khalifa Port”, as well as development and expansion of island (Yas Island, Saadiyat Island, Reem Island), which today host modern facilities for Formula 1 racing, large-scale campus facilities for branches of New York University and the Sorbonne, while plans for Saadiyat Island to include the construction of museums with unique architecture like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim, Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Center of Performing Arts.
The Emirate of Abu Dhabi, in which the biggest hydrocarbon reserves of the Federation are located (4th in oil production internationally), has focused under the current Leadership in diversifying economic sectors so that it’s not completely depended on oil wealth. For this purpose, it develops dynamic sectors of commerce, alternative sources of energy, and also tourism. Abu Dhabi wants to become a main tourist destination (however, of a different type than in Dubai), and also to establish itself as the cultural centre of the Middle East. In order to meet the growing needs in electricity, Abu Dhabi has begun the construction of four nuclear reactors in the Western region, the first of which is expected to be completed in 2017 and the remaining three in 2020. It would be a significant omission to not mention the creation of the “Green” City outside of the city in the model of Masdar City, with zero pollutant emissions and waste, and also the construction next to it of the ultra- modern building that houses the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first organization based in a Middle Eastern country to which I have been accredited as a Permanent Representative of Greece alongside with my bilateral Ambassador post.
I observe significant changes, compared to the past, and in other Emirates like Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, which have developed in the frame of the ambitious objectives of their Leaders.
These are few of the many changes that have taken place. Most important though, I would say, is the intense activation and engagement, compared to the past, of the Emirate population, mostly young men and women who possess significant academic qualifications from universities in the country and abroad and who staff all state sectors (governmental, commercial, investment, etc.). They work responsibly and put in long hours in order to meet the high and demanding goals set by the Government, but also by each Emirate separately. It is a fundamental and qualitative difference which has impressed me personally. I am also impressed by the large number of young women who staff government agencies, the police, the army, commerce and industry, and investment funds, which was not the case, at least not to this extent, in the past. This participation has sharply increased as part of the efforts of the Government (which includes four women Ministers) but also on the part of the widow of the deceased Leader of the Federation to highlight and reinforce the role of women of the Emirates across the social spectrum and in the continuous development of the Federation.
Let’s not forget that the Federation of Emirates dates back only 45 years. The achievements that have been made over these years are undoubtedly important, if not impressive, and are a result of both the rich resources available and also of the vision of the Leadership, which has developed a strategy stretching out to the year 2030.
But what has not changed, and continues to be an adornment to the Leadership and the people of Emirates, is the respect and preservation of the traditions and customs of their ancestors and the preservation of their cultural identity in an ever-changing environment, dominated by advanced technologies.
How are the relations between Greece and the UAE? How are our countries connected and what are the prospects for these relations for the future?
I feel proud that our bilateral relations, evolving over 25 years, are now at a very high level, with both countries closely cooperating in many areas and a number of sectors and consulting on matters of mutual interest both regionally and globally. Visits from both sides have increased and not confined to the governmental level, but also extended to the business, educational and cultural exchanges. As an example, I would like to mention that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the UAE visited our country for the first time in 2009 and within five years has made five visits. Greece and the UAE have also held two Joint Committees with parallel Business Fora organized under the chairmanship of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries, in 2012 and 2014, and we are now preparing to convene the third Joint Committee, this time in Abu Dhabi.
The Emirates opened an Embassy in Athens in November 2008, indicative of the growing importance they attach to cooperation with Greece. Until then, the UAE Ambassador in Rome was also accredited in Athens, without a permanent presence in the Greek capital. The two countries are connected with wide contractual frameworks which are continuously enriched in a number of areas. In some highly specialized areas we have secured bilateral agreements such as the Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Protection and Promotion of Investments. Efforts continue on both sides, since both governments have repeatedly expressed their willingness to further strengthening, broadening and deepening our bilateral relations. There is however still much room for further development of trade relations, which unfortunately have not reached yet the level of the potential that the business communities of both countries offer and fall short of the expressed will of the two governments for effective promotion. Together, with the Office of Economic and Commercial Affairs, we are intensifying efforts in this area in order for more Greek products to enter the UAE market and also, through the UAE to enter the wider region, and for Greece to attract more UAE businessmen and investors in our country. With joy we see there is a substantial increase in tourist arrivals from the UAE to Greece with more and more people from UAE visiting with their families. They speak highly about the impressions left by our country, which they want to visit again. The daily connection of Abu Dhabi and Dubai with Athens with the companies “Etihad Airways”, “Emirates Airlines” and “Aegean Airlines”, definitely helps strengthening tourism.
Finally, I have to mention for all the Greeks living here, so they can refer it in their contacts with people in the UAE, that Greece and this Embassy have pioneered and firmly supported the request of the UAE for waiving the Schengen visa for UAE passport holders, which was a national target for the UAE Foreign Policy. This was achieved last May. For the leading role of our country in this matter the UAE side has repeatedly and at all levels expressed thanks and gratitude to us.
Greece also voted in favor, from the first round of the process, of the candidacy of Dubai to host EXPO2020; voted in favor of the candidacy of Abu Dhabi to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency IRENA; and voted in favor of the candidacy of Abu Dhabi to host the International Energy Conference in 2019. For these three candidacies, which were national goals of the UAE, the attitude of our country has been properly appreciated and they express sincere thanks to us at every opportunity.
I could talk for a very long time about the development of bilateral relations and the prospects opening up, since they are my first priority. As long as I am situated here, I will continue to make every effort. I fear, however, that I have already spoken for too long. I hope to have the opportunity in the future to talk in more detail about this very important issue.
In any case I believe that the excellent level of bilateral relations, the many possibilities that both sides have offered for cooperation and the converging views of our two countries on strategic issues concerning the wider region, have created an irreversible momentum toward an improved relationship that will benefit both our countries and our people.