Britain’s Emirati visitors deserve better treatment
By : Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
I have always had great respect for British people. Ever since I bought a home in the serenely beautiful English countryside as a young man struggling to build my business, I have considered England my beloved second home. I am sure many of my countrymen feel the same, especially because of the long and fruitful relationship between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and before its foundation, the Trucial States – and the UK.
If there is one Western ally we trust to secure our interests, it is Britain. However, I now fear that our trust may be a one-way street. Britons have always been welcome to come to the UAE, and for decades they were the only foreign nationals, regardless of their professional standing, permitted to receive a tourist visa on arrival. An estimated 120,000 British nationals reside in the UAE, and their contribution is greatly valued.
Unfortunately, whereas we have always afforded our British guests special status, the UK has not reciprocated, and is making things worse by imposing even greater travel restrictions. For many years, Emiratis were obliged to obtain visas before going to the UK, which was a bone of contention when our door has always been open to Britons.
Last year, an electronic visa-waiver scheme permitting a stay of six months for UAE nationals was announced. While this procedure is an improvement, it is still unsatisfactory when the rest of Europe exempts Emiratis from visa requirements, including countries with which we do not have as long and special a history. The United States offers Emiratis 10-year visas and possible visa exemptions.
Whereas we have always afforded our British guests special status, the UK has not reciprocated, and is making things worse by imposing even greater travel restrictions
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
The UK, our closest Western ally, is the only state for which we require a waiver. There is something wrong here. Adding insult to injury, it has a new restriction upon the entry of foreign domestic staff, now barred from entering unless they accompany their Emirati employers. This is an unacceptable inconvenience for those with business interests in Britain, or who vacation there with their families for weeks or months each year.
This is an arbitrarily imposed rule no doubt dreamt up by some career civil servant to prove his worth. Our maids, nannies or drivers, who more often than not are considered part of the family, hardly pose a security threat.
When under the banner of democracy and free expression Britain has become a hub for Islamist radicals who feel free to recruit jihadists on the street and insult the police, why is the government making life difficult for domestic workers and their employers?
My future travel plans will be negatively impacted by this latest decision. I frequently travel around Europe on business, with the intention of spending time at my home in the UK at the conclusion of my trip.
I have always dispatched my staff ahead of me to prepare the house for my arrival, but now they will be obliged to accompany me for the entire journey. They are conscientious and reliable; some have been with me for decades. I trust them implicitly. They do not need me to be their minder in Britain or anywhere else.
Apart from the practical obstacles, I feel hurt that the only country on my regular travel itinerary to impose such a ridiculous rule happens to be the one I hold most dear after my own, which makes no distinction between visitors from the UK, be they doctors, lawyers, engineers, salesmen, drivers or domestic staff.
This latest decision is just one of a long string of restrictions not in keeping with the friendly relations between our two countries. I am thus forced to conclude that Britain is not keen to attract Emirati investors. If it is, it is not going about it the right way.
The UAE has mega investments in Britain, and is its largest export market in the Gulf. As highlighted by The National, London Mayor Boris Johnson referred to the city as the “eighth emirate” of the UAE some years ago. It is a feel-good phrase, but no more than that until we see the UK practise what it preaches.
The British government should revise its policies and attitudes. My country is no longer a British protectorate, and must be treated with mutual respect. We are a proud people loyal to each other and to our friends. Our relationship with Britain should be one of equals.
Instead we have been relegated to junior partner, which is intolerable, especially since these restrictions have nothing to do with security. If anything, the UAE – with low levels of crime and no welcome mat for extremists – has proven far more secure than the UK.
UAE leaders should take this matter up with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who should be pressed to reverse these unfair restrictions. I am not asking for the moon. I am simply demanding reciprocity from Britain, so that when I am at my home in England, I can once again truly feel at home in every sense of the word.
Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group – one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf. Al Habtoor is renowned for his knowledge and views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Writing extensively on both local and international politics, he publishes regular articles in the media and has released a number of books. Al-Habtoor began his career as an employee of a local UAE construction firm and in 1970 established his own company, Al Habtoor Engineering. The UAE Federation, which united the seven emirates under the one flag for the first time, was founded in 1971 and this inspired him to undertake a series of innovative construction projects – all of which proved highly successful.
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