I have always had great respect for British people. And ever since I bought a home in the serenely beautiful English countryside as a young man still struggling to build my business I have considered England as my beloved second home. I am sure that many of my countrymen feel as I do, especially because of the long and fruitful relationship the United Arab Emirates (and before its foundation, the Trucial States) enjoyed with the UK for more than a century. Put simply, if there is one western ally, we trust to secure our interests, it is Britain. But now I fear that our trust may be a one-way street.
Britons have always been welcome to come to the UAE and for many 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 currently reside in this country and their contribution is greatly valued. Unfortunately, whereas we have always afforded our British guests special status, the UK government has not reciprocated and to make things worse is imposing even greater travel restrictions.
For many years, Emiratis — unlike Britons travelling to the UAE — were obliged to obtain visas before heading to the UK, which was a bone of contention when our door has always been open to British citizens.
Last year, an electronic visa waiver scheme permitting a stay of six months for UAE nationals was announced. While it is true this procedure is an improvement, it still is not satisfactory when the rest of Europe exempts Emiratis from visa requirement— including countries with which we do not have a history or the same kind of special relationship our own has long had with Britain. The USA offers Emiratis ten-year visas and possible exemptions from having to obtain a visa. 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, UK authorities have come up with a new restriction upon the entry of foreign domestic staff, now barred from entering unless they are accompanying their Emirati employers. This presents an unacceptable inconvenience not only for me but also for many of my compatriots with business interests in Britain or who vacation there with their families for several weeks or months each year.
There is no rhyme or reason behind this arbitrarily imposed rule, no doubt dreamt up by some career civil servant out to prove his worth. Our maids, nannies or drivers, that more often than not are considered part of the family, hardly pose a security threat. To be frank, 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 hurl insults at the police, why is the government making life difficult for domestic workers and their employers?
My future travel plans will definitely 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 throughout every leg of the entire journey. These are conscientious reliable people; some have been with me for decades. I trust them implicitly. They don’t need me to be their minder in Britain or anywhere else.
Apart from the practical obstacles thrown in my way, 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 by the way, makes no distinction between visitors from the UK be they doctors, lawyers, engineers, salesmen, drivers — or, indeed domestic staff.
Given that 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 forced to conclude that Britain is not keen to attract Emirati investors; if it is, then it certainly is not going the right way about it. The UAE has mega investments in Britain and is the UK’s largest export market in the Gulf. As highlighted by The National, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson referred to London as the ‘eighth emirate’ of the UAE some years ago. A nice feel-good turn of phrase but no more than that until we see UK authorities practice what they preach.
It is time that the UK government revised its policies and attitudes. My country is no longer within a British protectorate and must be treated with the same level of respect we have always treated theirs. 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 status, which I, for one, find intolerable, especially since these restrictions have nothing to do with security. If anything, the UAE with low crime stats and no welcome mat put out for extremists, has proven to be far more secure than the UK.
I would urge UAE leaders to take this matter up with the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who should be pressed to reverse these unfair restrictions that are nothing but irritants polluting the warmth of feeling we have always shared. I am not asking for the moon. I am simply demanding reciprocity on Britain’s part so that when I am at my home in England, I can once again truly feel at home in every sense of the word.
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor