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July 18, 2021 11:58 am
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‘We’re Both Nations of Problem-Solvers,’ Says UAE Minister

avatar by Sophie Shulman / CTech

An El Al plane is seen on the ground in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 31, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Nir Elias / Pool.

CTech – “Nearly a year after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates — and along with the opening of the embassies — we estimate that the potential for bilateral trade is around $6-$10 billion over the next three to five years,” said Mariam Almheiri, the UAE’s Minister of Food and Water Security, who sees a bright future filled with successful commercial cooperation between Israel and the Gulf country.

“Many things are brewing on the horizon, people are getting to know one another, and following the opening of the embassies, now travel is also easier. I believe that within two months, we’ll start to hear about new deals being signed in the business sector. Currently, we are mainly seeing Israeli entities invest in Emirati companies,” Almheiri told Calcalist in an exclusive interview.

Almheiri, who met a few days prior with the Israeli Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Oded Forer, attended the opening of the Emirati embassy in Israel in the new hall of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, alongside Israeli President Isaac Herzog and former Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Over the course of the day, Almheiri planned to meet with Israeli Minister of Energy Karin Elharar and Minister of the Environment Tamar Zandberg. According to Almheiri, the multitude of female government ministers is nothing new, since in the UAE — as part of a dictated strategic decision — half of the parliament is women, as well as a third of the cabinet.

Almheiri, 42, is not what you’re expecting a government minister from a Gulf country to be like. She wears a business pantsuit void of any traditional symbols, while most of her team — mainly young women — don traditional garb. She is smiley, devoid of any official etiquette, and speaks softly, even on topics that are outside of her professional realm. Her background is less than standard too, compared to the acceptable path that many commonly take in the UAE, where family members are trained from a young age, sent to elite universities in the US and Britain, and upon their return, assume key positions in the public sector.

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Almheiri, the daughter of an Emirati father and German mother, studied abroad in Germany, where she completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. “My first job was in Germany,” she says, “I specialized in engineering steel bearings for race cars. I dedicated four years of my life to those cars. All cars have hundreds of bearings, but in race cars, each one is designed specifically. There’s a lot of pressure and money circulating around the Formula 1 races, and I wanted something more slow-paced. I returned to the Emirates, and began deep-sea diving. The dives exposed me to the fishing industry, and from there I somehow ended up in the food tech sector. Somehow, that is how my political career began. The issues of fishing and food led me to the Ministry of Environment, where I was responsible for many water-related projects. In the UAE, those in charge keep tabs on those serving in official positions, examining how much effort each person has devoted to their job. At a certain stage, they are simply made aware of their next position. No one asks for a specific position.”

“Access to a network of markets”

“Today, with the opening of the embassies, it’s really a historic moment for us,” Almheiri adds, “we’ve always viewed Israel as an innovator in terms of technology, and thought it would be amazing if we had access to its industry-knowledge, but we didn’t have any communication channels between our countries. Therefore, the Abraham Accords are a game changer for us. When we look back in 15 years, we’ll say that we were part of history. Israel and the UAE make a great combination — you have the technology, and we have access to a network of markets. We’re both nations of problem-solvers. The significance and the opportunities go far beyond both countries and are on a broader regional level.”

Almheiri’s words hint at the lack of familiarity between Israel and the UAE. The Emirates have been closely following Israeli technological developments, and following the announcement of diplomatic ties, Israeli businesspeople’s inboxes were filled with endless emails, and many were caught unprepared. Over the past year, Israelis have begun learning more about their Emirati colleagues, mainly through tourism. However, with the new sworn-in Israeli government and the opening of the embassies, it seems as if the highly-discussed economic potential will finally come to fruition.

Almheiri, who is divorced with one child, is the first Emirati minister to officially visit the State of Israel since the signing of the Accords a year ago. Almheiri is one of the most senior government ministers in the Abu Dhabi cabinet, and oversees the most burning issue in her country — food security. The UAE imports nearly 90% of its food for its nine million citizens, and is completely dependent on international trade and supply chains. And the pandemic year merely proved how dangerous that reliance is.

Almheiri was appointed in 2017, and has set forth as an official and brazen goal — her target is to help the UAE surpass Singapore on the Global Food Security Index by 2051 and enter the top 10 countries by next year. Although the goal may sound over-ambitious to some, it is completely routine for the Emirates. The goal is, in a way, only a tier in Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoumn’s plan for 2071, when the country will celebrate 100 years since its establishment. In the past, the government has set forth similar goals, like reducing dependency on oil exports, and today it only exports 20%, compared to 80% in the 1980s.

The Global Food Security Index was presented by the Economist in 2012, and rates 113 countries in terms of food quality, availability, accessibility, and additional parameters. When Almheiri was appointed, the UAE was ranked in 33rd place, after a year it climbed to 31st, and last year jumped to 21st place. After the signing of the peace accords with Israel — which is in eighth place — Almheiri believes the country will have an additional and important tool to further climb that ladder.

How did food security become such a central topic?

“In 2008, we had a food crisis, and prices jumped. That was a wake up call for us, since we are a country that is dependent on the global supply chain. The events that happened afterward led to my appointment, where I serve as the UAE’s and the world’s first Food and Water Security Minister. We have a clear vision to reduce our dependence on imports. When I was chosen for this position I was told to ‘focus on three things: building a long-term and short-term plan and promoting technology and R&D in the fields of agritech and foodtech to bring it to a whole new level.’ It’s like one of the small to-do lists that every government minister has, and we’re simply following the guidelines.”

It’s easier to say something than actually do it.

“We split up our vision into clear tasks, and they are all listed on the National Regional Food Security’s website which went up in 2018. It has representatives from several different government offices: the Government Office is responsible for pricing, the Health Ministry for nutritional value, the Environmental Ministry for treating waste and recycling food, regional representatives, and young representatives from the next generation who must define what they wish to accomplish. That’s why in 2020 after the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, we knew how to cope with disruption in supply chains, since we had already built a two-year plan going forward.”

How can Israel integrate into that program?

“The strategic program has five main vectors. The first is leveraging the UAE as a global center of food trade. For example, we import a lot of rice, because we have a large immigrant population that loves rice. We are interested in importing it from as many countries as possible, so that we won’t be dependent on a single one. We examined what our population eats, what is present in our food supply, and what we should grow in the Emirates. The answer was vegetables, fish, goat products, lamb, and dates. An additional aspect is to boost local produce, so that we won’t be entirely dependent on imports. People are very excited to purchase local produce, because it was never available. It’s also fresher and tastier, because it did not undergo refrigeration. Another topic is food disposal. Today, the UAE throws out about 197 kg (434 pounds) of food per person annually, and we want to cut that number down by half by 2030. The fourth issue is nutritional value. We’ve developed a fondness for fast food, and now want to start eating healthier. We have over 200 different nationalities in our country, and they love their traditional foods which don’t always have high nutritional value.”

“The fifth and most important issue is creating food with technologies, and we want to collaborate with Israel to improve our agriculture. Today, the UAE has 35,000 farmers who operate small farms and cope with climatic difficulties. They mainly grow vegetables, fodder, and dates. Lately, they have begun to use greenhouses and hydroponic methods to do so. We are trying to prepare the country for a new era, which will focus on drawing agritech here. The cabinet has decided to work with the private sector, and try to encourage more people to work in agricultural fields.”

As a daughter of a mother whose family were farmers, Almheiri earned her respect for growing food from a young age, and today actively works to convince Emirati youth to enter the agricultural sector. “We don’t even use the word ‘farmers’ anymore, because we see that they don’t relate to it, so we call them ‘agritechies.’ We are also trying to draw women toward the field, because with new technologies we could grow food within storage facilities in cities, and won’t need to live or work in remote places and open fields. We already have a salmon farm, greenhouses to grow raspberries and blueberries, and hydroponic methods of growing kale. Youth are drawn to it, since they can control it all from a tablet. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a leap in the number of farms that incorporate these technologies, and that’s why collaborating with Israel is brilliant.”

Everyone has been talking about the great economic potential for a year already, but how do you see it actually working?

“We’ve created a startup center, where experimenting with new technologies and growing methods will be possible. Israeli startups can also come here. We want Israelis to come and bring their companies here, and we also want Emirati youth to travel to Israel to study. Similarly, we’d also like to see Emrati investments in Israeli technologies. We’d be glad to see student exchange programs with Israel, although we’re not as advanced as Israel in applied studies. On the other hand, there is great potential here in terms of access to markets, with the ports and airports. Despite the fact that we’re only a country of nine million people, we have access to markets of three billion people.”

What sectors in agritech and foodtech interest you?

“We’re open to everything — from fishing to growing alternative meat in laboratories. Both of our countries don’t have fertile land with plenty of rain, and that’s why it’s important to think about innovative technologies.”

So is alternative meat halal?

“We’re examining it, just like you examined whether new meat alternatives are kosher.”

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