The UAE is home to over 200 different nationalities and has become one of the most diverse societies in the world. Founded in 1971, the country has traditionally embraced acceptance and mutual respect for all cultures, religions and backgrounds from the very beginning. This transformative mindset was introduced by the region’s founding father and first president, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
In light of this progressive vision, the UAE defines a new theme each year that reflects Sheikh Zayed’s historic mission for global peace and prosperity. This tradition led to the landmark “Year of Tolerance,” which proved to be a major success and sparked several opportunities for interfaith and intercultural exchanges in 2019.
Pope Francis Visits the UAE
During the “Year of Tolerance,” Pope Francis became the first-ever pontiff to visit the UAE in global history. This event came to fruition after UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan extended an in-person invitation back in June 2018. Previously, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi paid a visit to the Vatican in 2016 to discuss emerging global challenges and new opportunities for interfaith cooperation.
In honor of this groundbreaking event, Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba stepped forward and penned an op-ed in Politico that formally welcomed Pope Francis to the Arabian Peninsula and explored the UAE’s long-time commitment to religious freedom. Looking forward to the historic meeting, Al Otaiba wrote, “The pope’s visit will send a strong signal across the region and world: People with different beliefs can live, work and worship together. Reverence, respect and compassion are core common values.”
Highlights from the event include:
- The event featured a papal Mass for more than 180,000 Catholics in the UAE.
- The event featured a signing of the Human Fraternity Document for World Peace and Living Together.
- During the event, plans were revealed for the construction of the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex that will house a mosque, church and synagogue in the region’s capital by 2022.
Ongoing UAE Inclusion Efforts
Throughout the year, Ambassador Al Otaiba facilitated several UAE-US collaborations in the name of inclusion and peaceful coexistence. In celebration of Ramadan, he united religious leaders from around the globe for a virtual interfaith gathering during the coronavirus pandemic. On a mission to end discrimination and promote equality among people with intellectual disabilities, he also joined the Board of the Special Olympics. As a board member, he helped facilitate the most successful and diverse World Games in Special Olympics’ history.
The Ambassador concluded the UAE’s ‘Year of Tolerance’ by hosting the UAE’s 48th National Day Celebration at the United States Institute of Peace. During the event, he delivered a keynote address to over 400 US officials stating, “To Emiratis, religious tolerance and inclusion is not a new, recently accepted concept. It is a way of life we have known and on which we were raised since before the country’s inception. Inclusion and acceptance is one of our core values – ingrained in the DNA of Emirati culture – and shared with the United States. It is a value that our founder, Sheikh Zayed believed in for the unity of our nation.