Frank Mollen – Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the UAE, Abu Dhabi
Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the UAE, Frank Mollen, discusses his priorities as Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, his ambitions to see trade increase between both nations and why Royal Dutch Shell and other Dutch companies continue to view the United Arab Emirates as a place of opportunity.
Can you provide an overview of bilateral relations between the Netherlands and the UAE?
The Netherlands and the UAE have enjoyed a long history of cooperation and friendly relations extending beyond the official commencement of diplomatic ties in 1972, with Dutch companies like Royal Dutch Shell having been present in Abu Dhabi since 1939. Our commitment to the UAE is evident in the fact that we have an embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate-general in Dubai, for the express purpose of fostering better socio-cultural and economic relations between the two countries.
Looking at economic ties alone, it is clear that the UAE and the Netherlands are important trade partners. To illustrate this, our exports to the UAE exceed our exports to India, the eighth-largest economy in the world, by 60 percent. In 2014, mutual trade between the Netherlands and the UAE was valued at around EUR 3.5 billion (USD 3.81 billion). The UAE accounts for 40 percent of all Dutch exports to the Gulf region and is our first export destination in the region.
Both the UAE and the Netherlands are important petroleum economies, albeit for different reasons, with the UAE being a top-ten oil and gas producer while the Netherlands is renowned for being a technology and service hub. How important is petroleum to bilateral relations?
Naturally, petroleum represents an important component of our trade relations. For instance, over 60 Dutch companies attended ADIPEC, a testament to Dutch interest and commitment to the UAE’s petroleum industry. To highlight just a few examples, Damen Shipyards provided over a hundred ships for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) while ESNAAD, a wholly-owned ADNOC subsidiary, recently took ownership of ten supply vessels from Shipyard de Hoop. Shell has been in the market for many years, but alongside old hands there are also new Dutch companies penetrating the UAE oil market all the time. Dutch and Emirati oil and gas companies have a long-lasting and mutually beneficial working relationship that is built on trust and commitment, reliability and proven know-how.
This is not to underplay trade ties in other industries, however. Currently, an estimated 220 Dutch companies are based in the UAE, with multinationals from both petroleum and non-petroleum sectors like Shell, Unilever, Philips, Vopak, ING and ABN AMRO, just to list a few examples, as well as many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in a large variety of sectors.
For instance, the Netherlands exports a significant amount of machinery to the UAE. We are also worldwide leaders in dredging, and Dutch companies were involved in major projects like the Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi in 2012 and the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai in 2001. Dutch company Fugro provided the geotechnical expertise required for the Burj Khalifa project, facilitating Dubai’s construction of the tallest building in the world; it is now a symbol of Dubai’s modernity. Dutch companies such as Philips Medical are also providing medical machinery for hospitals across the UAE.
Overall, trade between the two countries covers a plethora of services and goods, from high-tech machinery to supermarket groceries. In addition, the Netherlands has always placed firm emphasis on sustainable economic development, in particular the use of renewable energy resources. As the UAE embarks on its own economic and energy diversification programs, I envision the expansion of our trade relations into renewables and alternative energy infrastructure.
The recent oil price crisis has hit traditional oil and gas heavyweights like BP and Shell hard, most notably when Shell decided against participating in ADNOC’s onshore concession due to the USD 2.2 billion sign-on fee. What opportunities do you believe still exist for Dutch companies in the UAE?
It is undeniable that the global oil environment has slowed down. However, despite Shell’s recent decision, I must stress that they, as do other Dutch oil and gas companies, still prioritize the UAE as a business location because of its vibrant market and perspective for the future. Shell for example, as a leader in sustainable energy technology, will remain a partner of choice in technology transfer to the renewables sector here.
In addition, the Netherlands also boasts many SMEs who provide niche technologies to the oil and gas industry here. For example, many of the 60 companies at ADIPEC were SMEs looking to offer their expertise and niche solutions, especially in the offshore sector.
As I have mentioned, Dutch companies have established longstanding ties with the UAE and have weathered several oil crises in the region. The cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry demands a long-term perspective, the Dutch are here for that long term.
Regional instability has created a great deal of stress for many investors here and the UAE is a beacon of light in the region because of its fair and stable investment environment. Can you highlight how Dutch companies are taking advantage of this to invest in the UAE?
The UAE is a fantastic market characterized by excellent infrastructure, modern business practices and low barriers to market entry, by regional and global standards, which explains why it has become one of the top markets for Dutch exports in the MENA region. Attractive living conditions in the cosmopolitan cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi also play an important role in explaining the level of Dutch investment in the country, particularly the decision of many companies to place their regional headquarters in the UAE.
Moreover, the UAE is a regional leader in innovation and sustainability, acting as a model to guide the region’s future development. Take Expo 2020, for instance, which will take place in Dubai – that will mark the first time the Expo has been held in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region. Generally, I think Dutch companies recognize the UAE’s remarkable achievements and its impressive pace of development in the past few decades and also the immense potential of the entire region, which they access using the UAE as a base.
You were appointed to your UAE posting in 2015, after a distinguished diplomatic career in countries like Kuwait, Germany, Belgium, France and Kenya. What is your vision for Dutch-Emirati bilateral relations in your term as Dutch ambassador to the UAE?
I will encourage Dutch companies to establish themselves in the UAE, based on solid Dutch expertise and experience. We are a highly innovative nation according to all rankings and we are a flexible, reliable and pragmatic people. We can offer the UAE a unique combination of technological strength and our pragmatic, problem-solving aptitude. Hopefully Dutch companies can leverage on these strengths to invest and establish themselves in the UAE. I would also like to interest more Emirati companies in investing in the Netherlands and Emirati students studying there. We have an attractive, open and easily accessible market that offers a lot of, sometimes not well-known, opportunities.
More broadly speaking, my perspective is that despite the obvious cultural and geographical differences, the UAE and the Netherlands occupy very similar positions in our respective regions. Despite the fact that our countries are both physically small, we manage to punch above our weight on the international stage; this is evident in both the intricacies of our trade networks and the astuteness of our foreign policies. In addition, the stability and prosperity that the UAE has managed to establish in a region rife with conflict is admirable and further underscores the importance of active participation in a peaceful international order. We are both countries that benefit from clear, accepted international rules. With that in mind, I foresee an extremely positive trajectory for Dutch-Emirati bilateral relations in the upcoming years and as Dutch ambassador, will strive to do my best to promote friendly cooperation and collaboration between the two countries at all levels of engagement.