How would you sum up current relations between Switzerland and the UAE?
Swiss-UAE relations are currently blossoming. They started modestly when Switzerland opened a small trade office in 1976 in Abu Dhabi. Today, we have developed fruitful relations along four main pillars.
The economy: the UAE is Switzerland’s first trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) and more than 200 Swiss companies are present in the UAE.
People-to-people contact: with a large, vibrant Swiss community living in the UAE and a growing number of tourists visiting each other’s countries.
Education and research: one of the leading Swiss universities, the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne EPFL, opened a branch in Ras Al Khaimah in 2009 and we have a Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai.
Finally, international cooperation: the UAE is one of the leading donors in development and humanitarian assistance and Switzerland has a long experience in the domain; there, we engage in a fruitful exchange of knowledge and capacities.
Please provide the latest bilateral trade figures between the two countries. Is the UAE considered an important trading partner for Switzerland?
The UAE is by far Switzerland’s first trading partner in Mena. Conversely, Switzerland is among the ten largest trading partners of the UAE worldwide. Last year, total bilateral trade was $14 billion (Dh51.4 billion). The UAE exported $10 billion worth of goods to Switzerland and imported $4 billion worth from Switzerland.
What are the major products being traded?
Gold and jewelry are the main goods traded bilaterally. Swiss watches are also loved by UAE customers and account for a fifth of Swiss exports to the UAE, followed by machines, pharmaceutical products, perfumes and – of course – delicious Swiss chocolate.
How many Swiss tourists visited the UAE this year? Are any initiatives being undertaken to strengthen tourism ties?
Tourism is an important pillar of our bilateral relations. When I meet Emiratis and UAE residents, I am always amazed to see that so many people know Switzerland very well and love going there. They love Switzerland’s beautiful nature and its cities full of history. More and more, Switzerland is also liked for medical tourism and the excellent infrastructures it has in that field.
In 2017, there were 138,000 arrivals from the UAE in Swiss hotels. More than 100,000 Swiss citizens visit the UAE every year for tourism, business or for the many conferences held in the country. The figures keep rising thanks to our efforts in that field and especially the work of the Switzerland Tourism organization, which has an office in Dubai.
How many Swiss expats currently live in the UAE?
We have about 3,000 Swiss citizens living in the UAE. It is the largest Swiss community in the Arab world and it keeps growing every year.
They are usually highly educated people who bring to the UAE an important know-how, innovative spirit and managerial skills.
What are the key Swiss industries in the UAE? How well are Swiss companies performing here?
For most of the 200 Swiss companies present in the UAE, the country serves as a hub for their activities in the GCC, South Asia and sometimes even Africa. The UAE gives foreign companies an excellent infrastructure to do business. The key Swiss industries in the UAE are active in: pharmaceutical products, food, banking, machines, watches and luxury products, perfumes, logistics and construction. Swiss companies perform very well in the UAE and Switzerland in one of the top investors in the country, with $20 billion of investment.
However, some restrictions on investment (like the 49/51 rule) and rising costs and taxes are making it difficult for some companies to expand. I was very happy to hear His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announce last May that the UAE is planning to relax this rule and allow 100 per cent foreign ownership in certain sectors. This will be very welcome by Swiss investors.
Are Switzerland and the UAE currently working on any joint initiatives?
The main joint initiative is of course Expo 2020 Dubai. It will be the first world exhibition to take place in the Middle East and we expect 25 million visitors from all over the world. I am impressed by what the UAE has already achieved and is planning to do.
Switzerland was the first country to announce its participation in the expo and the first country to unveil its future pavilion in Dubai. Switzerland is looking forward to working with the UAE on this project and on its three leading themes – mobility, opportunity, sustainability – which I think perfectly embody the challenges facing this region and the solutions that we can find together.
In an increasingly interconnected world, mobility plays an ever more important role and Switzerland is a leader in environment-friendly mobility.
Finding opportunities for our youth will remain a challenge and we have started working with the UAE on that issue. Switzerland is known for its vocational training system, which give its young women and men the skills they need.
Sustainability is crucial at a time where the UAE is planning a massive development of renewable energies, a domain where Swiss companies can bring innovative technology.
Will we have any more high-profile Swiss visits to the UAE this year?
The Swiss State Secretary for Energy Benoît Revaz visited the UAE in January in the framework of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and met with many officials, including Suhail Al Mazrouei, UAE Minister of Energy and Industry.
Switzerland and the UAE both are strong global financial centres and the possibilities for further cooperation are enormous. More than 20 Swiss banks are present in the UAE and are continuously developing their activities. The fintech sector constitutes a very promising field of cooperation, which was discussed.