Dubai: Summing up his six years in office serving as the Philippine Consul General in Dubai, Paul Raymund Cortes borrows a verse from a popular song in a musical to convey a point.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, the longest-serving Filipino diplomat in the UAE, sings: “Every endeavour/ I have made, ever/ Is coming into play/ Is here and now, today/ This is the moment/ This is the time/ When the momentum and the moment/ Are in rhyme.”
The song, titled ‘This is the Moment’, is from the musical Jekyll & Hyde. Its melody is catchy; lines are repetitive; but as it transitions into new keys and the tempo rises into a crescendo, the listener will come to understand that something big is happening.
“It’s a sweeping statement and a summation of one’s endeavours,” said Cortes.
“The song announces the way a person has finally received his due. It best describes the six years I have served as a diplomat in Dubai and my 25 years working in Philippine foreign service.”
Cortes said he was at first unsure what foreign service would bring him. But after heading the Philippine post in Dubai, he became certain he followed the right path and made the right decision to serve his kababayans (compatriots).
“Every endeavour I’ve made has come into play. This is the moment; this is the time,” he repeated as he recalled some of the moments that characterised his time in office.
Chief of mission
Cortes first arrived in Dubai to head the Philippine mission in 2015. He previously served as consul at the Philippine Embassy in Budapest for seven years, from 1997 to 2004; and he had another long post in Hawaii, where he was consul and later deputy consul general from 2006 to 2013.
Before coming to Dubai, he was stationed in Manila, where he worked as a director at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) office, drafting policy statements on migration and diplomatic work.
“The demand for work was very different in Dubai. My previous postings were relatively lighter and my service at Asean was more academic. As head of Philippine mission in Dubai, I was given the real task of handling migration issues face to face,” he said.
“I was no longer drafting statements or writing about Filipino migrants. I faced actual migrants who came to me for assistance. As head of post, I made decisions that mattered in their lives. The approach was more practical as I also ensured that I promoted and protected their [Filipino expats’] rights and welfare.”
Cortes noted the sheer number of Filipinos in the UAE makes it a tall order for any diplomat. He said: “Official estimate puts the number of Filipinos in the UAE at 650,000, with two-thirds or over 400,000 of them living and working in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, which are under my jurisdiction.”
Cortes added: “But our estimates are actually higher — there are probably between 560,000 to 570,000 Filipinos in Dubai who hold residency and tourist visas. It’s a huge post — not only heavy on consular services [such as passport, notarial and legal services] but also high on demand for ATN [assistance to nationals]” he added.
Any concern regarding Filipinos — from visa woes to unfair labour practices, illegal employment, human trafficking, citizens arrested for crimes, traffic accidents, tourists who had emergencies with unpaid hospital bills, and more — came under the responsibilities of Cortes and his staff at the Philippine Consulate.
“It is a huge diaspora and aside from the consular and ATN services, we also have to attend to bilateral ties between the UAE and Philippines, especially since Dubai is the economic and financial capital in this part of the world.
“There are many opportunities for business and economic partnerships and on top of that, we have to offer opportunities and initiatives for our kababayans to help out with the development of our own country.”
‘Whirlwind of activities’
Cortes perhaps was not exaggerating when he described his tenure as “a whirlwind of activities”, with a lot of things happening at a fast pace. Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine consulate has received around 100,000 calls from Filipinos asking for assistance. Moreover, the offices in Al Qusais and the adjacent Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) were temporarily shut this year due to virus outbreak.
In the last few months, the consulate has been busy attending to over 6,000 stranded Filipinos who have applied for repatriation, following travel restrictions imposed by the Philippine government since May. Many are anxious to go home to see their families, said Cortes, adding “the Philippine government is working on all possible options to accommodate these requests in the earliest possible time”.
Back in 2018, Cortes and his staff assisted over 3,000 Filipinos who availed of the UAE’s general programme. They were provided with free tickets by the Philippine government and were each given $100 (Dh365) as “welfare assistance”.
Aside from the “major assistance campaigns”, Cortes also facilitated the repatriation of abandoned children and distressed kababayans. Moreover, he worked on streamlining consular services, which have been struggling to meet the high volume of demand from its numerous citizens.
“It’s not a regular 9-to-5 job. We have to make ourselves available round-the-clock as sometimes people call in middle of the night asking for help.”
Prior to Cortes’ posting in Dubai, the consulate ranked somewhere at the bottom among Philippine missions in terms of performance.
Cortes proudly said things made a good turn during this term. “As early as 2018 we got the Best Organisation Award from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for our performance in 2017. We also received the Best ATN Unit for 2017 and some consular staff were recognised as Best Employees for four straight years from 2017 to 2020,” said Cortes, who himself was conferred for his meritorious services the ‘Gawad Mabini’ with the rank of ‘Dakilang Kamanong’ (Grand Cross) by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2018.
When asked what was his mantra in serving his kababayans, Cortes said: “I just persevered to be myself. If I did not become honest, I would not be able not fulfil my role as leader of the Filipino community. I could not be the representative of the Philippine government and help out our kababayans. My mantra was to be myself so I could mirror the dreams and vision of the Filipino community.”
He added: “There were also misses during my term. I wish I had more time to go around and personally meet more people. I would have wanted to meet more of the 500,000 to 600,000 Filipinos — speak to them and understand their hopes and dreams.
“But, of course, it was really impossible to do that. At the most, in the last six years, I have personally spoken to probably around 15,000 Filipinos. So, what I did I reached out to various community leaders who in turn cascaded to others my message and the thrusts of the consulate.
“I was able to liaise with many community leaders and engage the participation of many Filipino expats in various activities, including culture, arts, music, dance, photography, sports, and various advocacies.”
Legacy as public servant
Prior to forging a career in foreign service, Cortes was a professional ballad singer. He gave up the microphone but made the greatest performance of his life as a diplomat, he said.
“I like to think people would judge me positively. That I tried my best making consular services more efficient and more convenient for many people. I tried to provide legal services to those who needed them most and I tried to reach out to as many people as I can both physically and virtually,” added Cortes.
“At the end of the day, I have to answer to my Maker and I know deep in my heart that I did my best as a public servant. Most importantly, I hope my children will see the commitment I put in my work. Sometimes it was a difficult choice between having a quality time with my family and attending to my obligations as consul general, and I hope my children will appreciate the dedication I put as a public servant.”
Cortes continued: “Of course, there were some people who tried to disparage me; there were haters who wished to put me down. Luckily, these people were few. The overwhelming consensus I got from my kababayans was they were happy in the six years I spent in Dubai serving them.”
Cortes will officially end his term in October. His next assignment is to return to Manila and assume the position as DFA Assistant Secretary for Migrant Workers.
“This time I will not only be working for Filipinos in Dubai, but my new responsibility will entail working for migrant Filipinos across the world,” said Cortes, adding — while borrowing another line from the song to summarise his stay in Dubai: “When I look back/ I will always recall/ Moment for moment/ This was the moment/ The greatest moment/ Of them all.”