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The new face of the Emirates

Süddeutsche Zeitung

16 July, 2021

Author: Paul-Anton Krüger, Munich 

Mariam al-Mheiri once studied mechanical engineering in Aachen. Now, as Minister of State, she is responsible for food and water security - and is expected to polish up relations with Germany.

She always wanted to do something that no Emirati woman before her had managed to do. "It was always in my head as a teenager, whether it was horseback riding, scuba diving or tennis," Mariam al-Mheiri says. "I wanted to be a tennis pro." At the very least, an interest in the underwater world should still play a role in the career of the UAE's Minister of State for Water and Food Security - a position she is not only the first woman to hold, but one that was created for her and is arguably unique in the world.

Instead of the world's center courts, her path led her to the German provinces, to Aachen. "When we were 16 or 17 and thinking about where we could study, I first had the U.S. or the U.K. in mind," al-Mheiri recalls. But then, for his graduation, her family visited an uncle who, like her German-born mother's other brother, had studied at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH). "They always spoke highly of the university, of university life; and I was also impressed by Aachen," says al-Mheiri.

She called RWTH and asked whether "a girl from the Emirates" had ever studied there. The answer: no. So al-Mheiri enrolled in mechanical engineering. "There weren't that many women there overall," she recalls. At the time, she had to complete her studies in German. She hadn't learned that at school, only as a child from her mother. But that didn't stop her; it predestined her for another office which she now holds: Special Envoy for the Relations with the Federal Republic of Germany.

She has taken over the job from Sultan al-Jaber, who is considered the right-hand man of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the regent of the Emirates. He attaches great importance to the strategic partnership with Berlin, which can be read as proof of his confidence in al-Mheiri.

Criticism of human rights violations scratches image

"I want to be a contact person," she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung during a visit in July, and "make sure that people understand who we are and that we open our arms to the international community." Tolerance and peaceful coexistence are among the government's maxims. People from 200 nations live in Dubai; there are churches, Buddhist temples, synagogues. The Emirates have normalized their relations with Israel - al-Mheiri recently visited the country.

However, there is also criticism of human rights violations and of the country's at times brash regional policy, which also caused irritation in Berlin. Polishing her country's image in Germany is one of al-Mheiri's tasks. She certainly does not lack enthusiasm. She sees potential above all in economic cooperation and in the exchange of technology. Here, too, her studies in Aachen are reflected in her political activities.

"I actually wanted to do aerospace engineering," says al-Mheiri, who also began private pilot training during her time in Germany. After one semester, however, she switched to construction and development. Today, she promotes innovative start-ups in agriculture that use new methods to enable sustainable food cultivation in the harsh conditions of the Emirates' deserts.

Originally, she had not thought of working for the government. She found her first job in Germany in a start-up that produced ball bearings for racing cars. Her father only said, "As long as you don't work as a car mechanic," she says with a laugh. But ultimately, his connections contributed to his daughter not pursuing her plan of seeking a job with the Emirates airline, but instead joining the civil service.

She met the former Minister of Environment and Water, an acquaintance of her father, at an event. From a small talk about hobbies and family, a professional perspective unfolded. Diving and an interest in fish met the need for engineers who would help develop modern aquaculture. Instead of aircraft engineering, al-Mheiri's life soon revolved around biofilters and mechanical filters, the reuse of water. Again, she was the first woman, her rise rapid thereafter.

"When I do something, I do it with passion," she says. The political leadership takes up initiatives; they just want to be convinced that a project will move the country forward, and that it fits into the vision for the Emirates' development. Food Tech Valley, modeled on Silicon Valley, is her flagship project, which has succeeded in winning over the highest authorities to her proposals.

So-called ag-tech start-ups, which use technical innovations for a modern agricultural economy, are to settle there. "If you grow tomatoes outside, you need 250 liters of water for one kilogram," she calculates; inside, it's only 25 liters. "But of that, 20 liters is just for cooling the plant's environment through evaporation - and for cooling, we can use treated wastewater."

The Emirates can already supply themselves with cucumbers and dates. Al-Mheiri is now courting German founders. Start-up financing from the Emirates is intended to lure them to Dubai. And from there, they should not primarily export fruit and vegetables to the region, but technology and knowhow.

Her goal is ambitious: by 2051, she wants to achieve first place in the Global Food Security Index, which uses 59 factors to assess supply security. Only those who set high goals can also achieve something - that is the philosophy of the Emirates. That's what Mariam al-Mheiri stands for.