Ambassador Riitta Swan wants to bring Finnish inventions to the UAE.
A blondpony tail stands out from the streets of Abu Dhabi. Ambassador of Finland Riitta Swan is used to being noticed.
“As a blond female ambassador it’s easy to get attention”, she laughs. “People remember you!”
Riitta Swan doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has, for example, spent evenings at camels’ beauty contest, as a prize distributor.
“When you see camels from afar, they look pretty much the same. But, with a closer look, they are in fact very different.”
Swan has worked as the Ambassador of Finland in Abu Dhabi for about two and a half years. The pace of social and economic reforms in the United Arab Emirates has been intense.
“Innovations are much talked about, and they are also funded well. The country needs a lot of outside help and effort”, Swan says.
And by that she means: from the Finns.
About one hundred Finns move to the UAE yearly. According to Swan, there would be demand for a bigger crowd.
“This country is very interested in services provided by Finnish companies”, says Swan. “For example, we have lots to offer in education and healthcare, hygiene and sanitation technology.”
Swan regrets that Finnish companies often do things solo and only offer their own product or services.
“That mentality doesn’t really work here. In this country, they don’t want to buy a digital teaching system, but an entire school: building, teachers, tables and chairs, teaching methods. The whole package.”
The same rule applies to health care and tourism.
“Travel industry should invest in umbrella services: for example, figure out how to wrap Lapland in one package. It would benefit all the companies involved.”
Also, Finnish food products are much needed in the UAE.
“People here are starting to get more and more conscious about their health. Wholesome Finnish food products would respond to that demand.”
A year ago, the UAE opened an embassy to Helsinki. Promotion of Finnish exports and cooperation between the two countries got a lot easier.
However, according to Swan, starting business in the Arab world is sometimes hampered by fears and prejudices. Many Nordic people think of the Middle East as a homogenous area, although the countries are in fact very different.
“Many fear Islamic rules. But the truth is that religion doesn’t really affect immigrants' lives here in the UAE.”
Swan’s work as ambassador also involves very little religious features.
“Some men prefer not to shake a woman’s hand, but that’s okay. They are very friendly, and instead of handshaking they nod kindly.”
In fact, the social status of women in the UAE has been a positive surprise for Swan. Educated women are being raised to core positions, such as ministers and parliamentary leaders. UAE’s ambassador in Finland is also a woman.
“These women have really earned their place. They have knowledge, skills and will. True iron ladies”, Swan describes.
Being a woman opens Swan a window to the local women's world.
“It's easy to get close and talk about a variety of things”, Swan says and points out:
“Women entrepreneurship is another example where Finns could provide support.”
Swan hopes that Finns will notice the common features of Finnish and Arab cultures.
“We Finns have always lived close to nature: isolated summer cottages are very dear to us. Here locals go camping at the desert with their families.”
In Swan’s opinion, Finns could learn from the example of Arab way of family life.
“Families take care of all their members. Elderly people are respected, and they are a part of the family until the end. That is a wonderful thing in Islamic Arab cultures.”