By Binsal Abdulkader
ABU DHABI, 21th July, 2020 (WAM) — The United Arab Emirates has been very vocal about the value of tolerance during the past couple of years because of the realisation that “religion has been hijacked and politicised,” a top Emirati diplomat has said.
“We have always been that way [promoting tolerance and related values] but we have never been as vocal as we have been in the last couple of years,” said Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States.
He was speaking in a webinar on Monday, hosted by the Special Olympics to discuss the global expansion of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, UCS, with the support of US$25 million gift from His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces.
Al Otaiba said there was a reason for the UAE changing its approach and becoming more vocal about tolerance.
“Hosting the Pope, bringing the Special Olympics, building an Abrahamic House…these all because we feel that religion has been hijacked and politicised; dominated by extremism and radicalism, and basically been misinterpreted by so many people around the world,” the envoy explained.
“I think our religion, at least the way I understand my own religion, was never about politics…was never about extremism…was never about violence. I think what we are trying to do here is to take the narrative back and recapture what our religion means, both to us and to the rest of the world,” Al Otaiba made it clear.
“So many people now look at us and look at our part of the world and think this entire region is violent and the religion here is radical, which is not. We are trying to present to the rest of the world that religion has absolutely nothing to do with extremism or politics. It has to do with faith and respect,” the ambassador pointed out.
“Different people practise religion in different ways, but I think it is important to send that message to the rest of the world from the Middle East,” the senior diplomat asserted.
The UAE has found that the Special Olympics also share certain values the country upholds, he noted. The UAE’s US$25 million gift to Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, UCS, represents the country’s values of inclusion, respect, acceptance and tolerance.
“And it’s mainly because we have learned that the Special Olympics and their community share the values that we have in the UAE. These are things we grew up with. These are things we inherited…it is in our DNA. And we finally found an organisation that espouses those exact values,” Al Otaiba explained.
Talking about the UAE hosting the Special Olympics World Games first time in the Middle East in 2019 in Abu Dhabi, the ambassador said it was an unconventional step. Most countries do it other way round, as they would start a relationship with the Special Olympics, work their way up to host something like a World Games or similar event later, he pointed out.
“We are notoriously unconventional in the UAE. So we did it in opposite direction. We started with the big event.”
The latest gesture from the UAE to support Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, UCS, came from the thoughts about taking forward that legacy of the World Games and support the education and healthcare of athletes in their normal life.
“You quickly forget, well, what about when they are not competing? And I think this is where we need to do a lot more work, because that’s not where the glitz and glamour comes in,” Al Otaiba said.
The global expansion of UCS announced by Special Olympics on Monday is one of the largest initiatives for inclusion in education for young people with and without intellectual disabilities, through the support of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
Building on over a decade of success of UCS in the US and growing impact in more than fifty other countries around the world, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed has committed $25 million on behalf of the people of the UAE in order to bring this initiative to six countries – Argentina, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Romania and Rwanda.
Special Olympics will lead the growth of UCS in these countries, empowering young leaders to create lasting social change through inclusion in education for people with and without intellectual disabilities.
WAM/ Ibrahim Shukralla