The Arabian Gulf, 1991: Peter Claes is standing on a Belgian mine hunter patrolling the seas off Kuwait’s coast.
Saddam Hussein’s regime has mined the Gulf during its invasion and retreat from the country. Now the seas have to be cleared of these deadly mines so resupply ships can move in to rebuild the shattered country.
“We destroyed hundreds of them. They are vicious things, very dangerous,” said Mr Claes, who was then 25 and a reserve officer.
“I’ve seen explosions that rocked me off my feet or out of my bed at night.”
Iraqi troops also set ablaze Kuwait’s oil wells, casting a dark pall over the sky and seas. “You look at night to the shores of Kuwait and you see one huge line of fire. Look at the sea and you see a swamp full of debris. The sun looked like the moon because everything was black.”
Twenty-seven years later, Mr Claes has returned to the Gulf, but this time as the Belgian ambassador to the UAE.
A career diplomat who studied law, Mr Claes, 54, has held a series of top jobs including ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He arrives into a country with close to 4,000 Belgians, business clubs, societies and two-way trade valued at €6 billion (Dh26b). Direct daily air links between UAE cities and the Belgian capital Brussels also make travel easy.
Relations between the two countries are long standing and historic. Belgium was among the first countries to recognise the UAE and it established an embassy here in 1972 — just a year after unification.
One of Mr Claes’s tasks is to take care of the Belgian community.
“We have to convey a message to our citizens to keep out of trouble. The UAE is rules based. There is not boundless freedom.
“It’s very open and tolerant here but there are some things people do not know about such as the financial system.” For example, cheques are not used frequently in Belgium but here someone could be jailed or fined if a cheque they issue bounces.
But his main priority will be business and encouraging more links between the two countries. Construction and dredging are two major areas that Belgian firms are involved with. Belgian firm Deme has worked on offshore oil dredging projects for Abu Dhabi while Besix was the main contractor on the new Adnoc headquarters on the Corniche.
Belgium will also be on the United Nations Security Council from January.
“That puts us in a situation where we can really interact on a political level,” he said.
“This will be important to achieve goals such as world peace. We have to seek common ground.”
Mr Claes took up the post on August 26 and he is here with his wife and daughter, 9. From the embassy on Hamdan Street, he can look out over the historic heart of the old city.
“This UAE is based on very ancient traditions. These traditions are quite subtle, very refined and mainly an oral tradition. It’s difficult to penetrate that but I’d like to try to savour it.”