Exclusive: Why the first female ambassador in Saudi Arabia thinks the UAE got gender equality right

Dominique Mineur may be set to become the first sitting female ambassador to Saudi Arabia but she’s certain her posting will soon be a footnote in history.

After completing her four-year stint in as Belgium’s representative in Abu Dhabi, in September Ms Mineur will become the first female ambassador to be based in the kingdom. Although her posting was initially leaked by Belgian state media before her credentials had even come through, she had yet to officially confirm the news before speaking with The National.

However, she’s quick to put an end to any talk of landmark postings or milestones for women. She says she wants to remain “extremely modest in that sense”, and she’s simply going on to continue the role of her predecessor.

“Yes I will be the first one but I just hope, and sincerely hope, that it’s going to be an anecdote in history very soon,” she says. “And that some other people will follow and some other female ambassadors will come and it will be a small story in the history of the change in Saudi. You know, I have the feeling that the Western world are paying more attention to that than people from the Gulf.”

If you want to split hairs, Ms Mineur is not technically the first female ambassador to Saudi Arabia, but the first to be posted in the country. The mantle was taken up by Georgia’s Yekaterina Mayering Mikadze in 2010 when she was appointed ambassador to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia based at the mission in Kuwait City as the country had no embassy in Riyadh. When the Georgian embassy opened in Riyadh in 2015, a man took on the role. Latvia’s ambassador to the UAE, Astra Kurme, also represents Saudi Arabia.

Looking ahead to her posting, she acknowledges the sweeping changes taking place in Saudi Arabia as women were recently granted the right to drive, attend sports games, and hold positions that were once reserved for men.

Nonetheless, she’s careful to note that advocacy for women’s rights won’t come into her role in Riyadh.

“The Saudi society is indeed going through a process of reforms but this is coming from them, I have nothing to do with that. I will be there, I will be a witness of the changes I hope will continue, but any reform has to come from the society itself. It’s not for me to say anything, it has to come from inside”, she said.

So could Saudi Arabia be one of the world’s next big global players, ready to sit alongside the likes of China or Britain?

It’s possible, she says, so long as education reforms are to follow.

“All this power has to be put into the economy and it will be a huge asset for the development of the country.”

As well as Ms Mineur’s appointment, the European nation will also soon send a female ambassador, Veronique Petit, to Iran. While pundits have been quick to suggest the two postings have a deeper meaning, with a foreign ministry source quoted at the time by De Tijd newspaper as saying that the move was “a clear signal”, Ms Mineur simply says it came down to pure coincidence.

“The two postings became available at the same time. Both of us applied, so it made the job of the minister easier. In a diplomatic career, and I think it’s the situation in all countries, I think it’s difficult to have women [with families] taking ambassadorships when you’re moving from posting to posting.”

The Belgian foreign minister had then appointed women to key postings, she says, and pushed women to have more leadership roles in decision-making processes.

Gender equality has long been a theme close to Ms Mineur’s heart, and it’s something she’s spoken passionately about during her time in the Emirates. But it’s also something she believes the UAE has been ahead of the curve on, compared to some of its neighbours.

“You see in the leadership - Sheikh Zayed always wanted to promote education for women and children. The same goes for Her Highness Sheikha Fatima, she’s the one who really pushed for women and girls to be educated. In a way it is deeply rooted into the leadership and vision and desire to have women to take an active role in the society,” she says.

Perhaps it’s why she’s found it relatively easy to speak out about another passion, UN Security Council resolution 1325, in which women are encouraged to be part of peace and security negotiations in times of crisis.

But this was not a resolution that solely addresses women. She says men are just as important.

“Men and women are complementary. Women see things that men don’t - they are at home they take care of the kids and family concerns and all this has to be taken into account in peace and security and I think when women are actively involved in peace negotiations, the results are for a longer term than when they are not.

“The thing I don’t really like is when women are talking to women, it’s useless. We need to have men and women talking to each other. And I also want men to be the advocates of women.”

It may be a small country in terms of its 11-million strong population, but Belgium’s influence is prolific in the UAE. Take the Godiva stores, for instance, or the Guylian Cafe in Yas Mall. All chocolate references aside, they actually had a stake in the world’s tallest tower too. The Burj Khalifa was built by Belgium’s BESIX construction company, in a joint venture with the UAE’s Arabtec and Samsung.

She said her time in the country had many highlights. One is her group of international and Emirati friends. Another was welcoming Princess Astrid of Belgium, alongside a delegation of ministers, for the UAE-Belgium forum in 2015. At the time, Belgium was the fifth major exporter of goods to the UAE and the largest importer of goods from the UAE within the EU.

Another was watching the “projection of the UAE as a new power in the region”, and observing its stances on environmentalism and sustainability.

“There’s still more things to do of course, but I’ve been really amazed to see the speed taken by the country to move forward.”

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