05 Nov 2015

HRH Princess Haya speaks at Unity in Diversity conference in Florence, Italy

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Who better to come together to collaborate and address some of the most pressing concerns facing the world today, than those who govern our cities?

And what finer city than Florence to form a backdrop to these discussions?

You have travelled from all corners of the globe to foster dialogue between communities, united in diversity, and I am humbled to stand before such an inspirational group of leaders in my capacity as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

May I offer my sincere thanks to Mayor Nardella and my good friend Nicoletta Pavarotti for inviting me to join you.

As Mayor Nardella said a few moments ago, cities and their mayors are on the frontlines. And change can begin on a local level. Mayors are known for getting things done, from fixing potholes to educating children; from reassuring concerned citizens to welcoming newcomers who are helping to establish the culture of their cities.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.”

And more recently, political theorist Benjamin Barber argued on the TED stage that mayors should rule the world. He observed that “there is lots cities can do, even when opaque stubborn nations refuse to act.”

Popular discourse often seems to suggest that the theme of this conference — “Unity in Diversity” — is somehow progressive; somehow new. In fact, this concept dates back to ancient times in both Western and Eastern Old World cultures, and the associated phrase is a long-standing motto for many nation states.

As a concept, “Unity in Diversity” shifts the focus from unity based on mere tolerance of differences towards a more complex and nuanced unity based on the understanding that differences enrich human interactions. But although the concept itself may be age-old, perhaps what is newer is the urgency of the imperative to embrace it.

And nowhere is the notion of Unity in Diversity more critical than in our cities.

Many of you here today face record flows of refugees into your cities; here in Europe, the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is causing great concern across the continent.

But fractures were already beginning to appear in the cities of the world long before refugees became an issue. Cities within cities have developed, separated by language, race or religion, while many larger cities are breaking down into communities that don't trust one another.

I do not believe that any of the complex challenges facing modern cities can be effectively met without a true sense of unity and cohesion in diversity, which is why this gathering is so very important.

But too often, the concept of Unity in Diversity feels akin to a mirage - beckoning near the horizon, but elusive when pursued.

And yet, please do not believe for a minute that it is an impossible ideal to achieve.

I would suggest, based on my experience of a city that has defied the odds numerous times over more than a century, that with the right vision, an impassioned leadership committed to providing the best opportunities for its people, and a culture of openness, anything is possible.

Not so long ago, Dubai bore little resemblance to the thriving city visitors, and residents enjoy today. The airport consisted of a single hard-packed sand runway. Most people lived in barastis, simple dwellings made of palm fronds.

The town — and that’s really all it was — was crisscrossed by a maze of little streets and alleys. After nightfall, watchmen guarded the shops, each keeping watch over 10 to 12 businesses and shaking the shutters to make sure they were properly locked.

The only light came from the oil lamps hissing in front of the more prosperous houses and merchant shops. The pretty, soft golden light they emitted was a stark contrast to the hard daily life.

Dubai was a place of poverty, grinding hardship, malnutrition and high rates of infant mortality. Malaria was a companion as sure as the tainted drinking water from wells that were always at risk of contamination by salt.

Today, the gleaming city that rises triumphantly out of the Arabian Desert is a thriving modern metropolis that embodies the very concept of Unity in Diversity.

Recent history has galvanised changes in Dubai in ways that may seem almost miraculous, and yet, perhaps if we bear in mind how its social, economic, political and religious landscapes are constantly shifting, just like its desert sands, the story of Dubai is not so surprising.

While on a practical level, the extremities of the landscape in the desert have historically meant that collaboration and community were vital in order to survive, the shifting desert sands have also become emblematic of a wider cultural ethos of expecting and embracing change.

I am very proud of my adoptive home city, but it is not often that I have spoken about it on the world’s stage. Considering, however, the elusive mirage that Unity in Diversity seems to be for so many, I would like to share with you for consideration some elements of the story of how Dubai’s rulers made their vision of connecting people in an environment which embraces Unity in Diversity a reality.

Contrary to popular belief, Dubai didn’t emerge as a modern city overnight, and its multicultural community is not an accident or coincidence. Dubai’s vision of connecting people dates back to the early 1800’s, and although recent years have seen its transformation from a fishing village into one of the most dynamic metropolises in the world, some things have not changed in two centuries of the Maktoum family’s rule.

The values that prevailed in those earlier times — the importance of family and faith, and the Arabian traditions of honour and hospitality that are embedded in our Bedouin culture — remain strong. When you remember where you come from, you can go anywhere.

The Maktoum family realised early on that the future depended greatly on the people who passed through and stayed in Dubai; people who needed to feel that they were free to flourish and prosper without risk.

The collapse of the ancient pearling industry was catastrophic for the region, but Dubai, thanks to its forward-thinking free trade port, was not as badly affected as the rest of the region, increasingly recognised as a place which connected people.

Despite the common misconception that Dubai is built on oil, in fact, only 5 per cent of its economic output comes from the energy sector. Trade, tourism, and the financial sector account for its wealth, and that wealth has grown thanks to a unique mix of economic and social policies.

It has not been easy and, beginning with surviving against the elements, building to meet the basic needs by overcoming starvation and poverty, preventing violence and instilling peace within less than a generation, Dubai has built itself into a phenomenal success.

I could not be more proud of my husband, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, whose vision and determination have made Dubai the thriving and cosmopolitan metropolis that it is today.

Emiratis work alongside an incredible mix of more than 190 nationalities who make up 80 per cent of the population – religious, racial and ethnic tolerance enrich the city and allow it to attract talent from all over the world, working in harmony.

This desire to connect with the wider world is the motivation behind Dubai Expo 2020, whose core aim is to foster innovation and partnership with a global audience under the theme, “Connecting minds and creating the future.”  

We have the world represented in Dubai, and in many ways, I believe, Dubai is also a microcosm of the modern world.  

I understand that Dubai’s embrace of multiculturalism is not, of course, a "one size fits all solution" for every city. And undoubtedly, the challenges for the world's cities – and therefore for you, their mayors – are growing; shifting and changing like desert sands. But I hope that you find some inspiration in Dubai’s story.

I am mindful of the old saying that, ‘it is not the mountain ahead that wears you out, but the grain of sand in your shoe’. And I know that, as Mayors of the world’s cities, if Unity in Diversity is the mountain, the many day-to-day issues specific to your individual cities are those grains of sand.

Mayors of the world, like you, your task is truly remarkable. I wish you courage, vision and confidence as you lift your eyes to the mountains and I wish you comfortable footwear for the climb.

Thank you.