By Iralis Fragiel PANAMA CITY, 12th February 2016 (WAM-IPS) – The visit by the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister, H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to Panama ended on Thursday, 11th February with the creation of a novel Joint Cooperation Committee on trade and investment.
The committee will serve as “the legal base for launching joint investment projects, including the participation of Emirati companies in the public tenders of this government’s five-year investment plan, especially in the areas of energy and shipping cooperation,” said Panama’s Vice President and Foreign Minister, Isabel de Saint Malo.
Sheikh Abdullah said during his visit that the UAE is interested in getting involved with Panama in areas of common interest, such as banking, logistics, energy, airports and infrastructure.
In a joint press conference, the Emirati minister added that his country is not only interested in studying initiatives to carry out in Panama, but in pushing ahead with projects that would reach out to other markets from this Central American country.
As noted during the meeting, the new committee “will promote and coordinate programmes on the political, economic, trade, cultural, judicial, security, social, environment, tourism, technology and humanitarian aid fronts and in other areas of interest” to the two countries.
Sheikh Abdullah was visiting Panama as part of a Latin America tour that has also taken him took him to Argentina and Colombia and ends today, Friday 12th February, in Costa Rica.
Prior to the signing of the accord creating the committee, the two ministers held a private meeting in Panama’s foreign ministry, before presiding over a meeting with their delegations.
The UAE’s decision to open an embassy in Panama in 2017 was confirmed during the meetings, while Panama will upgrade its consulate in the Gulf nation to an embassy.
In November 2014, De Saint Malo visited to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, where she was received by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces, leading to a strengthening of ties between the two countries.
That same year, negotiations began on three bilateral agreements: the elimination of the visa requirement, investment protection and aviation.
An agreement has been reached to start a direct flight between Panama City and Dubai. To be operated by Emirates, it will begin on 31st March and will be the longest direct flight in the world, lasting for nearly 18 hours, according to the airline. Panama will be the first Central American country with a flight to Dubai, where Emirates offers the largest airline hub in the Middle East, with connections to Africa, Asia and Europe.
According to a statement from Panama’s foreign ministry, the air link between the two countries is important because “it opens the doors to innumerable economic, trade and cultural opportunities and lays the foundation for the possible establishment of the headquarters of multinational companies.”
Vice President De Saint Malo said there are important similarities between Panama and the UAE, especially in logistics and the shipping business, in foreign direct investment, and as countries that promote peace and stability.
“With the opening of the two embassies, not only will these projects quickly take shape, but it makes us gateways to Latin America and the Middle East, respectively,” she said.
A leading Panamanian lawyer and international consultant, Rodrigo Noriega, also welcomed the boosting of relations between this Central American country and the Gulf nation, although he noted that the benefits will not be seen in the short term.
“This visit is very productive and strengthens Panama’s reputation as an open country that is not xenophobic and is not anti-Muslim,” he told IPS.
He described it as a “win-win” relationship, but one that will begin to yield fruit in five, 10 or 20 years.
“We are taking the first steps towards inter-regional diplomacy with a bloc of countries with which we have not normally had ties,” he said.
In his view, the fact that the UAE is looking to Panama “indicates that there are questions of common interest, such as the expansion of the canal and of Tocumen international airport, the logistics hub, the dollarised economy and the Colon free zone.”
“They see possibilities for investment and see us as a platform for their products and services, as a strategic ally in the region,” Noriega said.
De Saint Malo took advantage of the meeting to brief her guest on the Regional Logistics Centre for Humanitarian Assistance in Panama, an initiative “that benefits all of Latin America and the Caribbean and is aimed at addressing the effects of climate change.”
The logistics centre brings together the emergency operations of different agencies in one single location, at Panama Pacific International Airport, some 20 minutes from the capital.
Sheikh Abdullah, meanwhile, stressed that the UAE’s hub offers aid to Southeast Asia and Africa, among other regions, and that its experience could support Panama’s hub. “Our experts will be exchanging ideas and will provide support for the third phase of this Panamanian initiative,” he said.
Noriega said Panama could take into account the successful aspects of the UAE, such as its great experience as a logistics, financial and energy hub, as well as its heavy spending on education.
“They have sent their people to study at the best universities in the world. Universities like Massachusetts, Harvard and Cambridge have campuses in the Emirates, because they want to stop being a country that only produces raw materials, like oil, to become a producer of knowledge,” the analyst said.
Noriega said Panama must stop thinking of itself as only as an “exporter of water through the canal” and start thinking as “a country that produces knowledge,” a lesson in which it has a lot to learn from the UAE, which the world has stopped seeing just as an oil exporter.
Another important issue discussed in the bilateral dialogue was energy.
In response to a question from IPS at the press conference, the Panamanian Vice President said that with respect to energy, the delegations had discussed the shared aim of diversifying the energy mix and boosting the production of clean energy, to explore areas of cooperation in the future.
Sheikh Abdullah also noted that there are international initiatives in which Panama and the UAE could participate, that move away from the traditional development of oil and gas.