by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN — In December, 2019 news emerged of a novel strain of a coronavirus with an alarming infection rate. To date, some 474,668 people worldwide have been reported to have died because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s toll throughout the world has been devastating, wrecking economies, stressing health care systems and causing countries around the world to impose travel bans and restrictions to thwart the spread of the virus. As Ireland continues to lift many of the restrictions previously imposed to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic it gives us time to reflect upon the work of diplomacy in action and the critical role played by the Diplomatic Corps in continuing to serve people during the crisis.
We are profiling several diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy has been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight into the challenges that may lie ahead. In this interview, the Royal Saudi Ambassador, His Excellency Mr. Nail Al-Jubeir of the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Ireland was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with me.
After a career in journalism, His Excellency Mr. Al-Jubeir joined the Foreign Service in 1997 where he served in the Office of the Assistant Minister for Political Affairs in Riyadh, later being assigned to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. where he served as the Director of the Information Office. Sworn in on 17 April 2018 during a ceremony attended by King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Al-Yamamah Palace, His Excellency Mr. Al-Jubeir then presented his letters of credence extraordinary and plenipotentiary to President Michael D. Higgins as the Royal Saudi Ambassador to Ireland on 17 May 2018.
Your Excellency, I recall we met in Washington, D.C. when I was a staffer on Capitol Hill and you were then a correspondent for Al-Jazirah. Please let me compliment you on a prestigious diplomatic career since then. I appreciate you taking a moment to discuss the events of recent months and the Covid-19 pandemic with us and how it has impacted the Mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Ireland of late.
What did you find to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Our primary concern was the well-being of our citizens and staff. Arranging transportation and accommodations for stranded citizens throughout the Republic were early challenges. The Embassy arranged accommodations and three meals a day for over 40 citizens at a hotel in Dublin. Per directives issued by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, all expenses were covered by the mission. The Embassy and the Saudi Cultural Bureau kept the citizens regularly updated on repatriation plans as they became available and reassured them on the Saudi government’s commitment to repatriate every citizen who wants to return home free of charge. Over 1,000 citizens have been repatriated.
How many people did your Mission help return home throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?
The Mission repatriated over 1,000 citizens over a period of five weeks on 5 special Saudia Airlines flights as there were no direct flights between Saudi Arabia and Ireland. Repatriation flights were also made available to Irish citizens wishing to return to Ireland.
With a general prohibition on travel and restricted visits to Embassies in Ireland, what are some of the ways your Mission adapted to meet the needs of people asking for services?
Over the past few years, many of the Embassy’s services were made available online, thus minimizing the need to visit the Embassy. During the pandemic, the Embassy focused primarily on the welfare of Saudi citizens by shifting its resources to citizens welfare, including arranging medical services, providing transportation to medical appointments, and in some cases food shopping trips for those in need. Embassy staff also carried out a number of home welfare checks.
Was your Mission involved in helping to facilitate the provision of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to Ireland or within the EU? If so, please explain.
The Saudi Government has responded to requests for PPE from around the globe. It has donated millions of PPE, including hundreds of thousands of medical gowns to Britain’s NHS. Currently, there are over 50 Saudi doctors who have joined the fight against COVID-19 in Ireland. In addition to the PPE, Saudi Arabia donated $500 million to relevant international organisations to support the global efforts in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are accounts of diplomats, their spouses or staff serving around the world who fell victim to Covid-19 in the service of their countries. Did your Mission or country experience any losses or illnesses in your diplomatic community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date?
It is by the grace of God that no one at the Mission fell victim to Covid-19 and the Embassy has no reports of any Saudi citizen having fallen victim to Covid-19 in Ireland.
Early on, the Embassy has implemented safety protocols issued by the Saudi Ministry of Health and Irish health authorities, including limiting the number of staff allowed in the Mission at any given time, provided masks, hand sanitizers, and temperature readings. Working hours have also been curtailed.
What are some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that you think will have an impact on how diplomacy is conducted in the future?
The early sharing of accurate information is vital to preparing a response. The quicker accurate information reaches the people, the better for all. When information is not available, misinformation, rumors, and conspiracy theories will dominate and will build mistrust among the public which will make it more difficult to effectively counter future pandemics. Covid-19 has forced governments to accelerate online services and remote working which will reduce staff size at embassies and consulates.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future?
The Saudi government has adapted may changes prior to the pandemic that have changed the way Consular services are provided, including online visa applications and visa on arrival. As for Saudi citizens services, virtually all services are online. The Mission, however, will continue to provide assistance to Saudi citizens abroad, including in-person welfare checks.
What are the plans for your country to move towards a ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
On June 21, Saudi Arabia ended a three-month lockdown and lifted restrictions on businesses. Restrictions will remain in force for Umrah (minor pilgrimage), international travel and social gatherings of more than 50 people.
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share one?
Fortunately, we have been lucky no one at the mission contracted the Covid-19 virus. It would be very presumptuous on my part to share tragic stories when we were blessed not to have gone through any such tragedy.
Ambassador Al-Jubeir, I want to thank you for your time. May I convey to His Highness, King Salman and all of the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Diplomat Ireland’s best wishes for continued good health and for you and your Mission’s future successes.