Meet ambassador Lody Embrechts - ‘Thanks to modern technology, we can grow food in the desert’

The Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are both small, strongly oriented towards international trade, and innovative. Ambassador Lody Embrechts explains how our similarities, and our differences, offer opportunities to learn from each other and do business together: ‘The UAE needs water and food, and the Netherlands is a major player in both.’

Ambassador of the kingdom of The Netherlands Lody Embrechts at his office in Abu Dhabi

What do we need to know about the UAE?

‘One thing it’s good to keep in mind is that the United Arab Emirates has only existed for about fifty years. In that short time, they’ve developed a desert area into hypermodern megacities with an impact that is felt across the globe. That’s the result of a drive you see in everything: the people here are, overall, broad-minded and forward-looking. They have a clear vision of the future and are keen to learn from others, especially when it comes to sustainability, innovation and tolerance, which are of great importance here.’

The best-known emirates are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. How are these cities different?

‘The UAE is made up of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain. There are between 7,000 to 8,000 Dutch nationals living in them, and 340 to 350 companies based here. Most of those are in Dubai. Dubai is a commercial hub in the region. It’s where you find the big trade fairs, hotels, tourists and major sporting events. Abu Dhabi is the city of government and of oil and gas companies. Abu Dhabi is just a bit quieter than Dubai, but it’s clearly put itself on the map.’

What are the challenges facing the UAE?

‘The UAE is a like the Netherlands; they too have built themselves up using their raw materials. The Netherlands did that with natural gas, while in the UAE’s case it was the trade in oil. Now we’re seeing a worldwide transition towards a sustainable future. So the UAE is eager to develop in that direction.

‘They also want to diversify their sources of revenue, to make them less vulnerable to crises. Just look at Dubai: when the pandemic hit. the tourists suddenly disappeared. That took a big chunk of their income away.

‘In food, you can see that same vulnerability: 80% of the food in the UAE is imported. When flights aren’t possible, for instance during a pandemic, there’s not enough food. To prevent that, the UAE is now working to make sure that in the future the emirates will be able to produce their own food.’

Palm Island Dubai
Image: ©Thomas Pesquet / ESA / NASA /
Palm Island, Dubai

What can the embassy do to help meet these challenges?

‘As an embassy, we look at what this country needs. Then we look for opportunities to help address those needs with knowledge and innovation. Once we’ve mapped that out, we and the consulate approach the authorities and the major players.

‘With respect to food security, this is one of the Netherlands’ strengths. Our country is the second-biggest food exporter in the world. On our relatively small area of land, we manage to grow tremendous amounts of food, and that has gained us a lot of useful knowledge. With this knowledge, the Netherlands can link the UAE to knowledge institutions and companies to meet its needs.

‘For example, the Netherlands can get Wageningen University to focus on the UAE’s goals. Likewise, Dutch companies can team up with the UAE to make real progress in advancing sustainable innovations in agriculture, like smart farming.

‘Smart farming uses technologies like 4G, satellite images, drones, web applications and so on. It allows companies in the UAE and the Netherlands to grow food even in a greenhouse in the desert. We’ll be demonstrating some of the Dutch innovations in this field in October at EXPO 2020.’

What are some of the ways that the two countries are already working together?

‘Along with agriculture, the Netherlands is also doing soil surveys here. When the company Van Oord announced its plan for the famous Palm Island, it involved more than simply dumping sand. Ocean currents and the environment were major factors.  

‘Dutch companies are providing assistance with water treatment to help produce clean drinking water and keep surface water clean. And that sometimes produces useful technologies. To take one example, companies here have partnered with Dutch knowledge institutions and developed a technology to combat algae growth. That keeps lakes healthy, which is good for fish and bird life.

‘Not to mention other fields where there’s an active Dutch presence in the UAE: Bert van Marwijk is coach of the national football team; Ajax is launching an athletic training programme in Sharjah; the Concertgebouw Orchestra is popular here; Martin Garrix works here a lot -- I was even at his first performance. Clearly there are a lot of opportunities in the UAE, and we, in turn, definitely have a lot to contribute.'

What is the embassy doing on the subject of human rights?

‘First and foremost, the Dutch mission has the task of keeping Dutch companies properly informed. Many of them are active throughout the region, including parts of Africa. We make sure that they are well aware of how they need to conduct themselves with respect to labour and human rights.

‘We also talk to people here about these issues. It’s easy to see that the local authorities are working hard to improve the human rights situation and democratic processes. They have a genuine interest in making progress. They are even talking with the Dutch National Raporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings.’  

What else will the embassy be doing in the future?

‘The Netherlands has a lot of knowledge in the field of education that can be useful here. As I see it, we’re not doing enough with that yet. I’m referring primarily to agricultural education at higher professional education and university level. We’re already on the right track here, and that offers more opportunities to stake out a broader position.’

Find ambassador Embrechts' curriculum on (Dutch).