Maria Camilleri Calleja – Ambassador of Malta to the UAE
Maria Camilleri Calleja – Ambassador of Malta to the UAE has been active in the field of Diplomacy for over two decades after joining the Malta Diplomatic Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2000. We interview her about her current posting and her journey as a Maltese Diplomat.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your studies?
First of all, I wish to thank you, Shereen, for extending this opportunity to speak about the interesting and all-encompassing world of diplomacy.
I arrived in the UAE in July 2020 with my husband and our two boys. Taking up a new position in the middle of a pandemic was no easy feat. Posted here as the first resident Maltese Ambassador in the UAE, I also happen to be the first Maltese female diplomat to be posted in the Gulf region.
Forever breaking that glass ceiling, in 2000, I was the first Maltese female diplomat to work in Protocol at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Malta and also the first Maltese female diplomat to be posted at the Embassy of Malta in Libya, one of our most interesting overseas posts and a strategic relationship in Malta’s Diplomatic spectrum.
One may think very little of these steps in terms of achievements, but they were among the important first steps that encouraged accessibility for women in all spheres of life. Therefore, I humbly consider them to be my tiny measures of contribution to the empowerment and advancement of Maltese women in diplomacy, alongside the many others of several female colleagues in the Malta diplomatic corps.
My first degree was in Contemporary Mediterranean Studies (a mix of international relations, geography and anthropology) at the 430-year-old University of Malta. Having graduated cum laude as Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), I then pursued a Master of Arts in Diplomacy at the prestigious Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta. However, life is a continuous learning process and there is a bucket list of degrees that I would love to pursue, not least an MBA…at some point in life, of course.
When did you start your career and how has your diplomatic journey evolved?
Once I finished my post-grad, my journey in the Malta Diplomatic Service started in 2000. After 18 months of hands-on training in the capital, I joined the Embassy of Malta in Stockholm as Second Secretary in 2002, and then the Embassy of Malta in Libya in 2005 in the role of Consul. Subsequently, back in Malta, the focus was on training and taking on new responsibilities, namely Director for International Development, Economic Affairs and European Institutions (including also the Ministry’s preparation for Malta’s first EU Council Presidency in 2017). This was then followed by the role of Director-General for Political Affairs, an intensive position which encompassed overseeing bilateral relations between Malta and countries worldwide within the framework of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy.
How was your experience being the first Maltese female diplomat to serve as Consul in Libya, while simultaneously forming part of the Schengen Evaluation team?
To be honest, the moment I received the phone call asking me whether I was interested in the position, my heart missed a beat. I knew that a Maltese female diplomat had never been posted in Libya before and that it was not going to be an easy ride. However, I accepted on the spot. I had a fantastic Ambassador in Libya, who taught me so much about tact and effectiveness in running an Embassy, lessons which have served me well later on in life and in my career. In Libya, I had the opportunity to be part of the Schengen Evaluation Team preparing for Malta’s accession to the Schengen Acquis. This experience taught me management efficiency, simplification of bureaucracy, organising one’s work with a bird’s eye view of the situation and the importance of balanced teamwork. Efficiency and employee happiness walk hand in hand. The more efficiently the team works, the happier the team, and therefore the better the output.
How is your experience being in the UAE as an Ambassador and as the first-ever Permanent Representative of Malta to IRENA in Abu Dhabi?
The UAE has been a positive surprise. Work is very intensive and extremely interesting. I am learning every day. During my first year, the focus was undeniably on COVID-19 and mitigating the challenges that the pandemic inevitably brought about within the community and also in terms of diplomatic work. The Embassy was focused on assisting the small but dedicated and hard-working Maltese community in the UAE. However, we were not daunted. We worked within the framework of the set regulations and managed to achieve small but significant steps including, but not only, a Visit to the UAE by Malta’s Foreign Minister in February 2021, the official opening of the Embassy, the signing of four additional Memoranda of Understanding and the resumption of direct flights between Malta and the UAE. The following year was dominated by EXPO 2020 DUBAI when we welcomed no less than twelve Ministerial delegations and we are proud to have hosted an extremely well laid out pavilion, spearheaded by Malta Enterprise, showcasing the best of Malta. We also signed a further three Memoranda of Understanding with the UAE and therefore substantially augmented our legal structure with our counterparts in various sectors notably higher education, recognition of driving licenses, cooperation between diplomatic academies, establishing a joint commission, cooperation in climate change and environment issues, cultural cooperation, and cooperation between Chambers of Commerce. There is naturally more ground to cover and the Embassy is incessant in its efforts to promote Malta and all it can offer. We have worked extensively with Malta Tourism Authority, Finance Malta, TECH.MT, Residency Malta, Malta Enterprise and various other entities on promoting Malta through Media Familiarization Trips to Malta, the annual Malta National Day Events, cultural events and fairs including art exhibitions as well as the exhibition of the Maymouna Stone, which was the result of a first-ever collaboration between Malta and the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, a relationship born out of contacts established by the Embassy of Malta under the mentorship of the learned curators of Heritage Malta. This is however only a glimpse of what we have done in the past two years. Our social media shows much and much more than can be said or written.
On 19 November 2020, I presented credentials as Malta’s first Permanent Representative to IRENA. We have come a long way, adding active participation in biannual Council meetings to participation in the annual Assemblies held in Abu Dhabi, as well as participation in Collaborative Frameworks. On 24 November 2022, the Maltese Embassy also hosted the 9th Renewables Talks meeting for Permanent Representatives to IRENA resident in Abu Dhabi with the participation of two experts in the energy field from the Malta Energy and Water Agency (EWA). Climate action is very topical and, for a small island like Malta, so fundamental.
What is in store for you in 2023 in terms of Malta events and activities in the UAE?
Following our Foreign Minister’s visit in October 2022 and the Malta National Day event supported by fourteen Maltese companies not to mention also your own publication “Global Trend Monitor” which ran an excellent article following an interview with the Hon. Foreign Minister of Malta, we are now preparing for an eventful 2023, which will undoubtedly be a watershed year for diplomacy in the UAE.
First of all, Malta and the UAE will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations and we want to make it big, worthy of a Golden Jubilee. I will not disclose anything except that we have already started our collaboration on the cultural field to see this happening in great style. Secondly, 2023 is the year of COP28 in the UAE. Malta is utterly committed to climate action and multilateralism and as Malta will be sitting on the UN Security Council for two years for the period 2023-2024, COP28 will be an opportunity to give visibility and a louder voice to pertinent issues such as rising sea levels, ocean governance, small island states, targets and challenges in energy transition for small countries.
Tell us a bit about your hobbies and future aspirations?
I love reading and I am passionate about cinema. One day, I would like to write my own biography. There is so much to tell, so many experiences, so many life lessons learnt. Maybe a few might be interested to read it.
I also like a little down time at certain intervals. I find that open spaces offer so much in terms of mental relaxation from the hustle and bustle of life. In the UAE, the desert is one particular spot I love escaping to, when I can, just to empty my mind and re-generate.
My experience in the UAE is so much more than work. It is the language, the people, the culture, and sounds, smells and sights of a country that fascinates at every turn of a corner. It is also telling people about who I am, where I come from and the beauty of our island country, Malta, which has so much to offer in terms of cultural but also professional experience.