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Man with a Plan: Power of Diplomatic Collaboration

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Interview with Hon. Dr Ian Borg, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade

International relations between Malta and the United Arab Emirates were cemented even more strongly than ever before during the recent World Expo.  For the occasion of the Malta National Day, we meet with Dr Ian Borg Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade to give us insights into his current role in maintaining Malta’s external relations and the management of its international diplomatic missions.

A lawyer by profession, Ian Borg is graduated as a Doctor of Laws from University of Malta after completing a Doctoral degree in Laws, a Diploma in Public Notarial Practice and a Bachelor’s Degree in Law.

As Dr Ian Borg was entrusted with a wide portfolio of work ranging from major infrastructural projects to the construction and maintenance of the country’s infrastructure, land, air and maritime transport and property, we interview him to know more about him and his vision for Malta.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what motivated you to pursue a career in government?

That’s rather a straightforward question as a beginning and deserves a straightforward answer too. All the great ancient Greek philosophers tried to understand what motivates persons to enter the field, or rather the activity of politics. And they almost all agreed, quite a rarity among philosophers, that politics is a call from Destiny which some people respond to, while others ignore. 

In our day, politics has not only lost the glittering descriptions of the philosophers of Hellas, but what is more worrying is that many politicians who are not called, that is have no real vocation for politics, have not only taken away the glamour from politics, but proved themselves so out of place, so inadequate, so ill prepared, so glaringly without a message or a vision, that even persons who hear the call of Destiny early in their teens, are shying away from entering an arena where they are exposed, day in, day out to a 24 hour surveillance from an all-powerful social media.

When I was in my teens, about to enter the University of Malta, and I can say, even before, I felt an urge inside me. Although I tried hard to ignore it, I just couldn’t. The voice of the call kept saying that I could do much for my small village and its inhabitants. 

I decided to answer the call and stepped forward. I entered the ranks of the Labour Party, the party of the underdog, of the forgotten majority and the struggle against the Establishment. I contested the Local Elections, and to my surprise, I was not only elected as a member of the Council, but also as Mayor because I garnered the highest number of votes. 

As Mayor I did well and the next step to contest the national General Elections in 2017 was as natural as day follows night. I took the plunge and was elected to Parliament at my first try and the Prime Minister entrusted me as a junior minister with the EU Funds. It was my first experience in the realm of international relations which later served me well for my present position. Such was the beginning of my career in government. 

But I never pursued this career, for it is not just a career for me.  It is the principal reason to help our country and our people to better their lives. I have always considered politics to serve the people and not to build a career for myself.

What is the importance of cooperation with Gulf countries like the UAE, especially in the economic fields post the pandemics?

For our nation, especially for all Labour Governments, it was always top priority to seek and enhance intimate friendly relations with all Gulf countries, and the economic, commercial, trade and investment fields constitute fields which we have concentrated upon since the first post-Independence Labour Government of Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. 

In fact, immediately after his election in 1971, Prime Minister Mintoff himself travelled to various Gulf states and forged strong commercial and trade links with them. During a recent visit to Malta of a Saudi diplomatic delegation headed by the Foreign Minister himself, I had a wonderful occasion to discuss with the Prince numerous initiatives, and we also discussed even more extensive initiatives in almost all sectors, ranging from the political to the cultural. 

We feel and strongly believe that we, Maltese, and the Arabs, are kindred people.  Even our language has a solid base of Arabic. 

We look forward, in these difficult post pandemic times, and when the world economy is ravaged by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that our reciprocal cooperation is not only important but also decisive in enhancing our already close relationship. 

As I happen to have under my responsibility also the Ministry of Trade, I see so many opportunities before us to further commerce and trade between our countries that will surely be beneficial to both parties.

You have overseen an abundance of important infrastructure projects in Malta being implemented as well as several new initiatives coming up.  Can you tell us more about them?

I have deliberately not mentioned in my first answer, the five years as Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, because it is more fitting to discuss them now.  I was really surprised when after the General Elections of 2017, the Prime Minister handed over to me this super ministry. I was not only surprised but also awed, and to say the truth a bit frightened because Malta’s infrastructure and transport system was more or less, with a little cosmetic change here and there, still basically that which the British had constructed for their military and naval bases. 

I have always followed Lord Acton’s law of living, namely, ‘that Life is Action, or it is nothing.’ I accepted the great challenge, determined more than ever of answering it with a successful response. We must bring Maltese infrastructure from colonial times right to the third decade of the 21st century. 

We had a strategy; we had a plan; we had a timetable; we had a mission to fulfil, and we managed to modernize not only the motorways, not only changing the old lamps of roundabouts for the new lamps of tunnels and flyovers, but also to build hundreds of kilometres of new roads, give life again to decaying village cores, open new country lanes and completely overhaul the transport system. 

Even now, for the coming two years, Infrastructure Malta which was created under my watch is bringing to fruition the new Flyover network of Malta International Airport and the Flyover/Tunnel Project of Imrieħel. All the projects which modernized Malta’s roads were completed in time, with the right costings and against all odds.

Previous administrations kept back from modernizing our infrastructure but as I was convinced that a vibrant economy cannot expand if nobody dares to take the bull by the horns, I had to do it. My slogan for those five years of action was aptly described in the phrase ‘Getting Things Done.’ 

As the Maritime sectors were under your portfolio, have you seen an increase in ships and superyachts in Malta, especially for tourism?

Under my watch, I am proud to say that all the maritime sectors made great leaps forward. The Malta Flag registry has reached unprecedented numbers and our country has become one of the largest maritime hubs not only in the Mediterranean Sea but also in the world. 

With regards to superyachts, it is even a greater success story with Malta placing in the first position in the Mediterranean Sea and in the world. Malta has all the requisites and advantages to become the grandest hub of the superyacht world. Our one and only disadvantage is Malta’s size, but in the third decade of the 21st century there are ways and means to find a remedy for this disadvantage.

Tell us about the aviation sector post pandemic and how the industry is recovering in comparison to the rest of the world?

I am afraid that as I am no longer responsible for the aviation sector, and we are still in the early post pandemic months, I cannot answer how this industry is recovering or how it is doing so in comparison with the rest of the world. 

However, I can assure you that when I was responsible for this sector, I nursed it like a baby and dedicated so much time and efforts to build on strong foundations. You only must know some statistics and figures on the air registry to notice the unprecedented growth of the sector in its various branches ranging from registration of private aircraft, airline companies, air industries to the new drone industry. We were even among the very first to introduce drone postal systems and even drone merchandise carriers. The openings and opportunities in this drone sector are as high as the sky. 

Also, during the pandemic we introduced Aircraft Leasing Malta. Another important link in the aviation economic niche which will translate into more economic growth and creation of quality jobs.

As regards the future post pandemic times for the aviation sector, I can only feel confident that it will survive the setback and bounce back with great vigour because once the pandemic’s tide ebbs, and peace again is restored in the Ukraine, our aviation sector is robust enough to bounce back with greater vigour and will be able to compete with the world’s other actors.

Can you highlight some of the cultural and community projects locally and in cooperation with the UAE or the GCC region?

Malta and the UAE have very recently signed their first cultural cooperation Memorandum of Understanding in December 2021, concurrently to which, Malta also inaugurated an exhibit of a certified replica of the Maymūnah Stone, an important historical artefact from the Arabic-Islamic Medieval era in Maltese history, at the Malta Pavilion at the EXPO 2020 DUBAI.  

On 22 March 2022, the original Maymūnah Stone was installed and inaugurated at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation.  These two occasions marked a good number of “firsts” between Malta and the UAE: (i) it was the first time that the Maymūnah Stone travelled to be exhibited outside Malta; (ii) this was the first time that a Maltese artefact or its replica was exhibited at a World EXPO; (iii) the first collaboration between Malta and the UAE in exhibiting a Maltese historical artefact; and (iv) the first-ever exhibition by Heritage Malta in a museum in the Arab World.  Such initiatives help to bring countries closer together in intercultural, interfaith, and multi-cultural understanding, which are soft powers often coming to the usual aid of the core political and diplomatic efforts.

The aspect of community is also very strong. The Maltese diaspora in the UAE started to expand in the late 90s when several Maltese citizens found employment in the aviation industry in the UAE. 

As years progressed, more Maltese nationals travelled to the UAE for varied opportunities and today we have diaspora members who work in the medical, legal, construction, teaching, real estate, logistics, financial sectors just to mention a few. 

They have all, in their various ways, assisted in the development of the UAE, and therefore represent our country Malta through their hard work and diligence in their everyday life in the UAE.  They are also indeed our ambassadors and Malta is proud of the excellent reputation of Malta they promote.

How do you see the prospects for joint cooperation between Malta and the UAE for opportunities for trade, investment and tourism?

In the past few years, we have worked very hard to expand our network of contacts in the UAE, at all levels and in all spheres.  Work on trade, investment and tourism has always existed between our two countries, especially because of the strong levels of connectivity we mentioned earlier.  However, prospects are also digital and renewable, and we are now looking at ways we can cooperate on innovation and technology, fintech, artificial intelligence projects, genomics, logistics, and renewables.  

The pandemic we spoke about earlier has provided us not only with challenges but also with opportunities to think outside the box and to explore new avenues of cooperation which we may not have had the opportunity to think about in the past.  Nonetheless, here we are now, post pandemic, and post-EXPO 2020 DUBAI, harnessing the new knowledge which we have managed to garner through these two watershed experiences.

On a personal front, what motivates you most in your work every day?

As I told you earlier, I strongly believe that Life is Action. And I also believe that Life is a never-ending series of challenges and responses. As soon as Man responds successfully to a challenge, his very success will create another challenge which he will also have to face and respond to successfully if he wants to continue the road he has chosen. 

When one enters politics, the challenges are even more difficult and heavier because if a politician fails to respond successfully to the challenge, he will not just imperil himself but also those who trusted him with the responsibility to guide them to a better world. This heavy burden never crushes me down under its weight. On the contrary it motivates me to work harder, to think wisely and to search for new ways to be able to reach the goal of my endeavours.

Many, especially those who are only masters of criticism always find fault in those who stick their necks out and try to do things. Generally, critics are persons who have never done a thing in their life. 

The certainty that I am doing my best for those who had enough trust in me to grant me their confidence, gives me new strength, new determination, new energy to continue in my journey. 

All this motivates me and steels my will for as the road is hard and full of snares and traps, the goal for which I work, that of bettering the life of the people and strengthening our country is the goal of my endeavours.

What do you do for recreation? Any hobbies or special interests that have helped you also in your career?

I will be honest with you, my time is so full that I am obliged to be very parsimonious with my short free time and here, my family comes first. I try my best and modestly I can say that I am succeeding to be always near to my wife and my little daughter. For me they are ‘pearls of great price’ and the centre of my life. However, I, too, have my special interests. I like meeting people. I like to travel. I am also a sports fan, especially of the Italian football team AC Milan.

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