Unpacking Pope Francis’ historic trip to Abu Dhabi

Pope Francis yesterday (Feb. 5) concluded a two-day trip to the United Arab Emirates with mass at a sports stadium in Abu Dhabi delivered to some 180,000 worshippers. Incredibly, the Pope’s trip marked the first time that a pontiff has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula. And the UAE, which has in recent years touted its diversity, was keen to promote the historic visit.

While the crowd at the mass was predominantly made up of members of the UAE’s Catholic community, all of whom are foreigners, thousands of Muslims also attended. More than 100 nationalities were reportedly represented in the crowd of worshippers.

The UAE has spent years promoting a reputation of tolerance. In 2016, the country appointed a minister of state for tolerance and produced the world’s first Charter of Tolerance, aimed at encouraging values of openness and diversity. The UAE also celebrated the International Day for Tolerance last year, on Nov. 16. In December, its president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, declared 2019 would be the “Year of Tolerance.” And there’s even a “Tolerance Bridge” in Abu Dhabi.

It’s fitting then that Pope Francis would pick the UAE for his first trip to the Arab Gulf, as part of his effort to strengthen ties between Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions. (Both originate in the Middle East, with Islam specifically emerging in what is now Saudi Arabia.)

This is not Pope Francis’ first trip to the Middle East region—he most recently visited Egypt in 2017. And pontiffs have previously visited other non-Gulf Arab countries, mainly ones with indigenous Christian communities.

The pope delivered a candid speech calling for fraternity, increased human rights, and an end to religious violence (paywall). He also signed a “Document on Human Fraternity” with influential Egyptian imam Ahmad al-Tayeb that sought to combat hatred and extremism.

The UAE’s emphasis on tolerance is, to a large degree, practical. Foreigners from some 200 countries make up 88% of its population of almost 10 million. This diversity stems in large part from the UAE’s pool of foreign workers, which, like all the Gulf states, it relies on to power its economy (the same need that first drove Western countries to open up immigration to non-Europeans on a large scale). This mainly includes laborers from poor countries, but high-paid expatriates as well.

The focus on tolerance also helps the UAE project soft power. The country has a longstanding-goal of enhancing its status as a global hub of culture and commerce, something the pope’s visit will help.

But the event was nevertheless the largest show of Christian worship in the Gulf ever. It was a major milestone for the UAE, and by extension, its campaign to show that it’s a welcoming place, open to many for business.

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