MOHAMED IQBAL LATONA is the first ambassador of the Republic of Mauritius to Saudi Arabia. Alexander Woodman sat down with Ambassador Latona to discuss the development of bilateral relations between the two countries.
Until a year ago Mauritius did not have an embassy in Saudi Arabia. As your country’s first ambassador to the kingdom, how would you characterize bilateral relations between the two countries?
Yes, the embassy was opened in 2017 and although one year is a relatively short period of time to make any proper assessment, the opening of the embassy is certainly an opportunity to consolidate the already excellent friendship that exists between the two countries and to explore new avenues of cooperation, expand trade and investment and promote cultural exchange. Our primary objective is to establish strong people-to-people contacts. By way of example, we’ve embarked on a campaign to encourage more Saudis to visit Mauritius, which is known worldwide as a prime tourist destination and since September 2017 Saudi Arabian Airlines has been running regular flights to and from Mauritius. In the area of trade, I’m very happy that since the embassy opened, there has already been an increase in the volume of trade and I’m very optimistic about the trade deals that we have worked out and an agreement between the chambers of commerce in the two countries.
How do you feel about being appointed as your country’s first ever ambassador to Saudi Arabia?
As a career diplomat who has served my country for the past thirty years, I have held positions in Kuala Lumpur, Pretoria, New York, London, and Geneva. The work has been very challenging, but it has also been a very enriching experience. Since I first began work as a diplomat, it has always been my dream to become an ambassador. My vision has always been to defend and protect the interests of Mauritius and to promote Mauritius as a country that upholds democratic principles, the rule of law, good governance and human rights. My appointment as ambassador is a great honor and I hope to be able to enhance bilateral relations between Mauritius and Saudi Arabia in many areas.
There are many reasons why people travel. In a world full of fascinating destinations, keeping Mauritius in the top-ten ranking position will be a challenge. Mauritius offers many attractions –beautiful scenery natural landscapes, beaches, lagoons, museums – to name a few. Medical tourism is becoming more popular and we now have spas and specialized centers offering various medical treatments. During the past few months alone, tourism in Mauritius has grown by 61% and we will be doing everything possible to maintain our standing and remain in the top-ten ranking position. In terms of attracting more Saudis to visit our country, the 10th annual Riyadh Travel Fair took place last April. This was the first time that Mauritius participated in the fair and our country’s delegation was led by the Minister of Tourism, Anil Gayan. Following the opening of the embassy, it was very important that we should attend. It allowed us to showcase our country As I mentioned earlier Saudi Arabian Airlines now operates regular flights to and from Mauritius and this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the number of Saudis visiting our country.
Yes, there is actually quite a long history of cooperation beginning in the 1980’s when Dr. Hassan Raffah, a renowned Saudi heart surgeon, visited Mauritius on several occasions to perform heart surgery at no cost. In honor of that work, a school was named after him. This past year, a medical team from the kingdom came to Mauritius to provide a variety of medical services. Doctors from Mauritius have been working in Saudi Arabia sharing their knowledge and expertise with medical staff in various hospitals in the kingdom.
Tell us something about the quality of life in Mauritius?
Literacy levels in Mauritius are very high almost 95%. The people are highly educated helped by the fact that secondary and college education are free. Medical services are also free of charge. Any person can walk into a hospital or clinic and be treated without having to pay. Since 1990 per capita GDP has been averaging over $12,000 and this combined with free education and free medical care means that most people are content with their standard of living.
In November 2017, you met with the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Dr. Rashid bin Abdullatif Al-Zayani. The GCC deals primarily with regional organizations rather than individual countries. Can you tell me what was discussed?
It’s interesting that you bring up my meeting with Dr. Al-Zayani as it was a particularly productive meeting. In fact, we spoke about the possible collaboration between the Indian Ocean Commission and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Indian Ocean Commission comprises groups of island states in the south western part of the Indian Ocean: Mauritius, Réunion, the Seychelles, Madagascar, and the Comoros. We discussed various areas of possible cooperation in regional projects that could benefit from GCC assistance and be of benefit to Mauritius.
Yes, the world has changed in many ways. Some of those changes have been positive and others less so Twenty-five years ago, the world was basically divided into two groups of countries: the developed countries and those in the process of development. In my opinion, while the same economic divisions are true today,the relations between the two groups have changed. While the developing countries used to be merely the recipients of aid and development assistance from the developed countries they have now become partners in development. The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) is a concrete example of economic partnership. The new paradigm now is trade instead of aid. Both developed and developing countries are working together to promote human rights, good governance, sustainable economic development and to protect the environment. There is also cooperation at the global level to fight corruption, money-laundering and drug trafficking. Both developed and developing countries are united in the fight against terrorism. The new approach to international relations is one of collaboration and partnership to address global issues for the benefits of citizens across the globe.
I understand that between 1983 and 1986, you worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe. If you had a chance to teach those same students today, what would you teach them.
When Zimbabwe gained independence in April 1980, Mauritius began sending teachers to help Zimbabwe I was lucky to be part of that program. It was a very valuable experience and I believe it shaped my character and helped me to develop the skills needed for success in the future. I recall the first time I walked into a classroom, I faced an eager-looking group of students and asked a rhetorical question to which all fifty students responded with raised hands. Their hunger for education stunned me, and for the next three-years, as their teacher, I tried to share with them all of the knowledge and skills I had. Their dedication was obvious I found out that some of the students walked three or four kilometers each day to get to school. They arrived each day with radiant smiles and a genuine interest to learn. They stimulated me each day and made me believe that I could make a difference in their lives. As I reflect on those years, I feel that if I had a chance to teach them today, I would certainly be able to use modern teaching methods and tools that were not available to us at that time. However, my goal would be more or less the same: to prepare them for the real world. I think most of us would agree that our children are our best legacy.
Alexander Woodman is a faculty member of College of Sciences and Humanities at the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University in Saudi Arabia. His research interests include global health, international health policy development, transnational and transcultural health politics as well as international diplomacy.