By Lalaine Chu-Benitez
She is without a doubt nationalistic: her Filipino designed clothes made of Philippine fabric, tell only of a small part of her enormous national pride. She is spiritual and fun loving and has an unexpectedly casual air about her that’s uncommon for a person in her position. She hugs, is easily moved and amazingly breaks into song and dance in expression of her spiritual and patriotic fervor. But make no mistake; the seemingly relaxed and informal lady is as resolute as a bull and tough as nails. After all, her previous achievements involving the high-profile Sarah Balabagan case and the evacuation of Filipinos from Iraq, not to mention bagging a Lingkod Bayan (Public Servant) Award, is no small feat. Meet Grace Relucio-Princesa, the new Philippine Ambassador to the UAE – career diplomat, doting mother of five, servant leader, Filipina warrior.
Of fire and ice
I sat with the Ambassador at a quiet corner of the Emirates Tower’s 50th floor overlooking cosmopolitan Sheikh Zayed Road; listening to her story as she sipped cream of artichoke soup deftly using her left hand. “I have a natural curiosity about what life is all about, she says, explaining how she makes an effort to manage left-handed activities. There, in the rarefied executive atmosphere of Vu’s, clad in her proudly-Filipino made shirt embellished with ethnic faces, she exuded ease and genuine warmth, not to mention a distinct sense of humor; the same persona I had seen in the several times we have met. Save for that instance when, at a community gathering, she tactfully but very firmly refused to start her speech until everybody in the room (caught by surprise and embarrassment), simmered down and gave her their full attention – offering a glimpse of her strict side that valued discipline, the same side which advocated, “Filipino time is on time. Tardiness is a form of violence.”
Ambassador Grace Relucio-Princesa is the first female Philippine Ambassador to the UAE. Having spent over two decades in the Philippine Foreign Service, she had previous postings in Chicago, Cairo, Geneva and Baghdad. She comes back to Abu Dhabi after 13 years. Then, she worked as Consul under the leadership of former Ambassador Roy Seneres, at which time she attended to the high profile Sarah Balabagan case. In Baghdad, as Chargé D’Affaires and Consul General in 2003, she had the unnerving responsibility of evacuating some 150 Filipinos from the country just two days before US Allied Forces started bombing the city.
As an exceptionally approachable government official, I asked the Ambassador if there was another harder-edged side to her – between the fun-loving lady who loves to sing, dance and hug, versus the resilient diplomat who has gone through quite a number of tough situations in her career in the service. She smiled at me and said, “There should be no dichotomy to who you are. If you know yourself, there should be no need to project something else.” She then proceeds to explain, “I am an ambassador for Christ and country; a servant-leader and handmaid of God. But I am also strict. I say what I mean and mean what I say. I walk my talk,” she said as a matter-of-fact.
And the lady does mean business. Since she has formally assumed office in October 2009, the Ambassador has been engaged in a flurry of activities from her diplomatic duties to speaking to community leaders, and doing the rounds meeting Filipino groups and organizations. She has also recently visited Al Watba prison, where she sang and hugged kababayan inmates.