Great civilisations are built on the legacy of thought leaders, not warriors

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have realised cultural diplomacy and soft power are far more effective in achieving regional and global influence, writes David Rothkopf

Ancient egypt : King of Egypt Ptolemy I Soter (368-283 BC) founding the Great Library of Alexandria in 288 BC Engraving from La-vie-des-savants-illustres by Louis Figuier, 1866 Private collection (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  rv03de-algorithms03.jpg
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For all the wars that have marked the modern history of the Middle East, it is remarkable how little they have achieved. Rivalries remain rivalries. Power centres remain as they have been, not for decades, nor even centuries but as they have been for millennia.  Headline-driven narratives aside, the sources of the enduring influence of those centres have largely been what is referred to as “soft power”, rather than military might or even raw economic clout.

Soft power, as it has come to be defined since Harvard’s Joe Nye coined the term almost three decades ago, is the power to attract and co-opt, as opposed to the “harder” powers associated with the use of force or other forms of coercion including buying influence. At the root of the pre-eminence of the great epicentres of the Middle East has been the power associated with culture, education, science and technology, quality of life, and intangibles, such as spiritual views or perceptions of enlightenment or tolerance.

For centuries, even as leaders and ideologies and forms of government have come and gone, the pillars of the civilisations that have dominated the region have not been the ability to amass armies but the ideas that have been cultivated. This has drawn visitors and commerce, driven alliances and growth.

From the library in Alexandria to the universities of Cairo, from the holy sites of what is now Saudi Arabia to the contributions of Avicenna, Omar Khayyam and Rumi, the legacies of thought leaders have transcended those of battlefield commanders. (That is not to say that conflict and great armies have not played their part in shaping the Middle East as they have elsewhere in the world. It is to note both that civilisations ultimately endure and come to thrive on the basis of what they have to offer the world rather than what they might periodically fight to defend or acquire.)

From time to time, shifts have occurred from one city to another or one region to another within these great civilisations. Recently, the Arab societies of the Gulf region have been enjoying an ascendancy, based on these principles – with the UAE actually formally launching a Soft Power Strategy in 2017 and the Saudi Vision 2030 containing multiple elements recognising the vital importance of the “power of attraction”.

The UAE story in particular illustrates how a nation can "punch above its weight" as a soft power, with relative size or population not being the kind of limiting factor it is in terms of other power metrics. Like Singapore, the UAE has discovered that investing in thought leadership can catapult a nation to a position of regional and global influence.

Indeed, as officials like UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash have noted, prioritising culture, cultural diplomacy, emphasising national commitments to tolerance and education and fostering an environment in which opportunity is prioritised, have all propelled the country to an enviable position on metrics like the Arab Youth Survey, which have indicated that of all the places in the world the Middle East's next generation would like to live, the Emirates top the list.


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That said, this is not a time for complacency on this front but rather a moment that demands a redoubling of efforts. Rivalries and tensions within the region remain. The question at this critical juncture becomes: who will take the initiative, make the investment, set priorities right and seek to reap the advantages of becoming the undisputed soft power leader or leaders in the region?

Such a commitment is what will draw investment and the best minds to the country or countries that come out on top. That will compel greater support from allies, shift political views of those who are undecided and promote deeper commitments among those who are. So many of the region’s key strategic questions turn on such factors, from rivalries among major power centres to tensions with secondary players, from winning and maintaining the support of major global powers like the US and China to combating extremism.

Strides made by the UAE through investments in culture, education, science and technology are a potent first step. But soft power must be communicated to be effective, awareness must be raised. While those who come to the Emirates might see the museums or study at universities or visit scientific or medical facilities, those investments must be leveraged to ensure they are visible to the world.

Further, because soft power depends on the ability to “attract”, what must be communicated comes down to not simply investments but ideas and philosophies as well. A key portion of the soft power of the Emirates, for example, is the commitment to tolerance, innovations in governance or to the empowerment of women. These qualities are the force multipliers of investments in institutions or research and development.

As with hard power wars, material soft power gains require campaigns and strategies and to have a global impact, global outreach – major events and programmes that bring evidence directly to thought leaders around the world that a truly world class 21st century centre of innovation is emerging in the Middle East.  Whoever recognises this and translates it into action will tip the balance of power in the region in their favour and at the same time, ensure that power is worth having more than any conflict could achieve.

David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow