The unceasing rise of the UAE's soft power

The Emirates leads in the region by a long way

Expo 2020 Dubai's vast water feature. Expo 2020 Dubai
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One of modernity's better trends is countries having ways to project power internationally other than through military might. Describing this process, former US assistant secretary of defence Joseph Nye devised the term “soft power”: the ability to peacefully convince others to do what you want.

It is perhaps unsurprising that an American came up with the term. Alongside its significant hard power, the US has been a pioneer of soft power throughout the past century, to great effect; Coca Cola and McDonald's are far more globally recognisable brands than the Pentagon. Sometimes the two even combine. The National has written about a supposed project by the US in the 1950s to get Filipinos to vote for Ramon Magsaysay, their seventh president, by writing a pop song, Magsaysay Mambo.

The annual Global Soft Power Index assesses more everyday trends. First in this year’s list is the US, which jumped from sixth place in 2021. The UAE has been climbing steadily towards the top spot in recent years. In the 2022 report, the country ranks 15th overall, up two points from last year, making it once again the leading Middle Eastern country. This makes sense given not a year goes by without the country fulfilling goals in its years-long strategy to diversify and become a global destination.

But recently, the Emirates won a significant deal of respect and admiration for its approach to an unplanned, seismic global event: the Covid-19 pandemic. Both recovery from and efforts to tackle it have come up as perhaps the leading factor determining this year's rankings. The UAE has now largely opened up to the rest of the world, regaining its status as a global hub for tourism and aviation, both sectors that people have been clamouring to revive after two years of restrictions. Some of those that have chosen more inflexible policies have suffered as a result, such as Australia and New Zealand, which have both dropped in the table.

In terms of helping the rest of the world, countries that pioneered vaccines, such as China, the US, Germany and the UK, also gained plenty. The UAE will have done well out of its participation in the Covax scheme, the almost uniquely quick vaccination drive, the speed at which it introduced policies to protect people from the virus and its ability to be one of the first countries globally to safely host major international events, be they in sport or business.

In the background to Covid-19, longer-term aspects of the UAE continue to build on its reputation as a global brand. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said on Twitter that the "real soft power of the UAE is in its development model that brings together East and West". The country’s strongest performance in the rankings continues to be in the business and trade category, a sign that it remains open as a place for people around the world to work.

A soft power strategy does best in stable times. The past few years have been quite the opposite, and 2022 might follow suit in its own way. The fact that the UAE not only continues to lead the Middle East in the rankings, but also edges towards the global top ten, is a sign that growth in the country is not just progressive, but also resilient.

Published: March 16, 2022, 3:00 AM