The UAE has long been a master of ‘soft power’

The country has forged its place in the world by making bold statements without conflict, writes Nick Leech

The vast canopy of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a symbol of the UAE’s cultural ambition and collaboration with France. Christopher Pike / The National
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It took only five words to guarantee Wednesday, November 27, 2013, a place in the history of the United Arab Emirates.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Dubai wins,” said the official from the Bureau International des Expositions, the body responsible for overseeing, regulating and selecting the host city for the World Expo 2020.

As a supernova of purple fireworks exploded from the Burj Khalifa, Dubai became the first city in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia to be chosen as host for one of the world’s oldest exercises in the kind of diplomacy the Harvard University professor Joseph Nye once described as “soft power”.

The opposite of the kind of coercive military force that Nye defined as “hard power”, soft power can be understood as the art of influencing foreign public opinion through a subtle and complex mixture of persuasion and prestige that can be frustratingly difficult and often expensive to acquire.

For Jay Wang, director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Dubai’s Expo 2020 win was one of the 10 most notable examples of soft power to emerge from 2013.

“World Expos are the single largest promotional event of a nation outside their own borders. That’s a major platform for countries to reach out to the foreign public,” the academic and author told Vision magazine in Dubai last year.

For Wang, the success of an Expo as a marketing exercise is not guaranteed, but if the host city manages to engage with its visitors in the right way, he says, “[countries] can develop a strong impression on them that lasts for years to come”.

Abu Dhabi’s first experience of international expositions occurred 43 years earlier when the emirate built its very first national pavilion at Japan’s World Expo Osaka 1970.

At that time, the reasons for hosting an Expo were understood not in the contemporary terms of “soft power” or what Wang describes as “nation branding”, but as an exercise in national projection and cultural understanding.

On the face of it, Abu Dhabi did not have a national identity to promote at Osaka in 1970: the emirate was still a member of the Trucial States.

As Rashid Abdullah Al Nuaimi told The National in 2014, simply funding and organising the emirate’s participation was a challenge.

“In 1967 we had very limited resources and this was an international exhibition with major countries taking part who had a lot to show and participate with,” said Al Nuaimi, who was then serving as the director of Abu Dhabi’s Directorate of Oil.

“We barely had rudimentary primary schools. Also, we had no money. So with help from some Japanese and British companies, we collected enough money to create something to present,” says the first Emirati petroleum engineer, who eventually served as the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and then Foreign Minister.

Quite apart from the legal and financial challenges, what would the emirate decide to show? “We kept thinking of something that is an example of our culture and development,” Al Nuaimi says, “but again we only had forts.”

Designed by Abu Dhabi’s Egyptian town planner, Abdul Rahman Makhlouf, at a cost of 60,000 Bahraini dinars, the resulting pavilion was a vague replica of traditional buildings such as Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn and the fortress at Al Jahili in Al Ain.

More telling, perhaps, than the pavilion itself, was the sheer determination of Sheikh Zayed to make Abu Dhabi visible on the international stage. Forty-five years later, thanks to a conscious strategy of funding, sponsorship and investment, the UAE has delivered on its Founding Father’s aim.

Visitors to the UAE’s pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, and at Expo Milano earlier this year, were presented with an image of the UAE that was much more self-confident – a portrait of a nation that has found a way to fuse its traditions with modernity and that has, in doing so, travelled from poverty to prosperity.

Designed by Foster + Partners, the architects responsible for the new World Trade Center and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, the buildings drew their inspiration from the dunes, wadis, oases and mountains that define the UAE’s landscape but without the imported camels, palm trees and desert sand that were present at the Seville Expo 1992 and the Hanover Expo in 2000.

Thanks to major investments in soft power, such as Abu Dhabi’s development of Masdar City and its hosting of both the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Future Energy Summit, the UAE has also been able to reposition itself, in the words of the Zayed University academic Li-Chen Sim, as an oil giant that is serious about becoming a titan of renewable energy. The country can show successful foreign investments and displays of expertise that reach from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the UK’s Thames Estuary.

Such investments in the field of sustainability have been mirrored by Dubai’s efforts to establish itself as a global tourist destination with well-developed hotel and leisure infrastructure and Abu Dhabi’s investment in culture and museums, strategies that have resulted in the patronage of headline-grabbing mega-projects such as the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

For the Sharjah-based commentator and art collector Sheikh Sultan Al Qassemi, the exercise of soft power by Gulf states during the last decade, not just in Expos but in terms of their commercial, intellectual and cultural infrastructure, has helped countries such as the UAE rise to an unprecedented position of importance.

“When the British decided to withdraw from the Gulf states in the 1960s they left behind fledgling nations, weak and exposed to regional states and the political ambitions of neighbours,” he wrote recently in an opinion piece for CNN.

“Today – due to their incredible soft power – it is these Gulf states that carry influence over the rest of the Arab world.”