As a momentous year draws to a close, The National is running a series of articles examining the impact of the growing diplomatic strength of the UAE.
Over the next few days, we will examine the country’s growing international influence, be it through the soft power of culture and connectivity, or strengthening ties within the GCC and further around the globe.
This nation has never had a more prominent position in the world – and this series will explain how it was achieved, why it matters and what lies ahead.
The strategic relationship between the UAE and France was strengthened significantly during Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed's trip to Paris in November - a visit by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces that displayed the importance of cultural diplomacy in modern international relations.
A tour of the Sheikh Zayed Centre at the Louvre Paris not only allowed Sheikh Mohamed to spend time with Emirati students in the City of Light but to set the scene for a new road map of co-operation covering the 2019 Special Olympics, Dubai Expo 2020 and the UAE's Golden Jubilee in 2021.
The museum, which has a branch in Abu Dhabi, has become one of the lynchpins of the relationship. "The Louvre is a living example of France's position as the epicentre of enlightenment, not only to Europe, but to the whole world,” said Sheikh Mohamed. "In today's world, we need the common heritage of humanity to unite peoples and nations in the face of global challenges.”
The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique noted that Franck Riester, the French culture minister, was a fully signed advocate of the cultural agenda. "The visit to @MuseeLouvre of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan is a sign of friendship to which we are very sensitive. It allows us to continue our dynamic cultural dialogue to better understand the world and its diversity," he wrote in a tweet during the trip.
“The UAE has developed since the past few years quite effective tools of cultural diplomacy, not just with France but with the US, UK, or even with countries like India for example. They have developed strong links with cultural and educational institutions across the world. They have created this year an Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy,” said Camille Lons, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It is part of a broader strategy of influence that aims at transforming the UAE into a global cultural hub while remaining quite discreet.”
The sense of renewal of diplomatic ties through cultural events pervades the UAE diplomatic calendar worldwide. Holding gala receptions in landmark British institutions to mark the UAE National Day – the Victoria and Albert in 2018 and the Natural History Museum and National Portrait Gallery in previous years – has opened new ground in projecting the country’s image overseas.
No longer was a soiree at the ambassador’s residence fitting to seize opportunities for getting national priorities across. Instead the use of museums underlined the diplomacy of arts and cultural endeavour. In the Natural History Museum, the giant whale skeleton suspended from the vaulted roof served to remind guests of the ecological influences shared by everyone. Other national embassies in London have since followed suit with their own events in landmark venues.
Witness also the recent video collage superimposed over drone footage of the Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability pavilions that are under construction for the Expo 2020 in Dubai. The pavilion names stress the themes of the Expo, an event it is hoped will attract 26 million visitors. The use of rope, wood and stone in the buildings, the solar canopy to power the space and structures that allow up to 4,500 people to pass through per hour are all statements of what is possible by prioritising an enlightened approach.
“Cultural diplomacy is an important tool of soft power to develop relations beyond the obvious areas of business and the diplomatic agenda between countries,” said a source closely involved in diplomatic planning. “The UAE has been very aware of how to use these relationships to expand ties and has built up very effective campaigns to achieve these goals.”
To focus on a fast-changing landscape, DiploCon and other strategic conferences held in the past year underlined the onus on policy makers to continuously refresh the offer to keep nations engaged in friendly ties at every level.
One of the visitors to the UAE was Corneliu Bjola, an Oxford University professor who is carrying out a study on the future of diplomacy. Researchers into the increasingly digital nature of diplomacy, such as those working with Mr Bjola, foresee the rapid onset of new frontiers, even as policy makers adjust to new online realities.
“While digital technologies have evolved fast and have significantly challenged the practice of diplomacy, their impact thus far has been uneven: the communication function of diplomacy has been most affected by the digital turn and for good reasons as foreign affairs ministries and embassies can now reach millions of people in real time and with no media ‘filters’, hence the rapid adaptation of digital tools to public diplomacy and crisis communication,” he said.
It is an agenda that Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, acknowledged during his address at the DiploCon, when he discussed how the UAE had adapted to the demands of i-diplomacy. “We are living in what we are calling a 15-minute cycle," he said. "We used to have a two/three-day cycle, but today, if there is some information on Yemen, that from our perspective in the UAE we see it is negative, [we have to] deal with that information within 15 minutes. Because the information cycle that is influencing opinions is very fast.”
Some participants, including Bernardino Leon, the director general of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, highlighted the need to create a conversational dynamic. “You don’t only send messages and tell them what you think about a certain issue but you can engage in a conversation with them and they will respond,” he said. “This is what we call second generation public diplomacy, and it’s a fascinating possibility.”
As president of the United States, Donald Trump has, for example, transformed the tweet into a diplomatic power tool. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, noted that the Trump administration is already using social media power to measurable effect.
“The president’s own public communications themselves function as a deterrence mechanism. The all-caps tweet he directed at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in July, in which he instructed Iran to stop threatening the United States, was informed by a strategic calculation: the Iranian regime understands and fears the United States’ military might,” he wrote.
States are also in competition with malign actors. The 2018 Strategic Review by the International Institute of Strategic Studies devotes a chapter to the impact of technological change on global power structures. It notes that exploitation of data by volume has become the key frontier for developing artificial intelligence technologies. It also reminds policy makers of the importance of contesting the public space.
“The information age has witnessed a resurrection of ideology – not just China’s version of Marxism, but also Islamism and right-wing ideologies – and increasing competition between narratives,” it warned. “Extremist groups such as [ISIS] have made effective use of social media to spread their ideology.”
With an eye on the future, Mr Bjola asks if diplomats are ready for the onset of 5G digital communications, which will make possible concepts such as virtual embassies and augmented reality diplomatic experiences.
While the range of themes at the forefront of international relations is broadening and technology is transforming delivery tools, hard choices in strategy have not gone away. The UAE has significantly shifted its strategic ambitions for better ties with large global players such as China and Russia as well as looking to strengthen its role in the Horn of Africa, including the Bab Al Mandeb, and the Sahel. The Sweden talks on the Yemen conflict set the stage for 2019 to mark a fresh start for all sides in the conflict and for the UAE’s efforts to restore state institutions, deliver humanitarian assistance and promote reconstruction to move to the fore.
“All things considered it could not have got off to a better start,” said David Roberts of the Defence Studies department of Kings College, London. “There is such major pressure to get this process up and running, the fighting wrapped up and to a new phase of the post-conflict era reconstruction, something where there has been a strong Emirati role.”
The International Crisis Group, a US-based think tank, has published a brief that looks at the potential significance of a year when Sheikh Mohamed hosted a reconciliation summit between long-term rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“The influence of, and competition among, Gulf states could reshape Horn geopolitics,” it said. “Gulf leaders can nudge their African counterparts toward peace; both the UAE and Saudi Arabia helped along the recent Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement,” the report said.
Mr Roberts said the UAE role in fostering the reconciliation would become clearer as more progress on overcoming differences in the region emerged in 2019.
Another report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed to the importance of combining commercial interests and statecraft to underpin growing ties. “Indeed, the opening of the border and the booming infrastructure needs in Ethiopia will generate important investment opportunities,” the researcher Ms Lons wrote. “Dubai Ports World is looking to help develop the commercial port of Assab, and in August 2018 the UAE announced a pipeline project linking Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Assab in Eritrea. Moreover, this will provide the Emiratis and Saudis with better access to Ethiopia’s agricultural production, which is key to their food security.”