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.
Dubai Expo 2020, the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, billions spent on humanitarian aid around the world … all are part of the UAE’s goal of establishing itself as a “soft superpower” and the regional capital for ideas, culture, art and tourism.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, launched the UAE Soft Power Council in April last year.
It has four main objectives: to develop a unified direction for various sectors including the economy, humanities, tourism, media and science; to enhance the UAE’s position as a gateway to the region; to establish the country as a regional capital for culture, art and tourism; and to ensure the Emirates is portrayed as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes people from across the world.
Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, described soft power as a “door opener” for the UAE’s diplomats. Its work in art and culture could spill over into communicating the country’s vision on issues such as radicalisation and extremism.
“What is important here is our public and cultural diplomacy,” Dr Gargash said. “This not only involves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, but also every citizen and resident in the UAE, institutions and bodies to spread the nation’s message.”
In Iraq this year, the UAE pledged $50.4 million (Dh185.1m) to rebuild Mosul’s Grand Al Nuri Mosque.
The centuries-old mosque was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed his “caliphate” in 2014 but the place of worship was blown up by the extremists last year, shortly before they were driven out of the city.
Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, said that the UAE’s rebuilding of the mosque in collaboration with Unesco was an effort to reverse the damage done by ISIS to the image of Islam.
“The five-year project is not just about rebuilding the mosque, the minaret and the infrastructure, but also about giving hope to young Iraqis,” Ms Al Kaabi said during a ceremony at Baghdad’s National Museum.
Dubai Expo 2020 will be an economic and political achievement that bolsters the UAE leadership’s vision for the country’s growth, said Marjan Faraidooni, senior vice president of legacy development for the six-month event.
Dr Gargash described the exhibition as one of the most notable examples of the UAE’s soft power, as world exhibitions are the single largest promotional event for a nation outside its own borders.
“Expo 2020 is a vital platform for the UAE to reach out to the foreign public,” he said.
The event is expected to draw more than 20 million people to Dubai to share ideas, display their innovation and encourage collaboration.
“We hope to stimulate the development of a knowledge economy here in Dubai, anchored to the expo site, which will continue after the event to be a destination that attracts visitors, students and companies and is home to a combination of organisations including strategic industries, specialised technology companies, social entities and education facilities,” the organisers say.
A powerful passport
Another example of the UAE’s soft power at work is that its passport now ranks as the most powerful in the world, according to Arton Capital’s updated Passport Index.
The financial advisory firm, specialising in assisting people seeking second residencies, ranks national passports by the ease of cross-border access they give the holder.
The UAE’s ranking rose from fourth place a year earlier as citizens gained visa-free access to several more countries including Ireland, Canada and China.
Not just art for art's sake
And on November 11 last year, the UAE strengthened its position as a cultural tourism destination with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the culmination of a 10-year collaboration with France.
More than 600 artworks from around the world have been displayed at the museum.
There are 300 works on loan from 13 leading French institutions in its 23 permanent galleries, by world-renowned artists such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly.
The works portray the major stages in human development and emphasise the links between cultures and civilisations.