Pen, Mightier than the Sword

Cultural Diplomacy

Playing to its many strengths in writing and culture, Sharjah is looking to pen a new chapter in the history books and ink its diplomatic mark at the same time.

So the story goes, HH Sheikh Sultan Dr. bin Muhammad Al Qasimi was gifted a golden dagger by his father when he was young, and later mortgaged it in order to buy books. It is an apt metaphor for Sharjah’s diplomacy, which heavily relies on its status as cultural capital of the Arab world and books the center of its cultural policy, as the Sheikh himself is a prolific author.

Recently, HH Sheikh Al Qasimi has embarked on several bilateral diplomatic visits centered on books and cultural exchange. During his visit to the National Library of France, he presented the French translation of his new book. The President of Costa Rica met with the Ruler of Sharjah at the Center for Gulf Studies to foster cultural and scientific links between both countries, during which His Highness presented a copy of another of his books. Finnish Minister of Development praised the balance between development and culture found in the Emirate during his recent visit. In a meeting with the Indian Chief Minister of Kerala, the Minister expressed his wish to open a Kerala cultural center in Sharjah. Similarly, the Armenian president traveled to Sharjah to promote intellectual and cultural exchange between the two countries.

In the multilateral sphere, Sharjah will be the official guest of honor at the August 2018 São Paulo International Book Fair, one of the largest and most important cultural events in Latin America. The eclectic visits and the partnerships with book fairs around the world are part of a long-term bid to geographically diversify its cultural recipients, which are still mostly Arab and Muslim countries.

Sharjah was awarded the title of World Book Capital for 2019 by UNESCO after a long lobbying campaign. Its focus on diversifying the audience for books is in line with long-standing Emirati policies of making books more accessible to a wider audience. This is reflected in the coming creation of Sharjah Publishing City and in the annual Sharjah International Book Fair, the third-largest book fair in the world with more than 1,500 publishers and 300,000 visitors.

Because of its size and unorthodox approach to diplomacy, Sharjah uses its soft power as a cultural powerhouse to strengthen its presence on the world stage, as exemplified by the recently opened Sharjah Media City, created to be a major media hub. Due to its niche diplomatic approach, it works complementarily with other UAE Emirates, particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and helps improve foreign misconceptions of the Arab world and the UAE.

Beyond books and culture, Sharjah is developing a truly international presence, using its diverse economy and unique geographic position to enhance diplomatic links with other countries and foster international expansion. Cultural policies are used to pull in FDI, and the free zones act as recipients of foreign companies wanting to invest, particularly in the media and culture fields.

The ever-expanding free trade zones foster further development in the Emirate, while the export rate remains high. The main export recipients are nearby countries, starting with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran, with other emirates coming in fourth position, followed by Iraq. The fact that Sharjah exports more to three neighboring countries than to the UAE demonstrates how strongly it participates in the UAE’s economic influence in the region.

Sharjah’s leaders have consistently praised its unique traditional culture as a reason for investments from other Muslim countries and as a factor of the Emirate’s attractiveness for foreign nationals living in the Emirate, while using its cultural impact for international influence in a crowded playing field where difference is strength. Sharjah is a global cultural destination for writers, publishers, and intellectuals throughout the Arab world and, with its well-established focus on culture, aims to write a new page in its history.