Rising Power

Dubai has been at the forefront of the Emirates' efforts to make soft power a staying one in the UAE's diplomatic arsenal. But culture is hardly the only thing it is exporting: its expertise in governance is fast becoming a hot commodity across the Arab world as well.

Though Dubai has long been at the front of the global imagination, it often has trouble selling its story to the world. Though contributing substantially to the UAE’s robust cultural, humanitarian, and economic diplomacy efforts, and doing more than its share to drive the Arab world toward a more open and prosperous future, too often its famous culture of tolerance, innovation, and economic dynamism are shrouded by regional stereotypes that cast the Gulf and wider region in an inaccurate light. This is why the Emirates Diplomatic Academy was created in 2017 to set the record straight.

Built with staff drawn from Expo 2020, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, Nakheel, Dubai International Finance Center, Emaar, Etisalat, and Dubai Holding, the academy is already training the next generation of world-class Emirati diplomats and cultural ambassadors to spearhead the UAE’s Soft Power Strategy. As Paulo Portas, former Foreign Minister and former Deputy Prime Minister of Portugal, told The National, as “a rising power” and one of the countries that best understands digitization and globalization, “the UAE is more or less like the virtual border between the old and the new world. It’s a sort of United Nations of the world. With good ideas in the right moment, you can build a fantastic nation project.” As Mona Al Marri, Director General of the Dubai Media Office, said on the occasion, the academy was designed to train a future generation built in the mold of Sheikh Zayed, one of the 20th century’s most prolific dealmakers and bridge builders. She also believes it will firmly benefit both the public and private sectors.
Part of the broader UAE Soft Power Strategy announced in September 2017, the academy will help the country better communicate its six-pronged diplomatic efforts: humanitarian, scientific and academic, national representatives, people, cultural and media, and economic. While each of these has a robust significance on its own, the country’s strongest impact in recent years has been its humanitarian, cultural and media, and economic diplomacy efforts. The largest per capita aid donor in the world in 2015—giving away 1.12% of its GDP compared to an OECD average of merely 0.3%—the UAE also recently launched the Zayed Humanitarian Work Day. An occasion to remember the country’s diplomatic sacrifices and humanitarian achievements, the milestone day was first announced in June 2018 and will be henceforth celebrated on 19th Ramadan, thus coinciding with Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny), the night the first verses of the Koran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Having given nearly USD25 billion in aid to some 117 countries from 1971 to 2004, the UAE has only stepped up its charitable efforts in the past decade. Increasing its aid expenditure between 2016-2017 by 8.1%, it gave away USD5.26 billion last year, or some 1.31% of GDP—the highest ratio in the world for the fifth year running, according to the OECD. With 43% of this aid going to Asia and 28% to Africa, Yemen was the largest recipient of assistance, receiving USD800 million in assistance in 2017, or roughly one-third of all aid to Asia that year. Of these funds, 94% were development-related funds sent through public aid programs and channeled to helping beneficiaries maintain financial stability and meet balance of payments; strengthen infrastructure; improve transportation, health, and education; and boost renewable energy production. That hefty increase in international assistance have coincided with the “Year of Zayed,” as 2018 has been christened, is no coincidence.

More importantly, it will also propose a viable alternative to the acrimony, bigotry, intolerance, and sectarianism that have wracked so much of the region in recent years. “By communicating our progressive culture and values to other nations,” Nusseibeh wrote in a recent editorial, “we can give people in our region something hopeful to aspire to, which is what so many young Arabs desperately need. By demonstrating that pride in our Muslim and Arab heritage and culture can also mean being modern and cosmopolitan, we can help to show people a positive alternative.”

Indeed, not only has Dubai long since replaced Beirut as the Arab world’s most vibrant city, but it has done so in a far more international fashion, and with no centuries-long head start of which to speak. If the totality of the UAE’s rich but righteous and respectful culture can be harnessed in the service of the creative arts, as this initiative hopes, then the rest of the Arab world has much to gain. As Nusseibeh said, “At their best, [the creative arts] engage people in a two-way conversation, tapping into emotions that all humans share and eliminating language barriers.”

To be sure, the country has also been working furiously to enhance ties with leading regional and world powers, including but not limited to the US, China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. On July 10, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the UAE to underline US support for the country and bolster its resistance to Tehran’s posturing across the region. Meeting with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, he countered Iranian threats to disrupt supply lines (should Iranian exports be targeted) and reiterated America’s commitment to “keeping sea lines open [and] keeping the transit of oil available for the entire world.” The home of more than 5,000 American air force personnel, the UAE is also the US Navy’s busiest foreign port of call.

Barely three days earlier, Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan had traveled to Beijing to meet with his counterpart, Wang Yi. Discussing the situation in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya in particular, they also explored ways to further enhance the two countries’ already robust bilateral ties in trade, investment, education, tourism, and renewable energy.

Already the signatory of an MoU on the Belt and Road Initiative with Beijing, the UAE is also one of seven Arab states to be founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Founded in 2015, AIIB is based in Beijing and already has half the capitalization of the World Bank. It is supporting development projects across Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, Oman, the Philippines, and Egypt, among others. In 2017, the UAE was the first country to strike a deal with China to exempt its citizens from pre-entry visa requirements, a masterstroke that resulted in more than 1 million Chinese visiting the UAE that year for the first time ever. Bilateral trade between the countries has now reached USD41 billion, more than 21% of the USD191 billion in trade the Middle Kingdom does with the entire Arab world.

But it is not merely about diplomacy, also governance. In July, the UAE helped Cairo host the Egypt Government Excellence Conference 2018, a joint effort spearheaded by the UAE in conjunction with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to “provide a comprehensive framework for the transfer of the UAE’s successful government experience to Egypt.” Long gone are the days when the UAE only exports oil: soft power and governance, the true wellsprings of long-term wealth, stability, and power, are fast snapping away at black gold’s heels.