The UAE – Soft Superpower in the Making?

May 30, 2018
The UAE – Soft Superpower in the Making?
Richard Woodward
Richard Woodward Non-Resident Fellow - International Economics

Just over a year ago His Highness Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum inaugurated the UAE’s Soft Power Council. The Council, which launched the UAE’s Soft Power Strategy during the Government’s Annual Meetings in September 2017, will oversee efforts to enhance the country’s international reputation. In taking this initiative, the UAE has joined a throng of states attempting to use soft power as a means of projecting influence in world politics. This trend is especially pronounced in the GCC where “the Gulf monarchies stand out amongst the world’s smaller countries in the range and scale of their global ‘soft power’ ambitions”. Nevertheless, the GCC countries are yet to feature prominently in global soft power rankings. This suggests the UAE is right to conjure a strategy designed to maximise the production and the impact of its soft power.  This contribution discusses the UAE’s potential for generating soft power and the pitfalls to avoid for the successful projection of soft power in the Gulf region and beyond.

First coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead, soft power is now integral to the lexicon of politicians, diplomats and policy makers the world over. The definition of power is endlessly contested but is generally agreed to refer to obtaining the outcomes you want by controlling the political environment and thereby shaping the preferences and behaviour of other actors. In international relations this is normally understood to occur through the application of ‘hard’ power deriving from the possession of material capabilities, most notably military and economic heft. These forms of power are ultimately underpinned by the threat or use of coercion. Soft power in contrast refers to efforts to obtain your objectives by attracting others and, in Nye’s words, getting “them to want what you want”. To do this, states seek to paint themselves in the best possible light in order to burnish their image among foreign publics. In so doing they wish to persuade them of the superiority of their values in the hope that they will want to emulate them.

That the countries of the GCC and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region generate soft power is widely acknowledged. Recently the cultivation of soft power has become more prominent in their national strategies. In this context the UAE’s Soft Power Council is an important development marking moves towards making soft power a more overt, systematised and institutionalised element of power projection by countries in the region. That the UAE is in the vanguard of these changes is unsurprising. During the last decade the UAE has become a more assertive foreign policy actor within the Gulf and beyond. To support this, it has invested significantly in hard power. Between 2007 and 2014 the UAE increased its military spending by 123% and now boasts what many commentators perceive as the region’s best-trained and equipped armed forces. Likewise it has used its financial clout, not least its possession of the world’s second largest sovereign wealth fund, to shape regional economic governance. Equally the UAE’s policymakers are conscious of the limits of hard power alone. The proliferation of sophisticated and destructive weaponry and intensified economic interdependence makes the application of military force increasingly risky and economic sanctions increasingly costly enhancing the appeal of tapping the UAE’s abundant inventory of soft power assets.

Soft power resources are less tangible and multifaceted. According to Nye they originate from three principal sources: the culture of a country, its political values and the legitimacy of its foreign policy. Cultural appeal derives from a country’s heritage and history and how this is presented to the world through its cultural products. These products range from ‘high’ cultural ideas expressed through art, literature, religion, language, scientific and educational institutions and popular culture such as music, film and television aimed at mass audiences, sport, and brands associated with renowned corporate entities. Even prior to the publication of the Soft Power Strategy substantial funding had been ploughed into the country’s art, music, and education sectors. For instance, at a cost exceeding $1bn, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors in November 2017, the first of five new museums due to open to the public. The UAE has won plaudits for its support of international higher education. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education the UAE is home to 32 branch campuses of overseas universities, the densest concentration in the world; including prestigious institutions such as New York University and Sorbonne University. Arguably the UAE’s biggest cultural success was being selected as host city for the World Expo 2020. Forecast to draw some 25 million visitors the World-Expo is, according to Jay Wang, director of the University of Southern California’s Centre on Public Diplomacy,  “the largest single promotional event of a nation outside their own borders……a major platform for countries to reach out to the foreign public”.

The World Expo will also be a vehicle to promote popular aspects of UAE culture. Presently only two of the world’s 500 most valuable brands belong to UAE companies Emirates (an airline) and Etisalat (a telecommunications company). The triumph of these companies in building their global brands may contain important lessons for the Soft Power Council for they owe a significant debt to an aspect of soft power that the UAE is yet to exploit fully: sport. Emirates holds sponsorship deals across a diverse portfolio of sporting events including cricket, rugby, tennis, motorsports, horse racing, and golf but is arguably most associated with football. The Emirates brand adorns the shirts of some of the world’s leading clubs including AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Benfica and Arsenal, the latter of which play at a ground named after the airline, plus a host of competitions such as the English FA Cup and the Asian Football Confederation Champions League. Following the example set by many other rising powers, the UAE may wish to give consideration to bidding to host flagship international sporting tournaments, so-called sports ‘megaevents’. A successful tender to hosting such an event would provide an excellent opportunity for the UAE to accumulate soft power. As well as symbolising the country’s standing in the international community, a successful bid would showcase the UAE’s ability to deliver the cutting edge infrastructure at which it excels and which is emblematic of modern states. Hosting the event is a chance to create a positive impression of the country amongst the influx of foreign guests and to project this internationally through the inevitable media attention. Tentative steps in this direct are being taken with the UAE hosting the Asian Confederation Cup football tournament in 2019.

From a Western perspective, the UAE’s political values do not immediately appear to lend themselves to soft power.  However, the UAE stands as the Gulf’s most liberal country and the quality of its political institutions outshines those of its regional counterparts. Throughout the last decade the UAE has consistently inhabited the upper echelons of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index clinching 21st position in 2017 putting it ahead of a majority of European Union countries. The UAE also appears in the top 20% of the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators for regulatory quality and applying the rule of law and in the top 10% for government effectiveness. The appointment of the world’s first Minister of State for Tolerance in 2016 is a further manifestation of the UAE’s efforts to audition as a venue where the handshake between the emerging states of the South and East and the established Western powers can take place. This seems to be yielding dividends within the region. For six consecutive years the UAE has been the top choice amongst the 18-24 year olds interviewed for the Arab Youth Survey as the country where they would most like to live and the model for other countries to imitate.

Legitimacy in foreign policy is the final source of soft power for “if a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes”. In a world of clashing ideas and interests, no country’s foreign policy is likely to inspire universal acclaim. Yet there are a variety of ways in which UAE underscores the legitimacy of its foreign policies. One is deepening participation in the dense network of organisations and institutions that prescribe and guard the rules, norms and principles that govern global politics. As a previous TRENDS contribution noted there has been a perceptible expansion in the involvement of the GCC countries, often with the UAE at the forefront, in the development of international norms especially those pertaining to international finance, energy, and climate change. Indeed a number of international bodies, most notably the International Renewable Energy Agency, now base their headquarters in the UAE. The UAE has sought to uphold international norms by, for example, assisting with UN humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Lately it has bolstered its soft power through being one of the most generous suppliers of overseas development assistance (ODA). Preliminary data for 2017 show that the UAE gave 1.31% of its Gross National Income (GNI) in ODA, a higher figure than any of the members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee and far in excess of the internationally agreed target of 0.7% set by the United Nations.

To accentuate and build on these foundations the UAE’s Soft Power Strategy identifies four key objectives: (1) to develop a unified direction for various sectors including the economy, humanities, tourism, media and science; (2) to promote the UAE’s position as a gateway to the region; (3) to establish the UAE as a regional capital for culture, art and tourism; and (4) to establish its reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all peoples from across the world. Proclaiming a soft power strategy is one thing but making it work is another.  A key tension in the projection of soft power is that having drawn attention to themselves states cannot, though they might try, control the aspects of their culture, political values and foreign policy that others may dwell upon. The experiences of other states have revealed a variety of ways in which soft power strategies can misfire. Fortunately, these experiences also offer lessons about how these pitfalls can be mitigated or avoided. Four lessons stand out.

First, unlike hard power resources, which tend to be concentrated in the hands of government, soft power resources are diffused to a profusion of public and private actors. Typically the primary responsibility for the state’s external relations lies with diplomats who are state appointees and specialists in precise and accurate communication with their counterparts. Although these formal channels remain important, the revolution in communications technology means that today almost anyone can, in effect, act as an emissary for their country through interactions with people overseas. Direct contact between the masses, so-called ‘new public diplomacy’, is encapsulated by the UAE’s Deputy Prime Minister’s observation at the launch of the soft power strategy that “the responsibility of the UAE’s reputation is also the responsibility of any person and group in the UAE”. The dilemma is that the messages and images conveyed by a myriad of non-state actors will not necessarily correspond to that envisaged by the government. The challenge therefore is to harness the creativity of private groups and individuals whilst transmitting a reasonably coherent message. Most academic evidence suggests that, especially in an age of social media, that national values, cultures and brands are most credible when they are carried by celebrities, businesses and ordinary citizens. The lesson from elsewhere is that soft power works best when government acts to facilitate, rather than tightly control, the activities of private actors.

Second, and related to the above, considerable thought needs to go into how the UAE’s message is to be imparted and to whom. Purveyors of soft power must remember that effective public diplomacy is a two-way street. It involves listening as well as talking. Public diplomacy is more effective when it engages with, rather than broadcasts to, its intended recipients. The UAE’s Soft Power Council must also recognise that what is deemed attractive, desirable or legitimate varies enormously around the world. Put another way what generates soft power in one country or region may detract from it in another.

Third, soft power is a long-term commitment requiring significant political and financial capital. The returns on hard power investments such as military armaments tend to be immediate, quantifiable and visible. Conversely the effects of soft power investments tend to be of a piecemeal and intangible nature that is imperceptible to policymakers and the public. The difficulty of demonstrating that a soft power strategy is delivering bang for the government’s buck makes them candidates for retrenchment and abandonment. Many of the UK’s soft power assets, for example, such as the BBC World Service and the British Council are withering owing to budgetary cutbacks imposed by politicians determined to close the country’s yawning budget deficits. These problems are exacerbated by the view that soft power is a cheap option. Soft power assets certainly offer good value when compared with the cost of constructing an aircraft carrier or buying the latest artillery. Equally communicating your message to the rest of the world incurs substantial expenditure. Consider the case of sports megaevents where intense competition to win the nomination spurs governments to make ostentatious bids whose costs are then further inflated by an eagerness to woo the global audience the event is designed to attract.

Fourth, a successful soft power strategy abroad rests on domestic support. Countries cannot assume that grandiose projects designed to dazzle foreign observers will resonate or be appreciated at home. Ordinary citizens who are often understandably indifferent or even hostile to such undertakings feel the opportunity costs of lavishing extravagant expenditures on enterprises ostensibly aimed at international audiences. Concerns are also sometimes expressed that openness to foreign influences may erode the national and cultural identity upon which soft power is founded.

The view that the actions of states simply accord with an impartial assessment of their national interests and that the interests which prevail reflect the distribution of power in the international system still has much to commend it. Equally, in many cases, decision-making is, as one seasoned diplomat has observed “more often than not informed by emotional, psychological factors, by innate and sometimes unarticulated affinities or antipathies.”  This is the essence of soft power. The UAE’s strategic nurturing of these affinities, especially if it learns from the experience of others, leaves it in pole position to become a soft superpower of the future.