For the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the year of tolerance has just begun: domestic cohesion is critical for a country in which expatriates make up to 90% of the population. However, in the Emirates’ cultural rush, geopolitics matters a lot.
As occurs every year, the president of the UAE Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan selected a twelve-month topic: a series of tailored initiatives and policies will be displayed throughout the year to emphasize how this value shapes the UAE, according to the federation’s rulers. Tolerance is the 2019 theme: the landmark visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi (February 3-5), the first ever in the Gulf, assumes special resonance for the UAE, since around this visit Abu Dhabi has been developing a real cultural offensive to strengthen its position as a global power in the post-oil era.
Throughout the 2010s, the UA succeeded in becoming one of the most assertive regional players of the Middle East, acquiring consistent leverage also in Africa and Asia, combining energy revenues, planned economic diversification and strategic thinking. The Emirates entrenched commercial and security interests (in port geopolitics and choke-points), upgraded their military capabilities (in terms of know-how and their national defense industry), and unprecedentedly engaged in military interventions (in Yemen since 2015).
Starting from these achievements, the UAE plans now to develop as a soft superpower focused on art, tourism and science, capitalizing on global events (like Expo Dubai 2020), and cultural diplomacy tools. The notion of tolerance stands at the centre of this effort: cultural diplomacy is a rising dimension of the UAE’s foreign policy, as testified by the tightened partnerships with France and India that, although holistic, stress and exhibit the role of cultural symbols in bilateral alliances. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017 and the ongoing construction of the first Hindu temple in the UAE are only some examples.
How does tolerance represent a geopolitical tool for the UAE and how does it combine with its ambitious and military-driven regional politics? Why do tolerance and cultural diplomacy contribute to forging the national identity of the UAE? Qatar became an important player in the Middle East due to its soft power: what kind of political implications could the UAE’s new strategy trigger for neighbouring monarchies?
Tolerance: Meaning and Political Goals
On November 15-16, 2018, Dubai hosted the first ever World Tolerance Summit: the Dubai Declaration signed on that occasion defines tolerance as “neither indulgence nor indifference”, stating that it is to be intended as “respect and appreciation for the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human”.
“Respect and appreciation” for “forms of expression” might appear a controversial point if we look at the Emirates’ public space. Especially from 2011 onwards, the UAE and neighbouring monarchies have implemented strict securitization policies for national security reasons; the most famous case in the UAE is that of Ahmed Mansoor Al-Shehhi, an award-winning human rights activist arrested in 2017 and convicted in 2018 for insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols”. As a matter of fact, tolerance mainly appears here as an externally-oriented concept, linked to culture and, most of all, to other cultures. Surely, the UAE’s promotion of tolerance as a guideline in international affairs is a top-down, politically-engineered operation to strengthen the Emirates’ soft power and global prestige: tolerance serves as a geopolitical tool.
Tolerance and Cultural Diplomacy: Institutional Tools of Foreign Policy
The UAE has institutionalized tolerance: a specific ministry was established in 2016 and in late 2018 the Supreme National Committee for Tolerance was formed. Chaired by Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (and with the participation of civil society representatives), the committee has to implement seven pillars: tolerance in the community, education, workplace, culture, legislation and media. Beyond them, the committee is tasked with consolidating the UAE as “a model of tolerance”, in order to “solidify the UAE as the global capital for culture, dialogue between cultures and civilizations”. This overarching goal reveals the geopolitical intent of the Emirates’ ´tolerance campaign`, and how it supports the building of a sophisticated and multifaceted foreign policy.
In the Emirates’ official discourse, the visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi represents the apex of the 2019 year of tolerance, which was launched just after the announcement of the Pope’s historical trip: Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia (the UAE, Oman and Yemen) said that the visit was the result of combined invitations from the Catholic Church in the UAE and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. According to the scheduled program, Pope Francis will visit the Shaykh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Emirate Founder’s Memorial; he will meet with the Muslim Council of Elders, also attending the Global Conference for Human Fraternity, an interfaith forum with the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar and other religious leaders. Pope Francis will also visit the Abu Dhabi Cathedral.
Cultural diplomacy has been institutionalized as part of the Emirates’ foreign policy. On July 2018, the federation established the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation: cultural diplomacy will be included in diplomat training to embed it in each Emirates embassy and mission. Not by chance, many international alliances of the UAE present a recognizable, and rising, cultural dimension, as in the case of the partnerships with France and India.
The UAE’s Brand Diplomacy and The Power of Symbols: The Cases of France and India
Surely, the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (November 2017) represented the most visible example of how the UAE is skilfully crafting and/or strengthening geopolitical ties through art and culture, as demonstrated by the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron at the inauguration ceremony. France is a key partner for the UAE and vice versa: looking at defence relations, Abu Dhabi hosts a permanent French military base since 2009. With regard to the Louvre, it perfectly fits into the cases of brand diplomacy, as does the Sorbonne (the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi camp opened in 2011): something able to immediately reach a global audience, although expressing a clear connection with a specific country of origin.
Notwithstanding warm historical relations, India has recently turned into a strategic partner for the UAE, as testified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Abu Dhabi in 2018. Energy, economics and also defence are the pillars of this comprehensive partnership, but cultural diplomacy has been triggering in-depth, people-to-people relations, consolidating political linkages. In such a framework, tolerance policies, art and literature play a central role: the construction of the first Hindu temple in the UAE (the federation hosts 2.8 million of Indian workers, mostly from Kerala) has started in Abu Dhabi and it is expected to open in 2020. For instance, India will be the guest of honour at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (April 24-30, 2019) and Sharjah was the same at the New Delhi International Book Fair (January 5-13, 2019); on this occasion, Sharjah’s ruler, Shaykh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammed Al-Qasimi, who is also a well-known writer, presented his latest novel which is also translated into Hindi and will be launched at the Delhi Book Fair. The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation commissioned the exhibition Binary States, India-UAE, held in Fort Kochi (Kerala) between February and March 2017: part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennal, this Emirati-promoted exhibition underlined the overlapping aspects of the two cultures.
Promoting (and Forging) the Emirati National Identity
But things are even more subtle: for the UAE, cultural diplomacy is not only a geopolitical tool. The Emirati leadership used to sponsor international cultural projects at home: now they have started to export their own culture and symbols abroad. As a matter of fact, Abu Dhabi has been displaying and promoting the UAE’s national identity also through the channels of cultural diplomacy, thus intertwining these distinct - but not distant - items.
For instance, since 2016 a section of the Louvre Paris hosts the Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan Centre, which describes the history of the UAE’s founder and his role in cultural and art advancement. Cultural diplomacy contributes to boosting Emirati national self-awareness, spreading knowledge and building consensus (abroad as well as at home) about the roots and the symbols of the UAE: in March 2019, an exhibition on Shaykh Zayed and Gandhi will open in Abu Dhabi. Playing with some sort of visual and narrative ´mirror effect`, the two historical leaders of the UAE and India are both described as “founding fathers” and “models of tolerance”.
In all these prominent events and/or places (Pope Francis’ visit to the Founder’s Memorial, the Emirati section of the Louvre Paris and the exhibition on UAE-India founding fathers), the symbolic presence of Shaykh Zayed (1918-2004) is the real fil rouge. This strengthens and, to a certain extent, plays a part in forging and unifying the national identity of the UAE, in times of multidimensional regional challenges and threats.
Although Shaykh Zayed was the respected leader of the UAE and the political architect, together with Shaykh Rashid bin Said Al-Makhtum of Dubai (1912-1990), of federal unification in 1971, the UAE’s cultural heritage is much more than Abu Dhabi’s, given the peculiar traditions and histories of the other six emirates in the federation (Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Ras Al-Khaimah, Fujairah). Today even more than before, Abu Dhabi is the leading and the centralizing force of the federation, as envisaged by Shaykh Zayed: this is not only because of federal consensus, but also due to economic and military power. According to a shared narrative of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is the political and energy centre, Dubai is the trade hub and Sharjah is the cultural capital. Sharjah has always been the Arab cultural pioneer in the Peninsula, hosting the International Book Fair (since 1982) and the Biennial of Contemporary Art (since 1993): now, Abu Dhabi is developing ´at large` and ´mediatizing` the Emirates’ cultural space. In this picture, the UAE’s national identity projects (like national museums, art exhibitions, heritage festivals and compulsory military service), are top-down political initiatives designed by Abu Dhabi, with the intent to promote a unified, but Abu Dhabi-driven, national identity of the UAE, able to overcome the traditional “unity in fragmentation” spirit.
Therefore, Emirati cultural diplomacy is a vector of geopolitics and, at the same time, it supports the process of the UAE’s nation-building, providing Abu Dhabi with useful immaterial resources to blend local Emirati identities into a collective myth.
Soft Superpower, but “Little Sparta”: The UAE’s Multifaceted Foreign Policy
In April 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Makhtum (vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai) launched the UAE Soft Power Council: the aim is turning the federation into a soft superpower, a global hub for art, science and tourism. The UAE Soft Power Strategy, developed in late 2017, builds on cultural diplomacy since it works to “increase the country’s global reputation abroad by highlighting its identity, heritage, culture and contributions of the UAE to the world”. Moreover, the Strategy wants the UAE to be portrayed “as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes people from across the world”.
How does this combine with the UAE’s foreign policy stance so far, centred on security interests and marked by consistent military capabilities, to the point of being nicknamed “Little Sparta” by US generals? From a strategic point of view, there is no incongruity: these foreign policy dimensions are complementary. As a matter of fact, the geopolitics of tolerance contributes indirectly to enhancing the Emirates’ national security and interests, given their emphasis on domestic cohesion beyond cultural and religious differences, and its search for cultural understanding with partners. Moreover, cultural diplomacy channels the Emirati national identity abroad as well as at home, thus influencing the nation-building process.
Rivals, Competitors, Allies: What Might Change for Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia
Looking at the relations among the Gulf monarchies, cultural diplomacy allows the UAE to carve out a strategic position with respect to rivals (Qatar), competitors (Oman) and allies (Saudi Arabia). The willingness of the UAE to be recognized as a soft superpower devoted to inter-cultural, inter-faith dialogue, art and mediation can be seen as an attempt to marginalize Qatar, the Gulf’s champion of soft power so far, to take over its successful brand of mediator. In the 2000s, Qatar’s branding and hyperactive diplomacy allowed Doha to rapidly gain positions in the Middle East. The recent Emirati (and Saudi) brokers role in the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace agreement reveals mediation ambitions, in an area of strategic interest and rivalry for Gulf powers like the Horn of Africa. In the eyes of the UAE, Oman is an ally, but also a direct competitor for Asian investments and maritime trade routes, commercial port expansion (for instance, Fujairah and Duqm) and, in recent times, for leverage in eastern Yemen (the Mahra governorate). Oman’s niche diplomacy, traditionally based on outreach activities and informal mediation, will not be overshadowed by the highly-mediatized Emirate initiatives in the diplomatic field, but might find less room for manoeuvre since Abu Dhabi’s assertive foreign policy is less nuanced than Muscat’s. Finally, the image of ´bridge among cultures` and ´oasis of diversity` can also offer the UAE the chance to mark a long-term difference with close ally Saudi Arabia, whose politics have been put under pressure by international media and, to a lesser extent, by Western partners, due to the war in Yemen and the echo of the Khashoggi case. Notwithstanding the strength of the Saudi-Emirati alliance (with growing political coordination), the Emirates could opt, in the medium-term, for more pragmatic, image-oriented tactics, and less for ideological, sectarian-biased choices. This is why the UAE’s cultural rush is likely to recalibrate political balances in the Arabian Peninsula.