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What We Can Learn From Abu Dhabi's Soft Diplomacy

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On December 2, 2010, the UAE began celebrating the countdown to its 40th anniversary as a federation. It is going to welcome its fifth decade in a few months as a mature diplomatic nation, due to a new phenomenon in the form of soft diplomacy. This report will review some of the recent milestones the UAE has witnessed in this field.

In the years 2008 and 2009 the UAE's young Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed was amongst the most travelled and effective in the world. His and his team's efforts in soft diplomacy were crowned with awarding Abu Dhabi the global base of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in June 2009. Leading up to the historic vote in Egypt was a tireless effort by Sheikh Abdullah and a team of Emirati men and women who visited over seventy countries most of which were in Africa and Latin America in order to secure the vote. I had written an article in The National about the dozens of countries that Sheikh Abdullah visited that was later highlighted in London's International Institute For Strategic Studies. It is noteworthy that Sheikh Abdullah's visits to emerging and developing countries did not stop after Abu Dhabi was awarded the rights to host IRENA. In the autumn of 2009 several months after the IRENA vote Sheikh Abdullah embarked on yet another major tour of Latin America -- visiting Mexico, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Colombia and Brazil to forge closer ties. Indeed, it was the beginning of a new era of pro-active diplomacy for the UAE as these were traditionally counties where the country had less of a diplomatic engagement.

I stated in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, the UAE's status as the second largest economy in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia allows it to punch above its weight. In a world where over 90 percent of global trade takes place via sea cargo it did not escape Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed to invite both the then chairman and the chief executive of Dubai World and DP World respectively to accompany him on his October 2009 tour of Latin America. After all, the Dubai based firm manages ports in over 50 cargo terminals on six continents globally and is today the world's third-biggest ports operator.

The UAE government identified Sheikh Abdullah's effectiveness as a strategic asset for the country and on May 27, 2009 four assistants were appointed each covering an essential foreign diplomatic sphere. Rashid Hareb Al Falahi was appointed as Sheikh Abdullah's assistant for special affairs, Dr Tariq Al Haidan as assistant for political affairs, Dr Abdul Rahim Yousuf Al Awadi as assistant for legal and international organisations affairs and Khaled Ghanem Al Ghaith as assistant for economic affairs to compliment the high-level work of Sheikh Abdullah himself and Juma Al Junaibi, the Director General of the Foreign Ministry.

In the past two years several other initiatives have taken place that would also complement Sheikh Abdullah's efforts. For instance in 2008 the UAE Foreign Aid Coordination Office (FACO) was established "to support the nation's delivery of foreign humanitarian and development aid by building capacities, sharing information and facilitating cooperation among donor organisations". Prior to its establishment the UAE's government and people's generosity in assisting other nations lacked any planning and coordination. Perhaps one of the most relevant objectives of FACO to the UAE's soft diplomacy push is to document UAE foreign aid flows. According to the first official report by FACO the country had given over "AED163 billion ($44.3B) in foreign aid since its establishment in 1971 to fighting world hunger and poverty". It is believed that this number may reach AED200 Billion if tracking all the donations given by the late Sheikh Zayed was possible. Due to the work of FACO the UAE public and world community has come to learn that the UAE's foreign aid crossed AED9 billion in 2009 alone this aid has benefited people in over 90 countries of their "regardless of their creed, religion or colour of skin" as per the statement by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed.

Although the work of the Foreign Aid Coordination Office is not directly related to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs it allows those concerned in the UAE government to understand its soft power sphere of influence. Recently, when the Canadian government refused to grant UAE based carriers Emirates and Etihad additional landing rights the UAE government used its influence at the United Nations to lobby member countries against voting for the G8 economic power. The result was outstanding; for the first time in its history Canada dismally lost the bid to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council against Portugal. It is likely that the information afforded to the UAE delegation in the UN through agencies such as FACO complimented the successful lobbying efforts.

Another pillar to this major shift in diplomacy was the appointment of Ambassador Yousef Al Otaibah as emissary to Washington DC in June 2008. I have detailed in an article in The National the major transformational role this individual had on the UAE's relations with the world's major superpower. To put his success into context one must go back to 2006 when DP World, a major UAE corporation was denied management rights of American ports due to the tense post 9-11 climate and reactive diplomatic activity on the UAE's part. After the pro-active diplomatic initiatives of Ambassador Al Otaiba the UAE was able to win approval from the USA for approval and assistance in setting up a peaceful nuclear energy program. The soft diplomatic outreach program implemented by Ambassador Al Otaiba included hiring a young energetic team of Emiratis who were tasked with American community and media outreach programs as well as addressing political and economic influence groups. One such proactive example I encountered during my visit in October 2009 to the UAE embassy in Washington DC was the preparation of a detailed study on the economic impact that UAE-based carriers have on individual states and on the USA as a whole. I was told that with such a document the visiting officials from both Etihad and Emirates would be better equipped to negotiate with the various states and corporations they deal with.

Furthermore, in the spring of 2010, the world witnessed the success of the UAE's soft diplomacy during the visit of General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces to the US to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. The summit, which included leaders from 47 nations and was a subject of yet another article I wrote for The National was the largest gathering of world leaders on US soil since the end of the Second World War. As per diplomatic protocol and due to the large number of leaders attending the two-day summit President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet only with Presidents of other nations but Sheikh Mohammed, as a representative of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa was an exception as he spent the entire VIP dinner which was open only to senior representatives from each country sitting alongside President Obama in front of the global leaders reflecting not only Sheikh Mohammed's prominent position on the global scale but also the success of the UAE's global soft diplomacy approach.

The UAE also has a formidable female presence active in its soft foreign diplomacy. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi the UAE Minister of Foreign Trade was highlighted recently by Forbes magazine in a list of the world's most powerful women. Reem Al Hashimi, a UAE Minister of State has been instrumental in foreign trade missions accompanying Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed and various other UAE trade delegations. Sheikh Khalifa has also appointed qualified UAE women as ambassadors in foreign countries including Sheikha Najla Al Qassimi and Dr. Hussa Al Otaiba who were appointed emissaries to Sweden and Spain respectively.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs has under Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed inaugurated a new era in soft and pro-active diplomacy that has allowed the country to exploit its economic clout and abundant goodwill built over decades of a balanced foreign policy to punch above its weight. As the successful lobbying in the United Nations has illustrated this young nation is proof plenty that regardless of demographic size, soft diplomacy can be an effective tool in achieving an emerging country's goals and aspirations.

An Arabic version of this article first appeared in issue eight, November-December 2010 of Aafaq Al-Mustaqbal, an Arabic bimonthly journal published by The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.