Dynamic envoys lead UAE soft power projection

Three leading UAE diplomats talk diplomacy, perceptions of UAE, and foreign policy challenges

By Layelle SaadGCC/Middle East EditorOmar ShariffDeputy GCC/Middle East Editor
07:00 April 15, 2018
REG 180408 OTAIBA print and web
REG_180403 Ali al Ahmad2 (print and web)
REG 180408  Hanan6 (print and web)

Dubai: In his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, US political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power".

Years later, he explained: “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries — admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”

UAE principles: Safety at home, security abroad

The theory captured the imagination of political analysts and national leaders worldwide, so much so that now, there exists an annual index — the Soft Power 30 — that ranks countries according to the soft power they exert on the world stage.

The UAE has projected soft power in its expanding footprint in the realm of foreign policy. And the dividends are there to see.

Year upon year, it tops the list of nations the youth of the Arab world and beyond want to live and work in — a whopping 23 million people visited the country last year.

The quality of its infrastructure and the vibrancy of its economy are the envy of nations; and the peace and security it enjoys stand in stark contrast to the turmoil convulsing the broader region.

Dynamic, youthful

One means through which the UAE projects soft power is its diplomatic corps. 

Empowering the youth remains a national goal, and this has also taken the form of youthful and dynamic envoys representing the Union in capitals around the world.

Yousuf Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, was just 34 when he was appointed to the high-profile post in 2008.

Yousuf Al Otaiba with former US president George W. Bush.. — Gulf News


Ali Al Ahmad is the country’s top man in Berlin.

Hanan Al Alili heads the UAE diplomatic mission in Riga, Latvia. She is part of the 20 per cent of the diplomatic corps that is made up of women, including female ambassadors to the UN, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Spain, Portugal, the Holy See and Montenegro.

Merit-based approach

In separate interviews with Gulf News, the envoys highlighted what makes the UAE tick at the international level, and the country’s approach to soft power diplomacy.

“Ours is an agnostic, merit-based approach. We appoint competent people, and give them the authority [to do their jobs]. If young people are good at what they do — are smart, determined — they get appointed,” said Al Otaiba.

“I build friendships. In the media, in the think tanks, in government. The idea is to make sure others understand who we are as a people and community.”

Al Ahmad reflected on the soft power doctrine by saying that for the UAE, it is a vehicle, not a goal in itself. 

Ali Al Ahmad with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. — Gulf News


“The ultimate goal is to protect and serve UAE national interests. The UAE was literally created [based] on soft power philosophy. What soft power does is organise all the efforts made by different government sectors to serve the UAE’s political, security, economic and cultural interests.

"The success of soft power is directly linked to a powerful communications strategy. This strategy works best in foreign policy once it is focused on ‘reach and influence’. [Foreign Minister] Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan is a believer in ‘reach and influence’.”

The UAE is a success story that many nations look up to. The efforts and farsighted wisdom of our leadership, which allowed us to build this great country, reflect in our mission.”

 - Hanan Al Alili | UAE Ambassador to Latvia

Al Alili said she saw the role of a diplomat as being a ‘storyteller’.

“The UAE is a success story that many nations look up to. The efforts and farsighted wisdom of our leadership, which allowed us to build this great country, reflects in our mission. It allows us to set an example in almost every field and initiate cooperation with the rest of the world.”

Hanan Al Alili with Andrejs Pildegovics, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia. — Gulf News


Setting an example

She said the ways countries interact with each other have changed with technological progress and international trade opening up new ways to achieve goals at the international level.

“We can influence the global processes by setting an example. We can reduce the cost of our efforts and actions, and enhance our global position by setting a path for others. The UAE is a global financial and trade hub.

"We are the place where different nations and cultures meet and peacefully coexist. We have become the centre of Arab world enlightenment. We should not only care for our national aims but also be responsible for the examples we set.”

Ten years ago, I had to explain to people the difference between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Now, most of the people [I talk to] have been to one of those cities.”

 - Yousuf Al Otaiba | UAE Ambassador to the US

As a tribute to the success of the UAE’s diplomatic corps, the country is now a household name worldwide. “Ten years ago, I had to explain to people the difference between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Now, most of the people [I talk to] have been to one of those cities,” said Al Otaiba.

“There’s some level of surprise. People think of the Middle East as a dangerous, conservative place. And are surprised by Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They see things like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Formula 1, Shaikh Zayed [Grand] mosque, and are surprised. I think [to begin with they have] inaccurate expectations. And are pleasantly surprised to see the UAE.”

All three top diplomats Gulf News interviewed cited their own, different favourite aspects of their jobs.

For Al Ahmad, it is being in a place where he can help the 5,000 to 6,000 UAE patients who seek treatment in German hospitals; for Al Alili, it is just the opportunity to represent her country, its leadership and citizens; and for Al Otaiba, portraying the UAE’s human side and the values it shares with the West.

“The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Shaikh Zayed Mosque, the Opera House in Dubai — that’s who we are,” he said.

It was Al Alili’s decision to make a difference that led her to pursue a career in diplomacy. “What can be a better way than to become a diplomat and an ambassador? It is my pride and joy to represent the UAE as well as every accomplishment of my country.

Especially given that I was one of the first lady diplomats who joined the diplomatic corps in 2000 when MOFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] opened the doors for UAE women to join this amazing field.”

For Al Ahmad, who has previously worked for etisalat and Abu Dhabi Media, making the shift to diplomacy happened easier than imagined. He said the MOFA’s team spirit, and his experience in different sectors made the shift smooth. “Today, the UAE foreign policy is also served by UAE nationals coming from other fields, in addition to its career diplomats. I myself come from a communication and media background. To mention a few, our Ambassadors in India, China, the UK, Russia, Egypt and South Korea are also not career diplomats. I believe this hybrid model is effectively working.”

Communicating image

In many ways, the UAE is an easy country to represent on the international stage. For many outsiders, it is either an intriguing or a desirable location. Al Ahmad said there is definitely no need to change the image of the UAE. “You simply communicate it.

Today, whether in Germany or anywhere else, UAE ambassadors communicate with officials abroad before they actually meet. Our country’s reputation always precedes us.

The UAE’s global priority is to create alliances and the MOFA’s role is to communicate what the UAE stands for, what values we believe in and are ready to protect. The UAE undoubtedly has a story to tell. We need to articulate the achievements it has made in less than half a century.”

Today, whether in Germany or anywhere else, UAE ambassadors communicate with officials abroad before they actually meet. Our country’s reputation always precedes us.”

 - Ali Al Ahmad | UAE Ambassador to Germany

Al Ahmad quoted Otto von Bismarck, who united Germany for the first time about 150 years ago: “It is more important to make history, not to talk about it.” He said Bismarck’s words always remind him of the UAE.

So what do the envoys believe are the biggest challenges facing the UAE on the foreign and security policy front? “Iran and its expansionist policies are a strategic threat, and a long-term one,” said Al Otaiba.

“Iran’s behaviour often goes unchallenged, whether it is its support for Al Houthis in Yemen, the militias in Iraq, or the trouble it tries to create in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria.

“The other threat is extremism, of both the Sunni and Shiite varieties. Extremism is agnostic for us. It is a tactical threat. It’s not a country. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, tries to infiltrate schools, government institutions. So the two threats are different.”

Al Alili said the UAE’s concerns are similar to those of the international community. “The radical ideological movements have the potential to destabilise any international order. We have to enhance the political dialogue between nations and create a peaceful, healthy and moderate environment.”