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Beyond National Interest

The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs established its Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy last year under the leadership of Minister of State, His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh, who took some time to share his insights with Yalla

The art of cultural diplomacy is not new. It has been practised for centuries, but it is only relatively recently that the term itself has started to feature in governments’ national and international communication strategies.


What is Cultural Diplomacy?

I describe it as the practice of communicating and sharing a country’s values, customs and beliefs with other peoples and nations to support political, economic and human cooperation.

It is something that came naturally to Sheikh Zayed – and not only on the international stage. From an early age, he spent a great deal of time with leaders in the desert, immersing himself in their way of life and exchanging ideas and aspirations. This resulted in deep personal relationships rooted in mutual understanding of, and respect for, shared values and customs. Ultimately, it forged the strongest of diplomatic partnerships.

Of course, cultural diplomacy is a discipline with a long history across the world. Many other great leaders have successfully leveraged its power to enhance local and multinational relations and support diplomatic priorities. But it is only relatively recently that it has been introduced into the lexicon as a specialised and important diplomatic function.


So, why do we need Cultural Diplomacy in the UAE?

People living here come from more than 200 different nationalities. Naturally, this incredibly diverse set of communities have brought their own rich cultural traditions with them and are encouraged to do so. Cultural difference in the UAE is not seen as a barrier. Rather it is viewed as a common, connecting thread, and part of what makes the Emirates such an enriching place to live.

The UAE has been open to cultural diversity since the beginning. Sheikh Zayed himself saw it as a bridge to his extraordinary vision for the future of the country. I remember an interview from 1968, the first television interview I had with him, where he told me two things. Firstly, he said that we needed to open up to the rest of the world to bring the best of modern thinking into our country – particularly in public service areas such as health and education. And secondly, he said we needed to maintain our cultural identity and our national soul.

He was always passionate about ensuring these two strategies should go hand in hand; that while the UAE should connect broadly and deeply with the rest of the world, it should never forget the richness of its own unique cultural heritage. This is why from early on, he instigated the establishment of The National Museum Al Ain, to showcase the  significance of the country’s past. He wanted people to remember, for example, that some 4000 years ago there were communities in this region that traded with the people of the Indus Valley and the Mesopotamians; that its story did not start when it became wealthy, and that the journey its people have been taking over the centuries will continue to evolve.

Much of the rest of the world sees us as a prosperous, modern, cosmopolitan nation. We are this, but we also have a much more ancient narrative. If we can share our story in full, it will help to enhance cross-cultural awareness, inspire intercultural dialogue and build deeper social and political understanding.

Sometimes there is an impression abroad that because there is oil here, and there is money, then it is almost inevitable that there is the kind of remarkable development that we see around us. Of course, this is not true. There are many other countries around the world that were also blessed with abundant natural resources, and they were dissipated. From the outset, the Emirati government has set out to deploy the country’s resources in an expansive and globally inclusive manner, building an infrastructure that is truly open to the world, whilst retaining its national identity. I think this is an important message for us in cultural diplomacy.


How do you define ‘culture’?

Culture is essentially the ecosystem and way in which a group of people lives. A culture is characterised by shared values, beliefs and customs, and manifests itself through language, religion, literature, food, sport, music, design, artistic expression and so forth.

The breadth of the definition means we have a lot of content to work with when it comes to sharing our own unique Emirati culture – both past and present. For example, I will be travelling to Cambridge University in England where we have organised a cultural dinner at Queen’s College. The idea is based on the book, Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi, by Hanan Sayed Worrell. The book was published here in the UAE in 2018 and uses personal stories and recipes from Abu Dhabi’s local and expatriate communities, to showcase how urban culinary culture has evolved in the city since the 1960s. The book is so much more than a cookbook. It has a cultural depth that gives readers a real insight into the diversity, evolution and connectedness of our blended society.

What else do you do in your Office?

Another important focus for us is the training of diplomats. We believe that culture is an essential tool of diplomatic discourse. You cannot be a successful diplomat abroad if you do not respond to the culture of the country in which you are based, and, if you are not able to articulate a message of what makes your culture meaningful and relevant. We are working with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy to create special cultural diplomacy courses for our ambassadors and diplomats. A masters course in the subject is also under development.


What are your upcoming plans for your Office?

A significant project is the creation of a number of cultural centres throughout the world. The first will be in Paris. The French government created the Alliance Française in the nineteenth century as part of its cultural toolbox. The British Government has the British Council while The Goethe Institute spreads the German language. Some of these organisations are government led, others are public authorities. We will soon build our own using our cultural attachés as part of our broad international investment plan designed to expand our cultural and educational assets abroad, supporting our young people as they face the challenges of the 21st century.


How much of a focus does your office place on the Arts?

The Arts form a central focus for us, as evidenced in many initiatives from our recent restoration and inauguration of the historic Imperial Theatre at The Château de Fontainebleau in Paris, to our programmes to nurture young Emirati artists. We are supporting local talent by acquiring their art and displaying it internationally in our embassies. We also offer art residencies with local artists and are collaborating with the Dubai Expo 2020 to couple it with the Tokyo Olympics.


What other initiatives are important to your office?

The environment forms an important tenet of our work. We recently signed a diplomacy accord with the Ministry of the Environment to jointly tell our success stories. One wonderful example is the Arabian Oryx. The UAE was one of the first countries to actively reintroduce this endangered species to its natural habitat. Sheikh Zayed identified the extinction risk of this animal – such an icon of national identity – and called for the launch of a captive breeding programme in the late 1960s. Over the years, the programme has released significant numbers of oryx back into the wild both inside and outside the UAE.


How does Expo 2020 work into this plan?

Expo 2020 comes at a time when the world is witnessing the unfortunate spread of sectarianism, extremism and violent ideology. Instead of bringing down walls between us, as a race we are beginning to construct them once again. Global opportunities like Expo give us a platform for relationship building. A forum to remind us that alongside our distinct cultural identities, we have a common humanity; a collective responsibility for the planet and for each other.

There are over 190 nations planning to attend. The scale of the event is impressive, and its inspirational themes and objectives have been carefully crafted to support the building of bridges between people, the discovery of mutual goals and collaborative resolutions to shared challenges.

Sheikh Zayed believed we are all born as one family, that we are kinsmen, and that we must stand and work together for the good of mankind. Cultural diplomacy has a vital role to play in this context.

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