by Melissa Nisbett // LONGFORM
King’s College London
Dr. Melissa Nisbett is Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s College London. She is an interdisciplinary scholar, specialising in the relationship between culture, power and politics. Melissa has published on the impact of cultural elites on policy-making, the work of political prisoners in cultural tourism, the effect of charismatic leaders on the arts, intercultural relations in the classroom, the impact of war on cultural heritage, the role of cultural policy in social justice and democracy, cultural genocide, the use of the arts in diplomatic negotiations, and soft power in a new era of globalisation. Melissa’s current research focuses on the intersections between cultural and foreign policy, and, in particular, the role of culture within conflict and diplomacy. She has advised and collaborated with the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, the United Nations and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Melissa holds an MA and PhD in cultural policy. Prior to academia, she worked in the cultural sector as an arts manager, consultant and trustee in the visual arts.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has undergone a rapid transformation over the last fifty years. From a scattering of coastal fishing villages and desert settlements, it is now home to hyper-real metropolises, iconic skylines, luxury hotels, and world-class tourist attractions, all fuelled by the discovery of oil in the late 1950s. It has established itself as the global capital of luxury, building a world “beyond imagination,” where “the impossible doesn’t exist.” This article explores whether soft power can be bought and why it matters, using the UAE as a case study. Once a measurement of political values, foreign policy, and culture, soft power is now a misused and overused term that has become synonymous with nation branding, tourism, and trade. Viewed through this contemporary lens, the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts and the establishment of Dubai as a luxury holiday destination are arguably, as examples, ways for the UAE to secure its position on the world stage as a welcoming, tolerant, and modern country. However, this recent cultural development and glamorous veneer overshadows and obscures the country’s aggressively authoritarian politics: from a wealthy royal family that pays its citizens for their acquiescence to human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention and forced labour, and from state-run media to some of the heaviest restrictions on free speech in the region. At a time when scrutiny should be focused on the UAE, soft power enables its autocratic governance to appear benign, ensuring that the country retains a palatable reputation and remains attractive to international visitors and investors alike.
Soft power; United Arab Emirates; UAE; tourism; Louvre Abu Dhabi; Dubai.
This article argues that soft power, a term that presupposes Western democratic liberalism, can be exploited in non-Western and illiberal contexts, and be used to distract from and mitigate authoritarianism. The focus is on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has embraced aspects of Westernisation, yet retains and enforces conservative Islamic values and adheres to a strict system of governance. The country carefully navigates the liberal with the illiberal, and tolerance with intolerance. In this context, soft power is used is a means of gaining credibility on the world stage via importing aspects of Western liberalism in order to obscure authoritarian modes of governance.
Beginning with the methodology, this article then provides some context for the history and development of the UAE, from its nomadic tribal past, to its pearl diving days, to the discovery of oil, through to its current identity as a desert landscape punctuated by futuristic metropolises that house elements of an imported Western culture. Soft power as a concept is then introduced, before examining the UAE’s soft power strategy through three examples: tourism in Dubai, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the country’s “Year of Tolerance” campaign. The inherent tensions are unpicked to reveal and assess what value soft power holds for a country like the UAE. The ultimate aim is to explore and answer the question of whether soft power can be bought and, furthermore, discuss why it matters.
This article is based on one week of fieldwork in Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi, the three largest cities in the UAE, which are located in different emirates (separate territories ruled by hereditary emirs) and home to around 70 per cent of the population. The research was carried out in 2019 and throughout this paper, tourism, trade, and investment data were drawn from 2018–2019, as figures after that are skewed by the outbreak and rapid progression of COVID-19, the global pandemic that prohibited travel, curtailed consumption, and disrupted trade.
The fieldwork consisted of detailed ethnographies, where I embedded myself in the fabric of the three cities and engaged in pastimes and activities directed at both locals and tourists – from excursions to the Arabian desert to trips to the old town souks and modern shopping malls, and from visiting heritage centres, galleries, museums, and religious sites to attending cultural festivals. Direct encounters are critical to ethnography. Hence, I fully immersed myself in the local landscape and documented my activities through extensive field notes and photographs.
Ethnography enables researchers to participate in the everyday lives of people (Hammersley et al. 2007) in order to describe and interpret a group, society, or culture (Fetterman 1998). It enhances local literacy and provides an embodied experience that enables researchers to fully connect to the topic and location of their investigation (Pierce et al. 2015). In terms of the process, researchers embed themselves within a location and use intense reflexivity and observation (Chang 2008) to collect data such as conversations, interviews, observations, artefacts, documents, and photographs – whatever data are available to yield interpretative insights. Researchers then use this data to construct theoretical generalisations and make rigorous and explanatory claims (Walford 2009), supported by the assembly of evidence, from the empirical materials to the secondary literature. The aim is to tell a convincing, accurate, and compelling story of the data and render it “intelligible” (Bryman 2001:x) by providing “insights into the lived experiences of others” (Walford 2009:279). Sparkes (2002) warns that this can “inform, awaken, and disturb readers by illustrating their involvement in social processes about which they might not have been consciously aware” (221). This echoes my own experience, where my role as a tourist yielded many moments of unease, encouraging me to reflect on my own complicity in the exploitation of those providing luxury goods and services. The key thrust within ethnographic work is “to communicate something about others” (Walford 2009:280) and to tell the reader “something about the world” (Willis 2004:169). Throughout the fieldwork, I kept returning to the politics and governance of the UAE and how this seemed to be at odds with what I was experiencing, from the imported Western culture of Abu Dhabi to the seemingly liberal hyper tourism of Dubai. I was keen to examine how an authoritarian state with strict social control and high levels of labour abuse had credibility in the West and whether this had any relationship to its soft power.
In line with traditional ethnography, the original conceptualisation of the project included semi-structured interviews with key personnel, but then news broke about the imprisonment of British PhD student Matthew Hedges, who had been arrested whilst conducting his fieldwork in the UAE. Despite this being an international news story, I had some personal insight into this case, as Hedges’s wife, Daniela Tejada, is a former student of mine and so I heard about his treatment first hand. I considered cancelling the trip, but arrived at a compromise solution, which was to travel as a tourist and not declare my scholarly status. This was the only way to ensure my safety. If this sounds dramatic, I invite the reader to familiarise themselves with the details of the case, particularly around the arbitrary detention of Hedges, the use of solitary confinement, his detainment in an unknown location, the threat of death, the use of psychological torture, the denial of access to legal representation, and the lack of a translator at the dubious trial. Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage. He was released several weeks later after Tejada’s sustained and determined lobbying of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, yet he remains branded a spy and was supposedly only pardoned due to the positive diplomatic relationship between the UK and the UAE. Rather than focusing on the completion of his PhD, Hedges is now battling post-traumatic stress disorder whilst advocating for academic freedom and fighting to clear his name. At this moment, the UAE is not safe for academics. On reflection, it is also worth considering how useful interviews would have been in a context where people are unable to speak freely.
The History and Development of the UAE
How did the UAE transform itself from one of the “sleepy, undeveloped backwaters of the British Empire” (Davidson 2005:1) into one of the world’s wealthiest oil producers? This section tells the story of the country’s rapid modernisation, which transformed it from an inhospitable and impoverished territory (Davidson 2005) to the playground of the wealthy. The context is laid out, the history and development of the UAE is explained, and the scene is set for the harnessing of soft power. Oil underpins the story of the Gulf, but it is important to discuss the country’s pre-oil days and, in particular, Britain’s interests in the region, in order to give a full account of its history.
Britain has had an interest and influence in the Gulf region for several centuries. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 prompted Anglo-French disputes over control of the Ottoman Empire, whose armies had started to make inroads from Iraq. From 1820, the principal sheikhs from various tribal confederations along the south-eastern Persian Gulf coast, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, signed protective treaties with the British government (Onley 2007). These arrangements meant that Britain was able to exercise some degree of political and economic control in this area, in exchange for providing political and military protection. Although it was benignly referred to as the “Persian Gulf Residency,” it was essentially a subdivision of the British Empire. Whilst it was not a colony, the British government had suzerainty, or partial sovereignty, which meant that it was run along British lines, often mimicking British governance structures, with British employees working within and/or advising the military and government (Onley 2007).
The protectorate system was kick-started after pirates began interfering with British shipping and trade routes between Persia and India. The region was politically important to Britain as it formed the gateway to India and its location meant that it acted as a buffer zone to protect it. What began as an economic policy to protect Britain’s commercial interests became a political strategy to stabilise and secure the region and to prevent French and Russian expansionism. France’s military alliance with the Shah of Persia (Onley 2007) and Russia’s military encroachment into Central Asia (Marshall 2016) threatened British India and turned the Gulf region into a frontier. The protectorate system not only gave Britain direct involvement, but also enabled it to establish telegraph lines that allowed instant communication with India.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Gulf region became a major fishing and pearling (pearl fishing and trading) centre. As a result of the growing pearl industry, nomadic Bedouin tribes moved from desert settlements, where agriculture was difficult due to the harsh climate, to coastal bases, where vibrant port economies were created as cottage industries such as potteries, metalworking, and boat-making (Langton 2018). Due to the abundance of oysters and the shallowness of the Gulf seas, pearling became the dominant industry, reaching its peak in the late 1890s, with wealthy merchants from Asia and Africa settling into ports to purchase specimens for distribution across international markets (Davidson 2005). However, the pearl industry fell into catastrophic decline following the invention of cheap, mass-produced cultured pearls by the Japanese in 1928. This was worsened by the economic slump of the First World War and the Great Depression, which had an impact on the demand for luxury goods. This led to the total collapse of pearling, which had a huge impact on the Gulf economy, as it was entirely reliant on this single product (Langton 2018). Diversification therefore became essential and was a catalyst in the search for oil.
Journalist James Langton (2018) writes comprehensively on the discovery of oil in the Middle East and begins his account in 1911, when the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to move away from using coal to power the country’s imperial fleet and shift to oil. This decision was hampered by the fact that Britain did not have any oil reserves. The Middle East was an obvious location as Britain was embedded in the region through the protectorate system and a British businessman had already discovered oil in 1908 in what is now Iran. Exploration expanded and more discoveries followed, with Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar finding oil in 1927, 1932, 1938, and 1940, respectively.
However, it was another twenty years before oil was discovered in what is now the UAE. This was partly due to tough negotiations during the 1930s between Emirati rulers and British companies over exploration deals. According to Langton (2018), the deal with Abu Dhabi, eventually agreed in 1939, promised an income of 6.2 million dirhams (approximately £1.3 million in today’s money). Exploration was abandoned at the onset of the Second World War. After the conflict, countries began to claim the right to search for oil and gas under seabeds away from coastlines. The prospect of offshore drilling was made possible by the development of modern oil platforms, using engineering technology based on floating forts that had been developed during the war. It was now possible to drill away from land. Yet the only shipyards capable of building the platforms were located far away and the rigs would need to be moved thousands of kilometres through rough seas. Ideally, they would be transported through the Suez Canal, but that was closed off to Britain in 1956. With assistance from the United Nations, Egypt reopened the waterway and the first rig arrived to drill through the thirty-million-year-old limestone. An oil reservoir was discovered, guaranteeing the country’s future prosperity (Langton 2018).
By 1963, oil production had reached 44,000 barrels a day. At this time, the protectorate system was still in place and did not come to an end until 1971, way after the collapse of the British Empire, at which point the various territories came together to form the United Arab Emirates. By 1977, oil production had increased to nearly two million barrels a day (Langton 2018). As of 2018, it topped 3.4 million (US Department of Commerce 2019). The country has ambitious targets to further expand its output to five million barrels each day by 2030 (US Department of Commerce 2019). The UAE’s oil reserves are currently the seventh largest in the world. It is also the fourth largest producer of petroleum liquids and holds the seventh largest natural gas reserve in the world (US Department of Commerce 2019). Hydrocarbons are critical to the UAE economy, amounting annually to over $66 billion. Some estimates suggest that these non-renewable sources of energy will only last for another twenty years (Hellyer 2014), although Abu Dhabi holds ninety-eight billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which accounts for nearly 7 per cent of the world’s oil resources (Hvidt 2013), indicating that stocks might last for anywhere between fifty (US Department of Commerce 2019) and two hundred (Glenny 2009) years. Either way, even if other reserves are discovered, these resources are finite. This means that alternative sources of income are essential, if only for the UAE to be sustainable, aside from the attendant environmental issues of extracting, refining, and utilising fossil fuels. This has led to an economic diversification strategy to ensure that the UAE is fit for the future, with “global capabilities and achievements” (Al Nahyan 2015). Lessons have been learned about the overreliance on a single product, not to mention the fact that oil – just like pearls – is subject to the dynamics of supply and demand and is vulnerable to price fluctuations, slumps, and unpredictable markets (Davidson 2005). As a result, the UAE has invested in tourism, property, higher education, culture, creativity, and new technologies to gradually reduce its dependency on oil revenues, which currently represent 30 per cent of its GDP. It aims to cut this to just 5 per cent by 2021 (Nagraj 2015). This is ambitious, since oil accounted for 90 per cent of the UAE’s GDP in the 1970s (Saberi et al. 2018). Thus, the revenue from oil is being used to build a future without it (Langton 2018).
In less than six decades, the revenue generated from the oil industry has transformed the country, allowing it to escape poverty. It has generated employment, provided healthcare and education to many of its citizens, and created a vibrant tourist landscape. It has also generated vast wealth for a minority. The UAE has the largest wealth market (total wealth held) in the Middle East, with residents holding $925 billion. High-net-worth individuals hold half of this. There are around 3,800 multi-millionaires living in the UAE (net assets of more than $10 million), 240 centi-millionaires (net assets of more than $100 million), and thirteen billionaires (Market Watch 2018). Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family has an estimated fortune of $500 billion (Glenny 2009). The UAE also has a healthy economy, with a GDP exceeding $377 billion, or $38,961 per capita (World Population Review 2019b). This is higher than many developed industrial economies and is comparable to France, the UK, and Japan (World Population Review 2019a), making the UAE one of the richest countries in the world, despite its status as a developing and transition economy (United Nations 2019). However, there is much to critique, which I will move onto shortly. For now, we turn to the concept of soft power before bringing in the fieldwork.
Coined by the political scientist and government advisor Joseph Nye in 1990, the term “soft power” originated in response to those claiming that the United States had overstretched itself during the Cold War and that this would lead to its decline on the world stage. Nye responded by arguing that the US had “soft power” in its favour, exemplified by avant-garde art such as abstract expressionism and jazz, which had been funded, sometimes covertly, by the state for decades. These cultural forms encapsulated what it meant to be American – individualism, freedom, and anti-establishmentarianism – and hence were a commentary on the US itself. In contrast to what was coming out of the Soviet Union at the time, artists such as Jackson Pollack, Miles Davies, and Dizzy Gillespie promoted the values of liberalism. Nye (2004) asserted that culture was just one part of the story, with political values (ideology) and foreign relations (institutions and policies) also determining how countries were viewed across the world. His thesis was that if countries were attractive, they were able to influence and shape the perception and preferences of others. Ultimately, through the deployment of soft power, other countries would fall in line with your vision and act in your interests.
After years of scholarly debate over the remit and nuances of soft power (see Parmar et al. 2010), the term has now entered popular and mainstream discourse. Created as a phrase to describe “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion” (Nye 2004:5), many suggest that the term is now misused (Jaishankar 2018) and overused (Isar 2017). Nye (2006) himself recognises that the term has been “twisted and stretched” (online) since it entered popular usage. For academic Terry Flew (2016), soft power has become a “synonym for all state-led activities in the international realm that do not involve military force” (290), whilst for Nye (2008), soft power is hard to control precisely because its resources often lie outside the state. Whilst soft power remains a measure of attractiveness, it is often used synonymously with nation branding, which drives and is driven by tourism, inward investment, and trade. There is ample recognition of the importance of nation branding for geopolitics, from peace and diplomacy to economic stability and growth (see, for example, Arrow et al. 2014; Brown et al. 2009; Morrisey et al. 2012; Pamment 2014; Saberi et al. 2018). According to Melewar et al. (2013), branding is central to questions of influence. For policy advisor Simon Anholt, the most important part of foreign policy is not defence or trade, but image (Risen 2005).
We can see this playing out across the political landscape. Over the last ten years, governments all around the world have taken up soft power with enthusiasm. The UK spends around £45 million annually (Pamment 2014) on its flagship nation branding initiative, the “GREAT” campaign, with a new £700 million soft power fund announced in 2017 (McCann 2017) and an additional £60 million pledged in the Spending Review announcement in 2019 (The Guardian 2019). Japan’s government pledged $500 million over twenty years for its “Cool Japan” campaign (Kelts 2013). These investments are dwarfed by China’s annual soft power budget of $10 billion (The Economist 2017), which reflects the resources at its disposal and the scale of its ambition, with President Xi Jinping viewing it as central to the country’s “Peaceful Rise” alongside increased military capability and economic growth (Torres 2017). These figures offer some sense of the kinds of resources that underpin soft power efforts in various countries. The literature often refers to resources as “assets,” such as overseas language schools, exchange programmes, foreign embassies, high-ranking universities, and museums. These form the third pillar of Nye’s soft power: culture. A quick glance at one of the many annual soft power polls (for example, Portland’s Soft Power 30 poll or Monocle’s Soft Power survey) provides lists of the types of assets and resources that form the basis of polling metrics. At the launch of a recent Portland report, its author Jonathan McClory declared in his opening speech that cultural assets “cost money – you have to pay for them.” This point is fundamental to the argument at the centre of this article: that concentrations of capital and economic success are recognised prerequisites of soft power. I now turn to the UAE’s soft power strategy to examine the country’s resources in more detail. The next section centres on three examples that came from the fieldwork data: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, tourism in Dubai, and the country’s “Year of Tolerance” campaign.
The UAE’s Soft Power
In September 2017, the UAE’s Soft Power Council launched its strategy, which aims to increase the country’s global reputation abroad (UAE government 2019). Its main objectives are:
- to develop the humanities, tourism, media, and science sectors;
- to establish the UAE as a regional capital for culture, art, and tourism;
- to position the country as a gateway to the region;
- to establish its reputation as a modern and tolerant country.
There are no more prominent examples of Gulf soft power than the Louvre outpost in Abu Dhabi, the on-going international appeal of Dubai as a leading holiday destination, and the UAE’s hosting of global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the World Expo in Dubai in 2021.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
The UAE’s investment in art and culture serves a number of purposes: to promote tolerance through enhancing a deeper understanding of others (Tolerance Summit 2018), to strengthen geopolitical ties, to boost the country’s position globally, and to enhance its prestige via soft power (Ardemagni 2019). Perhaps the most high profile project is the Louvre, located on Saadiyat Island, literally “Island of Happiness,” across the creek from downtown Abu Dhabi. Even as recently as the 1970s, this area was a settlement comprising a handful of fisherman’s huts and without electricity or running water (Leech 2016). It is currently in the midst of a transformation into a leisure, residential, and business centre, housing the world’s largest single concentration of cultural assets: the Louvre; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by the renowned Canadian American architect Frank Gehry; and the Zayed National Museum, designed by British architect Norman Foster and in partnership with the British Museum, which is assisting with curation, loaning around five hundred objects, and receives £10 million each year for providing consultancy (Rocco 2013). Saadiyat Island is also home to Manarat Al Saadiyat, a purpose-built visitor centre and home to the annual Abu Dhabi Art Fair, and the UAE Pavilion from Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010, also designed by Norman Foster, which is now an exhibition and events venue. There are plans to build a performing arts centre designed by the architectural firm of the late Iraqi Brit Zaha Hadid and a maritime museum, transforming Saadiyat Island into an exclusive cultural district. A number of high-end resorts have already opened, including five-star hotels, private beach clubs, and a golf course boasting sea views of dolphins basking in the Arabian Gulf. In real estate terms, Saadiyat Island is one of the most luxurious locations in Abu Dhabi, with a mix of “upscale villas, townhouses and apartments,” “perfect for culture vultures who enjoy art fairs, museums and gorgeous architecture” and with access to a prestigious boarding school and “luxury hospital” (Bayut n.d.). Saadiyat Island is also home to an outpost campus of New York University, building on the success of the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi (University of Paris), which opened its doors in 2006. New York University is renowned for the liberal arts and sciences, and the Sorbonne is known for its excellence in the humanities, all of which aligns with the objectives outlined in the UAE’s soft power strategy.
Abu Dhabi paid France $525 million to use the Louvre name for thirty years (Ma 2017) and a further $974 million for French staff to look after the six hundred art works and objects (Carvajal 2017), half of which are on loan from the Louvre in Paris and the other half on loan from thirteen of France’s biggest cultural institutions. These costs are on top of $650 million for the building (Carvajal 2017), designed by the celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel. On my visit, the museum was packed with international visitors. I was particularly struck by the number of French people, mostly on organised tours and I commented on this to the Ugandan security guard who laughed: “they like it here because it makes them feel at home!” The deal that cost the UAE over a billion dollars seems to have paid off. In its first year of opening, the new museum attracted over one million visitors (Carvajal 2018), more people than those frequenting the Guggenheim in New York. The UAE has acquired some of the most powerful names in the Western cultural universe, from Pritzker prize-winning architects to the world’s greatest museums. Whilst the Guggenheim and Zayed museum developments are currently suspended after suffering economic setbacks caused by falling oil prices (Ma 2017), this whole project, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in particular, has successfully put the UAE on the cultural map. It has raised its profile, recast its public image, and attracted millions of international visitors. Presiding over excess wealth has enabled the UAE to buy legitimacy (Bazzi 2017), which has led some to argue that the Louvre project is more political than cultural (Carvajal 2017).
Tourism in Dubai
The UAE has always attracted foreigners, both for business and leisure, although its tourism offer has, up until recently, mainly concentred on Dubai, the country’s largest and most populous city. Dubai has established itself as the global capital of luxury and has a reputation as one of the most lavish places in the world. It famously has the tallest tower in the world, the biggest indoor aquarium, the largest shopping centre, the highest waterslide, the longest self-driving metro, the most visited mall, the tallest choreographed fountains, the richest horse race, the biggest indoor ski park, the highest roof top bar, and the most expensive cocktail, costing $7,000. It is set to welcome the world’s largest Ferris wheel in 2021. It also has one of the largest ecological footprints in the world, second only to the US, due to the consumption levels required to furnish the most extravagant of lifestyles. It is the destination for 7-star hotels, personal butlers, and 24-carat gold facials, branding itself as a place where “the impossible doesn’t exist.” According to the annual Global Destination Cities Index, which measures international travel, Dubai was the world’s fourth most visited city in 2018, with 15.9 million overnight tourists. The index also tracks how much tourists spend and Dubai topped the polling with $30.8 billion in 2018, equating to each visitor spending, on average, $553 each day (Mastercard 2019). In another recent survey, Dubai was ninth place in a poll of the World’s Best Cities (Resonance 2019), a ranking based on one hundred top-performing cities, which analyses the quality of institutions, attractions, infrastructure, arts, and culture; employment opportunities; and economic prosperity. Dubai ranked highly for its weather, safety, diversity, and outdoor activities. Described as the “capital of modern Arabia” (Resonance 2019:24), Dubai has over seventy shopping centres, from historical souks to modern malls, a world heritage site (Dubai creek), clean beaches, luxury hotels, first-rate restaurants, and hundreds of private man-made islands. The country is welcoming to foreigners because its economy depends on them. Cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are promoted as being “beyond imagination” (Visit Abu Dhabi 2019). Upon arrival, visitors see glistening cityscapes with high quality hospitals, schools, roads, and airports and extremely low levels of crime. This gives the UAE political legitimacy, in contrast to the instability observed throughout the Middle East, from the ravaged post-conflict landscape of Iraq, to the corruption and political fragility of Lebanon, to the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, to the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. It is no surprise that compared to the rest of the Middle East, a region that is widely seen as volatile, the UAE is viewed as moderate and stable. In this context, places like Dubai are seen as permissive, perhaps even progressive. It is remarkable that the UAE has managed to modernise rapidly and be seen as tolerant and open-minded, whilst still being run by an absolute monarchy that upholds strict religious and political principles and adheres to a traditional way of life. In the words of a British citizen who lived in the UAE for ten years: “while Dubai may look like any other western city, in reality it’s a strict Muslim state” (Holland 2017, online). She describes the UAE as a “police state” with a “hard-line interpretation of Sharia Law” (Holland 2019, online), which means that it is a punishable offence, possibly leading to imprisonment, to be found kissing, holding hands, dancing, drinking alcohol, being drunk, swearing in public, or to be gay or unmarried but living with a person of the opposite sex, even as friends.
Year of Tolerance
There is a consensus in the regional media that the thrust of the UAE’s soft power strategy is on “tolerance.” Emirati intellectual Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi (2019, online) described the UAE as “the land of tolerance” and “the global capital of tolerance that sends messages of love and peace around the world”. He claims that the country “has always been a model of tolerance … worldwide, set apart by values that promote openness, acceptance and respect for ethnic and religious diversity. With a deep commitment to safeguarding freedom of beliefs, the UAE renounces discrimination, hatred and racism.”
Tolerance is so “fundamental” (Al Suwaidi 2019, online) to the country’s vision, that the UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance.” The “Year of Tolerance” campaign website features messages and sound bites from various sheikhs, proclaiming the importance of tolerance and reaffirming the country’s position as the “global capital.” Tolerance is put forward as a “universal concept,” a set of values centring on “dialogue, coexistence and openness to different cultures” and an “institutional endeavor” achievable “through legislation and policies” (Year of Tolerance 2019). The campaign centres on a tolerant society that “rejects extremism and promotes coexistence” using education, the media, and culture. In 2016, the UAE established a Ministry and Minister of Tolerance, and in 2018, the Supreme National Committee for Tolerance was formed (Ardemagni 2019). The country hosted the first ever World Tolerance Summit in Dubai in 2018, which is now an annual event. At the summit, tolerance within the community was emphasised, encouraging Emiratis and non-Emiratis to embrace a tolerant culture and believe in multiculturalism as a positive tool for nation-building (Tolerance Summit 2018). According to researcher Eleonora Ardemagni (2019), tolerance serves as a domestic strategy to ensure cohesion in country in which foreigners comprise over 90 per cent of the population. Multiculturalism is a by-product of being a destination that serves a huge number of international visitors for both business and leisure, who, in turn, demand luxury goods, services, and experiences that are made possible by an enormous amount of labour. The decadent lifestyle of a minority is facilitated by a service culture maintained by the majority. There are around eight million migrant workers in the UAE, primarily from South Asia, but increasingly from Africa. The country’s Law on Multiculturalism aims to ensure that the value of tolerance beneﬁts “all its citizens and its residents regardless of race, age, religion, gender, political belief, and social standing” (Tolerance Summit 2018). Despite this, foreign manual workers are readily exploited, with few to no legal rights on voting, representation, and association and little social mobility (Ross 2015). This is regardless of the amount of time they have lived or worked in the UAE or even whether they were born there to immigrant parents (Witson 2015). Research has shown that workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal, typically employed in the construction sector, are badly treated. Accounts of indentured servitude are rife, with workers either not being paid, having their wages delayed (sometimes for over a year), or receiving exceedingly low wages, different to those agreed when recruited. They are also subjected to unsafe working environments including compulsory overtime and gruelling long hours with little to no access to drinking water or shade in the hot desert sun (Ross 2015). Their female counterparts, many of whom are employed as “domestic servants,” are not classed as workers but as “family members,” which leaves them vulnerable to abuse as “trans-national skivvies” (Glenny 2009:182). The government does not protect workers or punish employers for ill treatment. More than that though, human rights advocate Sarah Leah Witson (2015) has argued that the UAE’s legal framework encourages private sector abuses, as it gives employers complete control over workers’ visas and their ability to change jobs. Employers routinely confiscate workers’ passports to prevent them returning to their home countries, effectively holding them captive, which Witson (2015) refers to as a “nearly universal practice” (8). Workers usually end up owing thousands of dollars in fees to recruitment agencies. All of this keeps them locked into terrible jobs in substandard conditions with abusive employers. Academic Andrew Ross (2015) asserts that whilst the majority endure these conditions mainly due to fear, intimidation, and the threat of deportation, many die from overwork, heat exhaustion, or suicide.
This is not esoteric research by individual academics. Amnesty International, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch have consistently commented on the country’s poor record of human rights and have repeatedly reported labour trafficking; deception over the nature and hours of work; no pay, low pay, and under-payment; no days off or holidays; unacceptable living conditions; segregated labour camps; dangerous working conditions; the imprisonment, beating, and forced deportation of workers who go on strike or express grievances; and few, if any, legal recourses (Human Rights Watch 2018, 2019a). The situation has been referred to as “modern day slavery” (Bhacker 2016). Research from Human Rights Watch (2019a), an international non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights issues, paints a picture of a country that arbitrarily arrests, detains, and, in some cases, forcibly disappears individuals who criticise the authorities; subjects prisoners to torture and ill-treatment such as unnecessary solitary confinement; holds prisoners in undisclosed locations; denies them legal assistance; coerces them into making false confessions; engages in unlawful military attacks in Yemen, some of which are likely to be war crimes; denies women the right to make independent decisions about marriage, education, finances, travel, and their children; commits persistent labour abuses; and denies activists and international human rights organisations’ entry to investigate.
At Dubai’s Tolerance Summit in 2018, the media was Trump-esquely described as “spreading negativity and hatred causing divisiveness among individuals, tribes and nations.” In response, the UAE pledged to “spearhead efforts to turnaround the use of both traditional and social media to promote a more tolerant, compassionate world for the future generation” (Tolerance Summit 2018). The traditional media in the UAE is either state-owned or state approved and so tightly controlled. Any criticism of the monarchy or the government via social media leads to swift crackdowns. For example, in 2013, there was a mass trial of activists demanding political reform and many of those were arrested for voicing their concerns on Twitter (Human Rights Watch 2019b). The award-winning human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor Al-Shehhi was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 for criticising the government on social media. He was charged with “publishing false information and rumors” and using social media to “harm national unity and social harmony and damage the country’s reputation” (Yaakoubi 2018), insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” (Ardemagni 2019). He is currently serving a ten-year sentence. The UAE is also holding a number of online activists in prison beyond the duration of their sentences, claiming that they are undergoing “counselling.” Human Rights Watch has argued that these convictions were based on unfair trials in 2014 and 2016, and there is no legal basis for denying these people their freedom, which infringes international human rights and renders these actions unlawful. Michael Page of Human Rights Watch (2019b) says, “the UAE has empowered its courts to order the continued and indefinite detention of opponents and critics on flimsy legal grounds… UAE authorities seem absolutely committed to squelching any and all manner of peaceful dissent.”
Most disturbingly, at the same time as squashing pro-democracy protesters, an exposé in the New York Times (Mazzetti et al. 2011) revealed that the UAE had spent $529 million on hiring a secret eight-hundred-strong private army of foreign fighters from countries that had experienced domestic conflict such as Colombia and South Africa. According to these revelations, these military personnel were personally ordered by Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE, to suppress internal revolts from pro-democracy demonstrators and uprisings from Asian labourers. They posed as construction workers and were stationed in barracks in the desert, with daily routines that mimicked American military training. Muslim soldiers were not recruited, as they could not be relied upon to kill fellow Muslims. To add to this picture, Arabic studies scholar Christopher Davidson (2015) writes about the UAE’s increasing interventions in the affairs of other Arab states, which he describes as “counter-revolutionary” (2015, online). For example, it has proactively participated in the bombing of civilians in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, targeted groups it disliked in Libya, and bankrolled a military regime in Egypt against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood.
It is not just activists and exploited labourers who have faced unfair treatment. Scholars hired to teach at New York University in Abu Dhabi have been denied entry due to religious discrimination (Bazzi 2017). This prompted the university’s journalism department in New York to sever its relationship with the Abu Dhabi campus due to threats to academic freedom (Lyman 2017). Professor Andrew Ross was notoriously followed when conducting his fieldwork on migrant labour conditions and was pursued by a private investigator, resulting in him being banned from entering the country (Ross 2015). He got off lightly, in comparison to Matthew Hedges, the PhD student mentioned earlier in this article. A number of Western academics employed in the UAE have been fired and deported for tweeting, blogging, and teaching sensitive subjects (Duffy 2012), and Arabic scholars have been arrested, convicted, and jailed in the aforementioned pro-democracy demonstrations. The cases go on and on, with tourists also being on the receiving end of the country’s punitive actions. In 2019, British tourist Laleh Shahravesh was arrested at Dubai airport for comments that she had posted on Facebook that referred to her Emirati ex-husband’s new partner as a horse. Despite posting these comments in Britain, she faced a two-year prison sentence under the UAE’s cyber crime laws, after travelling there to attend a funeral. She was eventually released after spending a month in prison and attending a court case that resulted in a £625 fine (BBC 2019). There have also been cases reported of journalists who have been forcibly deported for covering the plight of exploited workers, such as Sean O’Driscoll writing for the New York Times (Ross 2015).
The educated, middle-class, skilled foreigners who work in the UAE have no need to speak out, as they enjoy comfortable lives, with high tax-free salaries, year-round sunshine, and good standards of living. They are not paid to be critical like academics and journalists. The local Emirati population is treated very differently. The anti-government uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring managed to topple despotic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Yet rebellions did not happen in the UAE, despite prominent activists calling for greater political liberalisation. Instead, huge salary increases were awarded to those in the public sector, the UAE’s biggest employer of citizens, in some cases up to 100 per cent (Davidson 2012). Similarly, welfare benefits increased by more than 20 per cent, and $2.7 billion (Davidson 2012) was invested in “loan forgiveness packages” for poorer Emirati nationals (Davidson 2015). These payments were intended to buy acquiescence. The high living standards that come from oil wealth safeguards popular support and quells any appetite for change. What is there to resist or object to when the monarchy ensures that those with any degree of agency are treated well? Yet good living standards should not come at the expense of political rights.
These examples make it hard to accept the claim by the UAE leadership, its officials and supporters, that the country is tolerant. These cases are not examples of “understanding,” “openness,” “harmony,” or “respect,” as extolled in the UAE’s “tolerance pledge” (Year of Tolerance website 2019), let alone a worldwide model for others to aspire to. Whilst “tolerance” is an admirable political value, it is clearly at odds with the country’s domestic and overseas policies and practices. As such, the UAE’s Year of Tolerance comes across as little more than a propaganda campaign. In this context, events such as the UAE building its first Hindu temple, which will feature an inaugural exhibition titled “Beautiful Borderless World” (Badam 2019), appear tokenistic. At the same time, it diverts attention away from a culture of intolerance that is not only widespread, but also seemingly orchestrated by the highest echelons of the UAE’s leadership. Simply using the word “tolerance” does not mean that a country is tolerant. Whilst the UAE is not the only country that orders and allows such practices, the country’s self-aggrandisement about its stance on tolerance makes this particularly deplorable. It is disingenuous, nay, downright sinister, to claim that the UAE “could never attract millions of international visitors each year without a deep-rooted culture of tolerance. It could not have maintained its unique model of coexistence, hosting more than 200 nationalities living in harmony and peace, if it had not been for this culture of tolerance” (Al Suwaidi 2019).
Can Soft Power be Bought and Why Does it Matter?
Despite the serious transgressions outlined in the previous section, it could be argued that these controversies do not have much traction outside of the country. During my visit, there was no evidence of the zero tolerance exemplified in the discussion above. I did not observe any protests. I did not see any crackdowns. I did not see any behaviour that was deemed unacceptable. I did not hear a single siren. I did not even see a piece of litter on the pristine streets. Yet there are no police visible, let alone a military presence. This is intriguing, as people are clearly being watched and monitored, the rules are being enforced somehow, and, as discussed, the penalties are harsh. Draconian actions, such as making criticism of the royal family a criminal offence (Ross 2015), should damage the country’s reputation, but looking at the most recent visitor figures and online ratings and reviews (Resonance 2019), the country’s image amongst the mainstream, in politics, and in business does not appear to have been dented.
The country has seemingly never been in a better position. Governments do not make diplomatic statements, let alone impose penalties or sanctions; educated expats lap up tax-free employment; tourists carrying on flocking; and investors continue to pump in money. The UAE is the UK’s largest export market in the Middle East, its fourth largest outside of the EU, and its thirteenth biggest globally. In 2013, the UK and UAE governments jointly pledged to raise bilateral trade to £12 billion by 2015 (Arnold 2013). This target was smashed. The UK exported £9.8 billion of goods and services in 2016, which was a 37 per cent increase since 2009. Trade between the UK and UAE amounted to £16.3 billion in 2018 alone (Department for International Trade 2019) and the UK government recently promised a further £9 billion to underwrite deals for UK companies investing and operating in the UAE (Department for International Trade 2019). There are over five thousand British companies in the UAE, including high-profile brands such as including BP, Shell, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and HSBC (Department for International Trade 2018). Talks are currently underway between the UK and UAE to further increase market access and enhance cooperation, especially around the World Expo 2021 in Dubai (Department for International Trade 2019).
There has also been significant growth in direct foreign investment, which is partly due to the UAE allowing 100 per cent foreign investment in certain sectors and its Ministry of Economy setting up a foreign investment unit to drive up inflow. According to the World Investment Report (United Nations 2019), the stock of foreign direct investment in the UAE rose by 8 per cent between 2017 and 2018 to reach $140 billion, which accounts for 33 per cent of its GDP. The majority of investment is in trade, real estate, finance, insurance, manufacture, and construction. The main investors are the UK, India, the USA, France, and Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also a keen outward investor and is among the top ten most important countries for investment in other locations, after the US, China, the UK, Germany, and France (United Nations 2019). For example, Abu Dhabi investors have been buying up hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, and buildings in London for years and purchasing stakes in infrastructure. In 2013, Dubai’s DP World opened London Gateway, a £1.5 billion port that created twenty-seven thousand jobs in the capital, and Dubai’s energy company Masdar installed the world’s largest offshore wind farm on the Thames Estuary. In 2014, Abu Dhabi investors paid £370 million (£120 million more than the guide price) for New Scotland Yard, the then-headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police. In the same year, the Abu Dhabi royal family became the largest landowner in London’s infamous Mayfair district after the Duke of Westminster, the twenty-nine-year-old aristocratic billionaire. When this was criticised, the then London Mayor and current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that there was no economic difference between having an investor from Abu Dhabi or Britain, and that anybody who thought differently must be “completely economically illiterate” (Ashton 2015, online). The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, an Emirati sovereign wealth fund, has a 16 per cent stake in Gatwick Airport, a 10 per cent stake in Thames Water, and bought London’s ExCeL conference centre for £321 million (Ashton 2015). Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE and emir of Abu Dhabi, has a London property portfolio worth over £5.5 billion, providing an annual rental income of £160 million (Davies 2020). His collection of “super prime” assets (the rarest, most exclusive, and most expensive 1 per cent of all properties) was built up via a complex structure of offshore shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. This is all perfectly legal, of course, even if morally reprehensible.
According to specialists in sovereign wealth funds, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has $739.63 billion assets under management (AUM) globally, which means the total market value of the investments that a person or entity manages on behalf of its clients (Institutional Investor’s Sovereign Wealth Center 2019). Other UAE sovereign wealth funds also have vast amounts invested globally, such as the state-owned Investment Corporation of Dubai, with $233.9 billion AUM, the Mubadala Investment Company, with $227 billion AUM, and the Emirates Investment Authority with $45 billion AUM (Institutional Investor’s Sovereign Wealth Center 2019). This may go some way to explaining why foreign governments have been particularly quiet on the issue of human rights, even when it involves their own citizens. American journalist Yochi Dreazen (2012) argues that US administrations largely ignore the UAE’s harsh response to local rebellions because of their reliance on Gulf oil. The UAE is also a “safe haven” (Glenny 2009:174) for US troops in the Middle East. Similarly, France opened a permanent military base in Abu Dhabi in 2009, its first foreign military installation in fifty years. At the launch event, the then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the base was the beginning of a long-term engagement to safeguard France’s “friends in the Emirates” (Chrisafis 2009, online). It is thought that this move was in response to perceived threats from Iran, an adversary of both countries. Christopher Walker (2016) of the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit foundation dedicated to the growth of democratic institutions, claims that as authoritarian regimes have become more commercially integrated with democratic countries, they have become adept at co-opting Western partners, stifling criticism, and resetting societal norms, replacing the notion of universal human rights, for example, with norms based on state sovereignty (Cooley 2015). This has been accomplished through what is essentially economic coercion (Walker 2016), made achievable by flaunting vast wealth in an era of advanced capitalism.
One of the biggest indicators of the UAE’s soft power prowess is the £20 billion (Ashton 2015) cultural development of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, and the country’s successful development and marketing of Dubai as the epicentre of luxury and a magnet for business and leisure. By importing the cultural giants of the Western world and promoting itself as a tolerant and liberal country, the reality of what is essentially an autocratic dictatorship is obscured, and instead, it is seen as a progressive modern state, particularly when compared to the rest of the region. The UAE has managed rapid socioeconomic development and, alongside this, has preserved its autocratic politics, led by its surviving ruling families. Despite such polities seeming to be “anachronistic and irreconcilable” (Davidson 2005:35) with modernisation, free-market capitalism, and globalisation, the UAE has emerged as a strong, credible, and stable country in a region blighted by violence. In this sense, soft power has helped to mask a repressive political regime. By buying cultural credibility, the UAE has gained political and social legitimacy. This finding sits in stark contrast to Joseph Nye’s original conceptualisation of soft power as something undermined and eradicated by unappealing political behaviour. According to Nye (2008), there is a distinction between the power produced by a country’s soft power resources and the power generated by a country’s behaviour. A country must live up to its political values both at home and abroad, and its policies need to be legitimate, otherwise it will not have moral authority, its reputation will suffer, and it will lose credibility (Nye 2008). Academic Gary Rawnsley (2018) underlines this by describing soft power as being about “the boring stuff” (5): good governance, national values, principles, and political culture. Countries need to lead by example and are judged by their international practices and policies and their relationships with others. Nye argues that countries express their values through their culture, and if their culture, values, and policies are unattractive, they cannot attain or utilise soft power. He is explicit in this: “soft power is undercut by policies that are seen as illegitimate” (Nye 2008:96). He makes the same point about propaganda diminishing a country’s credibility. This detail within Nye’s formulation is important as the UAE case demonstrates the opposite: that culture can be bought, and the attendant soft power can be used to obscure unpalatable policies and practices, both domestically and overseas, rendering Nye’s three pillar theory flawed. The UAE is not the only country led by an authoritarian regime, of course, but what makes this a particularly noteworthy case is that the UAE has started to enter annual soft power rankings, whereas we see a lack of soft power in other illiberal countries. For example, the UAE entered Monocle’s Soft Power Ranking for the first time in 2019. In contrast, there are other oil-rich authoritarian dictatorships in the Middle East, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, that do not feature at all, yet have a huge cultural and historical significance. From hieroglyphics to the pyramids, Ancient Egypt is one of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East; Iran is known as one of the cradles of civilization and has had an enormous impact on the world through art, poetry, philosophy, architecture, engineering, technology, science, and medicine; and Saudi Arabia is particularly known for its Bedouin traditions and its position as an ancient international trade centre. At the same time, we see a drop down the soft power rankings for countries that have crept to the right politically, such as the US (under Trump), Italy (due to ultra Catholicism), and Denmark (for policies such as the burqa ban). These particular national examples were cited by recent Portland and Monocle polls as reasons for their declining soft power status. China and Russia consistently hold low positions in these annual polls, if they feature at all, and come with hefty caveats that explicitly refer to the undesirable aspects of their governance: authoritarian regimes, illiberalism, ethnic cleansing, regional aggression, religious persecution, media censorship, and the intolerance of dissent – several of which have already been discussed in relation to the UAE. The fact that the country bucks this trend is intriguing and justifies scholarly analysis.
The case of the UAE also highlights another dimension to the traditional understanding of soft power, or perhaps signals a new direction. Nye (2008) asserts that “soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics” (95). This may well be the case, but by examining the UAE, we see soft power as an everyday political practice of an undemocratic and authoritarian state. More than that, though, we see how soft power can be exploited by repressive regimes to mask their illiberal authoritarianism. This begins to build an alternative understanding of soft power as something that, firstly, does not require Western liberalism to be effective and, secondly, as something that can be exploited by the very notion of Western liberalism itself. This chimes with Christopher Walker’s (2016) warning that soft power can be “hijacked” (49) by authoritarianism. For Walker, the ultimate aim of this is not just for economic advantage or to boost national image, it is to block the spread of democracy and reshape international norms. This, potentially, has significant and far-reaching consequences since the post-Cold War phase of democratic expansionism is over, with political rights, civil liberties, and global freedoms being in steady decline for the last fifteen years (Repucci 2020). During the same period, authoritarian regimes have become both more repressive and more internationalist. In other words, they have found ways “to broaden their influence in the democratic world” (Walker 2016:60). According to Walker (2016), authoritarians use a “malign mirror image of soft power” (61), which he sees as a “benign concept” (61). This is where I depart from Walker. Firstly, soft power is fundamentally about power, whatever way it is packaged up, and secondly, the UAE utilises the same version of soft power as Western liberal democracies. After all, it shares the same institutions and utilises the same mechanisms, whilst (falsely) championing the same rhetoric. In the context of a growing authoritarian challenge, there is nothing benign about that.
The UAE case demonstrates, therefore, that soft power can indeed be bought if countries have the necessary resources. The UAE has the purchasing power to seduce the world’s leading architects, designers, and institutions. This, in itself, is not unusual. There are plenty of examples throughout history of individuals and institutions using the arts and culture to demonstrate their power, showcase their wealth, assert their influence, and improve their image. From the Medici family in fifteenth century Italy to contemporary philanthrocapitalism by companies with dodgy practices, including those currently wrecking the planet by continuing to extract oil and gas from tar sands, deepwater fields, and the Arctic to accelerate the climate catastrophe. What is less easy to understand is the acceptance of the country’s record on human rights, which seems to be doing little to tarnish its image and is certainly not putting off governments, businesses, or tourists. According to the Dutch writer Joost de Vries (2018), the great paradox of tourism is that whilst it brings us physically closer, it does not always encourage us to connect with the culture, identity, or politics of others. The same could be said for trade and investment. Yet what kind of environment is soft power contributing to in the UAE? How can you have legitimate universities, museums, and media outlets without critical scholars, artists, and journalists? The hallmark of a modern and tolerant country is freedom of expression, enabling citizens to question and hold leaders to account, represent a plurality of opinion and expose wrongdoing, especially by those who set and enforce the laws. As long as tourism, trade, and cultural development continue to obscure, overshadow, and ignore domestic politics in the UAE, its authoritarian regime will continue to flourish by driving forward its global agenda, cleverly utilising the concept of soft power to remain palatable to its international audience, in the words of Joseph Nye (2004), to get what it wants “through attraction rather than coercion” (5). The fact that the UAE has gained entry into the soft power rankings as one of the most “respected” (Monocle 2019:50) countries (and is one of only five non-Western states to do so) shows that its activities are being noticed on the world stage and that it is recognised as welcoming, tolerant, and modern. If the aim of the UAE’s soft power strategy is to enhance its reputation abroad, then this goal has been accomplished.
This article has explored the concept of soft power by examining the contemporary case of the UAE. I have looked at its development as a country with extreme wealth following the discovery of oil in the late 1950s. It is due to this vast fortune that the country transformed itself from a handful of desert settlements and fishing villages to the site of thriving futuristic metropolises, all in the space of sixty years. I have drawn on my fieldwork to study the country’s soft power strategy and particularly its use of the arts, culture, and tourism to raise its profile, enhance its reputation, and secure its global position. I have discussed its repressive politics and practices, which severely limit freedom of expression, exploit workers, and imprison dissidents, all orchestrated by an absolute monarchy that refuses to tolerate criticism or dissent of any kind. I have argued that these actions have done nothing to diminish the country’s standing on the world stage; rather, it now has record levels of tourism, trade, and investment. I have shown how the UAE has utilised the concept of soft power – along with its attendant notions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and liberalism – to mask its own repressive regime. I have provided some commentary on why all this matters and I now end by posing a question: what is at stake? To what extent all of this will allow an emboldened UAE to project its influence globally and particularly into the democratic space remains to be seen. In the context of a weakened liberal world order, the continued decline of democracy (Repucci 2020), and the rise of repressive regimes (Rutzen 2015), alongside the challenge to liberal democracy’s universalism (Cooley 2015), the growing influence of authoritarian powers and, in particular, their expanded internationalist approaches (Walker 2016), this is a question worth taking seriously.
I would like to thank the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s College London for the generous travel grant to undertake the fieldwork. Thanks also to Robin Close for helping me to formulate some of the ideas in this article and for being the perfect travelling companion and sounding board.
 Upon arrival at Dubai airport, I saw an advertisement for HSBC welcoming passengers to Dubai, “where the impossible doesn’t exist.” This strapline plays on a quotation by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, who declared in a speech that “the word impossible doesn’t exist in our dictionary” (Mustafa 2013).
 It is worth mentioning journalist Misha Glenny’s work here, which illuminates the murky world of organised crime. His book McMafia reveals that the UAE is the global centre for money laundering and gangsterism, as well as other illegal activity, such as drug and sex trafficking. Acting as the trading and financial pivot for Europe, Asia, and Africa, criminal enterprises are aided by offshore banking, shell companies, zero tax scrutiny, and a “no questions asked” culture. Just as the flow of goods, services, and capital is unbridled in this part of the world, so is what Glenny describes as the “shadow economy” (2009:189). It is interesting to reflect on this in light of what is permitted and punished, and what is not.
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