Arab govts must harness the soft power of the arts on global stage

Sara Al-Mulla

The realm of public diplomacy is fraught with the complex interplay of many factors that contribute to hard and soft power. In an increasingly connected world, cultural initiatives are becoming powerful vehicles for advancing a nation’s cultural, economic and diplomatic agendas on the global stage.
At the heart of the matter lies the fact that the arts communicate with people in subliminal ways, evoking appreciation and fostering a deeper understanding of a nation’s intrinsic characteristics.
Crucially, it is through a collective suite of creative feats that global audiences can come to comprehend how particular nations nurture talent, spark innovation, promote noble values, uphold a culture of tolerance, and achieve economic success — ultimately wielding that power as a force for good.
On top of that, creative and cultural works aspire to represent the finest qualities of humankind, acting as cultural bridges that can open up realms of interactions between peoples that transcend borders.
Most saliently, perhaps, cultural projects often attract tourists and foreign investors, which help to spark economic growth, tourism, the attraction of talent, and job creation. This substantial pathway can also strengthen economic ties and trade relations between nations.
At the same time, international collaborations between cultural foundations, artists and governments are effective levers for facilitating cultural exchange, celebrating diversity and leveraging networks of cultural ambassadors worldwide. For example, many nations have appointed prominent cultural figures to engage in projects that tackle pressing global challenges such as climate change, public health, social progress and poverty alleviation.
The Global Soft Power Index 2023, published in March, builds on this fundamental notion and reveals the resounding role of cultural projects in elevating a nation’s soft-power standing on the global stage. The index ranks countries based on pivotal pillars that shape familiarity, influence and reputation, in addition to perceptions of economies, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media, education and science, people and value, and sustainable future.
This year, for the first time, the UAE achieved the amazing feat of reaching the top 10 on the list, moving up five spots to rank 10th globally among nations in terms of soft power. This owed a great deal to a number of strategic projects, including the hosting of Expo 2020 in Dubai. In fact, one of the key objectives of the UAE’s official Soft Power Strategy is to establish the country “as a regional capital for culture, art and tourism.”
Saudi Arabia also moved up five spots on the list to reach 19th place, thanks to an impressive suite of cultural projects that are bewitching global cultural enthusiasts. It also holds 11th place globally in the category of “rich heritage,” owing to the significant cultural investments it has made in recent years, such as the development of AlUla, the launch of the Red Sea Film Festival, the Diriyah Gate project, and Riyadh Season.
A number of real-life case studies illustrate the ways in which nations are investing heavily in the arts to position themselves more prominently on global economic, cultural and diplomatic stages. They are doing this by exporting their local cultural industries to fashion favorable images worldwide and ignite strong connections with global communities, while reaping the benefits of economic growth and foreign direct investments.
Examples include the Japanese creative economy and its pop culture dominance, the Korean “Hallyu” creative-content industry and its astronomical growth in recent years, and the Nordic Culture Fund and its contribution to creative development through cross-border initiatives.
One specific standout example is the “Love Myself” campaign. It involved South Korean music sensations BTS and UNICEF, the UN’s Children’s Fund, who joined forces to promote a compelling message centered on self-love and self-care. The campaign has garnered an astounding 50 million interactions from users on social media platform X and raised $3.6 million for UNICEF’s work to end violence, while helping to spread a positive and empowering message worldwide.
In another notable example of driving the global public good, the members of BTS took the stage at the UN General Assembly in September 2021 and discussed pressing themes such as the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty alleviation, the concerns of young people, and the urgent matter of climate change. Their speech attracted more than one million viewers worldwide to the live broadcast.
Many diplomatic efforts are now attempting to leverage the popularity of local cultural figures to wield soft-power advancements.
A multifaceted approach is the preferable option when designing soft-power strategies that hinge on cultural projects. Assembling a rich cultural calendar that includes festivals, museum exhibitions based on global exchanges, art shows, musical performances, artist residences, performing arts events, global cultural awards, heritage visits, and gastronomical experiences is an excellent way to evoke favorable emotions between diverse populations.
To cater to those unable to travel very far, astute investment in digitizing cultural content offers an excellent alternative for reaching global audiences.
One highly effective strategy for nations seeking to enhance their soft power is to establish a visa system that encourages foreigners to visit and spend time in their countries. Many governments offer special cultural visas designed to attract global artistic talents and cultural professionals, including the UAE, South Korea, Japan, France and Australia. In addition, there are many cultural scholarship programs that target foreign students and encourage them to specialize in understanding other nations’ cultures, leading to unique discoveries.
Nations could also consider establishing world-class cultural institutes in other countries to promote their local creative sectors among foreign communities. Successful examples of this include the British Council, the Institut Francais, and Japan House.
Employing diplomatic cultural attaches and forging partnerships with prominent cultural figures or artists are other important steps that can help promote a nation’s various agendas abroad and the signing of lucrative cultural trade agreements.
On this note, it is critical that diplomats and professionals in the cultural field are trained in the art of cultural diplomacy so that they can promote their nation’s culture, values and interests abroad as effectively as possible. Ultimately, governments should also be able to track the effects of cultural diplomacy on their soft power through clearly defined metrics.
There is no doubt that effective cultural initiatives can contribute immensely to fostering goodwill, trust and cooperation between nations, which ultimately benefits the global community as a whole.