The UAE evolves into a ‘smart’ power - GulfToday

The UAE evolves into a ‘smart’ power

Dr. N Janardhan

Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Gulf-Asia Programme, Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Gulf-Asia Programme, Emirates Diplomatic Academy.


The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

The UAE is fast becoming an exceptional case study in international relations and diplomacy, showcasing how a ‘small’ country can punch above its weight by shaping a dynamic foreign policy vision. It has sought to achieve this by ingeniously combining its core strength as a soft power with traces of hard power, thus evolving its own variation of a ‘smart’ power strategy.

What are the factors that enticed this change and what are the attributes of the new policy?

To understand the new dynamics, one needs to look beyond the four Ps that are conventionally associated with foreign policy – power, peace, prosperity, and principles. A few more Ps – prestige and personality (of leaders), among others – could help in this scrutiny.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the UAE has positively tapped into all these determinants during the last two decades. The following examples substantiate this assertion.

20th century UAE mostly fashioned itself as a soft power. Among its main attributes were a tolerant and progressive Islamic identity, women’s empowerment, humanitarian and foreign developmental aid, cultural diplomacy, and even economic diversification.

These mostly internal attributes enabled the UAE to gain confidence and change tack from pursuing a ‘reactive’ foreign policy to adopting a ‘proactive’ approach.  A couple of other attributes help explain the reasons for adopting smart diplomacy.

One, a shift in the global economic scenario, national security needs in an unstable regional milieu and a deliberate attempt to carve a distinct identity in a region that witnessed the rise of other competitive players.

Two, the impact of the economic-security attributes meant shifting away from following a largely US-Europe-centric foreign-security policy, to slowly turning its gaze to Asia, Africa and even South America, the UAE now pursues a ‘diversified’ foreign policy. This can be tagged as ‘multi-track diplomacy’ or ‘multi-vector engagement’ or an ‘omni-balancing strategy’.

The fact that the UAE’s diplomatic outreach does not have all its eggs in one basket anymore is epitomised by its ‘Look East’ policy. This includes ‘strategic’ partnerships with China, India, Japan and South Korea, among others, and takes a comprehensive form by incorporating cooperation in the realms of space, Fourth Industrial Revolution and security too.

Three, from being a security consumer, allowing several countries to establish military bases in the country, the UAE is slowly, but surely, developing into the role of a security provider.

The need for such a shift was also in part necessitated by the decreasing effectiveness of hitherto influential regional and international actors, especially Egypt, Jordan and the United States. It was perceived that that the region’s and world’s problems cannot be solved by one or few countries. Instead the new understanding was that ‘regional problems’ require ‘regional solutions’.

The UAE’s erstwhile and current ports in Doraleh-Djibouti, Assab-Eritrea and its advanced plans for another in Berbera-Somaliland are further testimony that the government is committed to keeping pace with the changing geopolitics and increasing securitisation of the Horn of Africa.

The UAE has also become active in contributing to anti-piracy and counterterrorism efforts. Joining the multilateral Sahel Force to fight against jihadi groups in West Africa is a case in point. Together with the decision to back the Saudi-led offensive against the Al Houthis in Yemen, it has proactively sought to undermine Iranian influence not only in the Middle East, but in Africa as well.

Four, Africa has also become a laboratory to test another initiative. The economic ventures of DP World and other businesses over the last two decades has enabled the UAE to become more familiar with Africa and shift gears to the foreign policy domain. This was evident in the shift from the UAE seeking mediators to resolve some of its own vexing issues to becoming one of the mediators in resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea row. More recently, Abu Dhabi also hosted talks between the United States and Taliban officials in a bid to stabilise Afghanistan and helped calm tempers between Pakistan and India. 

These Asia-Africa strategies have glued together commercial, diplomatic and security interests, marking a new chapter in the UAE’s diplomatic journey.

Five, after being in the camp of countries that voted for the leadership of other countries in multilateral forums, the UAE is now getting elected to lead and host institutions and events of repute, such as the International Renewable Energy Agency and Expo 2020 Dubai.

These shifts have been dictated by a ‘spirit of possibility’ and a desire to be recognised as more than just an oil-rich soft power. The UAE used steady economic growth to enhance its profile and showcase self-confidence by using every crisis as an opportunity to reinforce its progress.

This integrated social-economic-diplomatic-security policy approach could be associated with two strategies of public diplomacy that small states pursue as a means of gaining international recognition – ‘niche diplomacy’ and ‘nation branding’.

The former entails “linking its image with a particular cause…concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having.” This is particularly relevant when focusing on issues considered as contributing to the global good. The latter “is best described as a customer’s idea about a product” or conditioning “the outside world’s ideas about a particular country.”

These issues reinforce the fact that in international relations, size does not matter. Whichever way you view it, the UAE is now an important player in the great game.

It is this shift that led a US official to designate the UAE as the ‘Gulf Sparta.’ While this is debatable because ancient Greek Sparta was the epitome of hard power, and the UAE is far from it, the fact that the UAE has drawn such comparison is significant. 

Given all these attributes, it is more likely that the UAE may be designated in the future as a ‘smart’, ‘middle’ or ‘influential’ power of repute or even the ‘Gulf Athens’, as Emirati intellectual Sultan Al Qassemi posited.

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