30 May 2021

Cultural diplomacy strategies of the UAE’s East Asian partners

Asma Alhammadi
30 May 2021

Cultural diplomacy strategies of the UAE’s East Asian partners

Asma Alhammadi
This Insight is the outcome of the Young Scholars Research Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory.

Introduction:

Since 2018, the UAE has entered into several strategic partnerships with leading East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan. These countries have employed cultural diplomacy to promote their countries’ interest in the UAE. Cultural diplomacy works on the premise that the promotion of culture, language, education, and values of respect and understanding serves as a valuable introduction to a culture or society [1] and to enhance its soft power. [2] Hence, examining the cultural diplomacy of the UAE’s East Asian partners can help us understand how these exchanges develop into beneficial relationships at the political and economic fronts.

In recent years, the UAE has diversified its relations with global partners after the US started showing signs of withdrawal from the Middle East and the Trump administration pursued an “America First” policy. [3] As a result, the UAE’s partnership with China was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2018. This is the highest level of strategic collaboration China engages in, which indicates how China looks at the UAE. [4] Since then, China has made tremendous efforts to promote the country’s culture in the UAE.

The UAE has forged another key partnership with South Korea. A special strategic partnership with South Korea was signed in 2018 after President Moon visited the UAE. [5] The relationship has become notable following South Korea’s successful bid for the $25 billion contracts to build the Barakah nuclear plants, the first safe nuclear energy facility of its kind in the Middle East. [6] Lastly, the UAE and Japan signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) in 2018, which seeks to intensify bilateral cooperation in 12 areas: energy, political cooperation, economy, and cultural cooperation. [7]

With all three strategic deals and partnerships being signed around the same time, it is interesting to examine how each country has used cultural diplomacy to further bilateral relationships with the UAE. This insight focuses on the cultural component of the UAE’s partnership with its biggest partners in East Asia. It explains how the UAE’s East Asian partners have invested in culture to promote strategic alliances through languages, education, and traditional and pop cultures.

  1. Language and education:

    Language is one of the most crucial components of any country’s cultural identity and plays an integral part in cultural diplomacy efforts.

    • 1.1 Chinese language

      China is very active when it comes to language promotion. The growing presence of Mandarin in the UAE is hard to miss, with many signboards in malls offering information in Mandarin. Mandarin-speaking staff is also available on request. [8] Starting in 2017, the government rolled out an education initiative to introduce Mandarin language courses at 10 public high schools in the UAE. The UAE and China’s governments strongly support this endeavor as the strategic relationship increases in importance. [9] By 2019, the number of public schools offering Mandarin classes grew to 60 due to an increasing interest from Emirati students and strengthening strategic ties. [10]

      The Confucius Institute (CI) is a non-profit organization promoting Chinese languages and culture in cooperation with over 500 institutes worldwide. The institute offers Mandarin language classes, cross-cultural study programs, and scholarships to expand students’ knowledge of China. [11] The CI has two main branches in the UAE – in Zayed University and the University of Dubai. They also operate at multiple university campuses all over the UAE. [12] This outreach suggests that China understands the importance of language education. Working at this level ensures that impressionable students are convinced to improve their Mandarin language skills to meet the demands of a competitive global market and solidify China’s image as a future world leader.

    • 1.2 Korean language and education:

      South Korea’s language education efforts are promoted by the Korean Cultural Center (KCC), which opened in the UAE in 2016. [13] With 32 KCCs currently operating worldwide, KCC is part of the country’s effort to promote Korean culture. [14] The UAE’s KCC is the only center serving among the GCC countries, which shows how vital the UAE is as a partner for South Korea. As of March 2021, they have taught the Korean language to over 2,100 students, an impressive feat achieved within five years of operation. [15]

    • 1.3 Japanese language and education:

      Japan has also made efforts to spread its language in the UAE. The Japanese embassy in Abu Dhabi hosts language classes using the Japanese school as a facility. The Japan International Cooperation Centre (JICE), a government-supported institution, has assisted over 800 Emirati students in continuing their higher education in Japan since 2013. [16]

      Founded in 2008, the UAE-Japan Cultural Center is an independent institution with the mandate to improve the cultural relationship between the Emirati and Japanese societies. [17] It is a community-driven center, which organizes most of its activities in Dubai and Sharjah. The center has taught the Japanese language to over 2,000 students in the UAE. It has also assisted more than 20 students in enrolling in Japanese higher education institutions. [18] So, what started as a small center has become the most active hub of Emirati-Japanese cultural exchange in the UAE.

  2. Traditional culture:

    One of the most effective ways to promote a country is through traditional culture. Culture as a complex whole includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society. [19] In this insight, traditional culture refers to the basis of a country’s core identity and customs through celebrations, holidays, food, traditional music, and art.

    • 2.1 The Chinese traditional culture:

      Organizations like the Confucius Institutes, the Chinese embassy, and Hala China have been very active in promoting traditional Chinese culture. The latter, in particular, is a joint initiative between Meeras and Dubai Holdings that started in 2018 to increase Chinese tourism and investment in the UAE by increasing the number of Chinese events in Dubai. [20] Those events include holiday celebrations, fashion shows, food festivals, art festivals, and other Chinese cultural events, showcasing how culture can be used to further economic and strategic interests.

      These cultural events can lead to business exchanges as well. When the first annual UAE-China Week was held in 2018, many economic and business agreements were signed between China and the UAE. [21] Another significant cultural event was the major Happy Chinese New Year’s parade organized by Hala China in 2020, which generated awareness of Chinese culture and increased tourism in Dubai. The parade was attended by thousands of people and the Chinese mission to the UAE. [22]

    • 2.2 The Korean traditional culture:

      South Korea’s traditional culture has been heavily promoted through the Korean Cultural Center (KCC) and government initiatives. The UAE-Korea Cultural Dialogue 2020 was one of the most significant cultural exchange programs. Celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations, it aimed to increase cultural understanding and cooperation between the two states through cultural activities. [23] There is a history of Korean festivals being held in the UAE, such as Abu Dhabi’s bi-annual Korean festival, held since 2013. [24] Moreover, there are many Korean clubs dedicated to learning about Korean culture. [25]

      The Zayed University (ZU) organizes an annual Korean Festival and several special university-wide events for Korean holidays, such as Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). ZU’s 2020 Korean Festival has received UAE dignitaries and a delegation from the South Korean government including Park Yang-woo, the Korean Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. [26] Lastly, food is an effective gateway to learn about a culture, and Korean cuisine’s popularity in the UAE has been growing. Over 20 Korean restaurants have opened in the UAE in just a few years, effectively engaging UAE residents toward Korean culture. [27] This illustrates how Korean cuisine is highly regarded in the country due to its reputation for being delicious and healthy.

    • 2.3 The Japanese traditional culture:

      Although Japanese traditional culture is not as strongly emphasized as China and Korea, there are many UAE institutions and community-driven Japanese clubs in the UAE. [28] The most notable institution is the UAE-Japan Cultural Center, which regularly hosts cultural events and classes in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, including calligraphy, sushi-making, and Kimono classes. [29] The center emphasizes the importance of direct people-to-people interaction when it comes to spreading culture. [30]

      Although the cultural events may not be as large as the city-wide Korean and Chinese celebrations, the UAE-Japan Cultural Center inspires a high degree of engagement among its community with events such as the Summer Camp program. The UAE-Japan Cultural Center engages with a wider demographic, as it is not limited to only university students like the Chinese Confucius Institutes.

      In terms of food, Japanese cuisine is popular with UAE residents. The number of Japanese vendors at Dubai’s Gulfood Exhibition, an international food exhibition, illustrated this, increasing from 36 in 2018 to 44 in 2019. [31] The successful Japanese participation at this event demonstrates the increasing demand for Japanese food in the UAE and the rise in Japanese companies’ willingness to supply it. In addition to that, art is seen as a great medium to introduce a country’s values and ideals. This explains the emphasis on Japanese art exhibitions in the UAE in recent years. For instance, the Sharjah Art Foundation has been active in promoting Japanese art through countless exhibitions. The most notable project is a four-year exhibition series called Sharjanan with Japanese curator Yuko Hasegawa that was started in 2019 to introduce the UAE audience to Japanese arts. [32]

  3. Pop culture
    • 3.1 The Korean pop culture:

      When it comes to pop culture as a public diplomacy tool, no country is better known to capture it than South Korea. Pop culture diplomacy or “K-pop diplomacy” is not a new foreign policy tactic but has been a key part of Korean public policy since the 1990s. The Korean government understood the power that pop culture can have and decided to use Korean pop music (K-Pop) to improve its national branding and increase its soft power. [33] The increasing international popularity of Korean culture has even been called the “Korean Wave.” [34]

      The “Korean Wave” made its way to the UAE, with Korean pop culture visibly gaining attention through Korean television, music, and cinema, with several festivals and events celebrating each. [35] The KCC organizes an annual Korean Film Festival every year since 2016. The Korean Embassy held a regional premiere for the movie Parasite in the UAE after its victory at the Oscars. [36] K-Pop is also popular in the UAE, and a major SM TOWN concert was held in Dubai in 2018. This concert featured notably popular acts like EXO, Red Velvet, SHINee, and Super Junior hailed as “the Kings of K-Pop.” More than 15,000 visitors from all over the UAE attended the concert, and it became one of the biggest K-Pop festivals in the Middle East to date. [37]

      There are two examples of when K-Pop being used to foster closer diplomatic and business ties in the UAE. The first was during President Moon Jae-in’s 2018 visit to the UAE. The Abu Dhabi National Theater hosted collaborative Emirati music and a K-Pop concert, coinciding with his visit to encourage cultural exchange between the two countries. [38] A K-Pop concert was also held in Dubai by Korean Brand & Entertainment Expo (KBEE), in which a major Korean business convention featured mega K-Pop Stars Seventeen and SF9 in 2019. [39]

      The event drew major attention and attracted many visitors to the business convention. KBEE believes that the best way to promote Korean lifestyle products and foster cultural exchange is through celebrities and taking advantage of the Korean wave. [40] This shows how Korea effectively uses pop culture and its soft power to improve its relationship with the UAE. K-Pop was used to demonstrate cultural friendliness with the UAE, and it was also influential in drawing more attention to Korean companies trying to expand into the UAE market.

    • 3.2 The Chinese pop culture:

      When it comes to pop culture diplomacy, China appears to be relatively weaker than other countries. Pop culture has not been utilized to its full capacity, and cultural diplomacy effort has focused more on China’s core traditional culture. However, China has been attempting to rectify that in recent years through TV and cinema. In 2018, China Media Group and China Arab TV signed a “China Theatre” broadcasting agreement to dub popular Chinese shows and movies into Arabic. [41] Moreover, four Chinese films have planned to film in Dubai since 2018. [42] Kung Fu Yoga, a movie starring international movie star Jackie Chan, was filmed in Dubai, with the city being central to the movie’s plot. The movie turned out to be Jackie Chan’s all-time most successful film in China as of April 2021. [43] Even though Kung Fu Yoga was also received well in the UAE, Chinese cinema has yet to develop a stable fanbase in the country.

      A possible reason why Chinese pop culture diplomacy might be lacking in the UAE can be explained by the lack of local organic interest toward Chinese pop culture. Unlike Korean and Japanese pop culture, there have been no major international efforts to celebrate Chinese pop culture outside the Chinese-speaking region. Therefore, the UAE audience is not as familiar with Chinese pop culture as Korean and Japanese pop cultures.

    • 3.3 The Japanese pop culture:

      When it comes to pop culture, Japan does not lack regional popularity due to its long history and appeal in the Middle East. Japanese animation and comics play a big part in Japan’s cultural diplomacy. Japanese animation, or anime as it is called, has been a constant presence on Arabic TV channels since the 1980s with sci-fi shows like Grandizer. [44] With the establishment of the TV channel Spacetoon in 2000, Arabic-dubbed anime features have flooded Arab television airwaves. [45] Manga, the Japanese comics, also enjoys a huge fanbase in the UAE. According to Hirata, the managing director of Kinokuniya Bookstore, the largest seller of manga and anime merchandise in the UAE, they expedited Kinokoniya’s Abu Dhabi branch opening in March 2020 because of its popular demand from dedicated consumers. This is also due to Japanese book companies’ efforts to diversify their consumers to combat the declining book sales in Japan. [46] This shows how the popularity of Japan’s cultural export has brought economic benefits to Japanese companies in the UAE.

      Anime and manga’s staying power can also be illustrated through the many events held in the UAE to celebrate Japanese pop culture. The most recognizable of these events is the annual Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC). It is held annually in Dubai since 2012 and attracts approximately 40,000 attendees yearly, with many of those visitors being anime fans. [47] Another key festival was “Ani:me,” which was held in 2016 and welcomed 10,000 visitors for the first-ever anime and manga convention.

      In these events, many Japanese businesses set up booths to promote themselves and sell their products. [48] Also, the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi held a “Manga Lab” workshop and exhibition where they taught over 30,000 visitors how to draw manga. [49] Moreover, the Japanese embassy occasionally emphasizes the history and popularity of anime through smaller events. One of the bigger events was the “Animate Me” exhibit in the Etihad Modern Gallery in 2015, which celebrated the rich history of anime. [50] This just goes to show how much cultural influence anime and manga have in the UAE.

      All these events demonstrate how much Japanese pop culture is integrated into the UAE’s cultural scene. Yet, many of those events are run by private enterprises with little involvement from Japanese government entities. A possible cause might be because Japanese institutions have not yet realized how to fully capitalize on the popularity of their pop culture despite the massive fanbase. Another possible reason could be a small Japanese population of approximately 4,000 people in the UAE, [51] due to which Japan does not feel a strong need to integrate its citizens into the Emirati society.

  4. Conclusion

    It is safe to assume that a comprehensive partnership between two countries leads to more intensive cultural diplomacy efforts. For example, China’s comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE results in a significant effort to promote Chinese culture in the UAE. The same can be said for South Korea. On the other hand, Japan does not actively promote its culture as intensely as its East Asian neighbors.

    The UAE’s East Asian partners have used cultural diplomacy in various ways to promote their strategic interests. China used cultural diplomacy to promote its language and traditional culture in the UAE, which is exemplified by the establishment of a Confucius Institute in UAE universities. These institutes prepare young adults for a future with the UAE-China partnership in mind.

    On the other hand, South Korea uses pop culture to promote bilateral relations. The country has commodified its pop culture and uses it to further its political and economic interests by promoting K-Pop as a way to facilitate cultural exchange and selling of goods effectively. The annual large-scale cultural events consistently engage the UAE’s audience with the Korean culture, making people in the UAE more receptive to Korea and its political and economic activities. Lastly, Japan does not emphasize cultural diplomacy as heavily as China or South Korea, as it seems to prefer seeing direct economic benefits rather than long-term soft power.

    Initially, South Korea put in the highest and the most consistent effort into promoting culture in the UAE. However, China stepped up with larger-scale official cultural programs in 2017, about a year before signing the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership deal with the UAE. This effort shows that China understands how influential culture can be. They need to familiarize the UAE with the Mandarin and Chinese culture to make the UAE an effective partner to China.

    Japan invests in cultural diplomacy the least in the UAE despite its pop culture having a huge fanbase and a head start. Though Japan has the oldest cultural center in the UAE, it is not as heavily funded as China’s Confucius Institutes and Korea’s KCCs. This suggests that Japan has not intended thus far to use cultural diplomacy heavily unless there is a direct business interest, such as an international convention. For example, Japanese food might be emphasized during the Gulfood exhibitions because Japanese companies directly benefit from the sales of food products. Pop culture might be emphasized during anime conventions because Japanese companies get direct access to interested customers. Overall, Japan rarely sees culture as an important industry, while from Korea’s perspective, culture is a profitable business venture.

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