x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UAE soft-power on display with leaders' visits

The UAE has become a source of technical assistance and specialised expertise for many MENA countries. This kind of soft power is good for everyone.

Week after week and month after month, leaders and officials from across the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond, come to the UAE. Over the last weekend alone, the UAE's leaders conferred with Ali Zidan, the prime minister of Libya, and separately with Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud, the president of Somalia. The president of semiautonomous Somaliland was here last week. The previous week the vice-president of South Sudan visited for high-level talks.

The leaders who come here, typically with government ministers and high civil servants in tow, are here for a reason.

To be sure, the UAE is a prime diplomatic destination any time a crisis demands a quick transfusion of aid money, because this country has resource wealth and is known for its generosity in good causes.

But there is more than that to the frequency of high-level official visits. For Arab and Muslim countries, many of which face known development challenges, the UAE has quietly become a prime source of technical support, governance expertise and specialised assistance.

No wonder. This country has become a hub for more than long-distance air travel. The UAE is at once open to the world and firmly a part of its region. Mena countries looking for examples of sophisticated, modern institutions operating in an Islamic context know where to look.

Libya, for example, does not need financial aid; its own oil industry is recovering rapidly from the disruptions of regime change. But Libya does need security training and expertise, as the foreign minister, Mohamed Abdelaziz, noted while he was here. To integrate former militia members into a national army and police force, Libya has asked for trainers and related assistance from the UAE.

Similarly, Somaliland is asking for help to set up two hospitals. Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, another semiautonomous region, have all thanked the UAE for logistical and training help in fighting piracy.

To be sure, the UAE benefits as well, given that all of these countries share strategic and security interests with the Emirates. But these are also textbook examples of one form of "soft power" - the development of national influence by attraction, rather than by military or economic coercion.

In other words, when the UAE shares its expertise with regional allies, the benefits are not merely bilateral but help build ties that improve the lives of ordinary citizens across the Mena region. Such assistance may be largely unsung, but it is by no means unappreciated.