Minister of State Zaki Nusseibeh on his new role as the head of the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, the UAE diaspora, fluid identities and the power of art in an era of divisive identity politics
UAE's new office of public diplomacy inspired by Sheikh Zayed's legacy
In the summer of 1969, a young Palestinian translator travelled to Switzerland with a sheikh from a remote desert oasis to build diplomatic relations for a state that did not yet exist.
The translator was Zaki Nusseibeh, who had arrived in the emirate of Abu Dhabi two years earlier after completing his studies at Cambridge and stayed when the Six-Day War broke out and he could not return to Jerusalem.
It was one of his first overseas missions with Sheikh Zayed, the recently appointed ruler of a wealthy sheikhdom who would go on to unite the seven coastal emirates and form the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
On that early visit to western Europe, the sheikh made an unusual request: that the Abu Dhabi delegation be accompanied by a traditional folklore band of drummers and singers. The sheikh knew culture would connect people with what was an unknown emirate.
Nearly 50 years later, Minister Nusseibeh continues the legacy of cultural diplomacy begun by Sheikh Zayed with this month's launch of the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.
“I lived through this and saw the way that he built relationships across the globe,” said Mr Nusseibeh, a Minister of State, during an exclusive interview with The National at his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I remember that in the late sixties and in the early seventies the UAE did not really register in the regional forum or on the international scene. Yet within 10 or 15 years, the Emirates became know for what it’s known for today, because of these policies and of these deeply held humanitarian considerations and because of Sheikh Zayed’s love for people.”
Diplomats will undergo cultural diplomacy training to foster ties built on the values of innovation, tolerance and charity.
The new office will give a more nuanced narrative of the country abroad by promoting the work of artists, filmmakers, poets and writers from the United Arab Emirates, both Emirati and expatriate, through its global network of 184 embassies and missions. In addition to the arts, events will include educational exchanges and sports programmes.
Its first event, Global Art Forum: UAE Past, Present, Future, was held in London last week in collaboration with Art Dubai.
Zaki Nusseibeh: Art brings the UAE character to the modern world
Zaki Nusseibeh: Reading stories and sharing tales about Abu Dhabi
The talk on art, design and architecture is demonstrative of how the Office will go beyond the familiar stories of Emirati heritage, those of falconry, camels and desert origins, and highlight exchange between Emiratis and foreign nationals.
“They are also part of the identity of the UAE,” said Mr Nusseibeh. “Their cultures have become part of the culture of the UAE.”
Take Binary States India-UAE, a publication by the new Office. The book is a physical manifestation of an exhibition by the same name at the 2017 Kochi Muziris Biennale that presents the relationships between the UAE and India through oral histories and photo essays like ‘Gulf Return’ by Vikram Divecha. This contribution shows homes built by repatriated Indian workers from the Gulf and is a reminder that remittances, as Rahel Aima writes in the introduction, are “not only monetary but also aesthetic”.
The Office not only celebrates the co-existence of nationalities in the UAE but their influence upon one another. This is at odds with the idea that migration and globalisation have eroded Emirati identity, a concern frequently raised in a country where citizens make up 11 per cent of the population.
"We call them our UAE diaspora"
Throughout the interview, the Minister referred to "the diaspora", those who lived here, contributed and have since repatriated.
“We call them our UAE diaspora because they came and worked here and lived here,” he said. “Some of them passed away and their children still remember their contributions to our country.”
Fittingly, one of the Office’s first projects has been organising the international visits of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, to honour expatiates who made outstanding national contributions.
Sheikh Abdullah has travelled to Japan, New Zealand and India to meet the families of Dr Katsuhiko Takahashi, the architect who gave Abu Dhabi its grid system and green spaces, Andrew Little, a former Trucial Oman Scout, and Dr Zulekha Daud, the first known Indian doctor in the UAE.
While national narratives typically build on a shared past, the government has long emphasised an identity forged by a shared future. Celebrating the contributions of expatriates bolsters the image of the UAE as a destination for the young, the bright and the business minded.
“There was a recent tweet by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed [the Crown Prince of Dubai] that said we are proud to be number one regionally and number eight internationally in attracting young brains that want to settle and come and live here," said Mr Nusseibeh.
Projects supported by the Office dispel restrictive definitions of what it means to be Emirati, which have emerged as the country defines its national identity.
An example is its launch of Stories from the UAE, a documentation of Emirati identity through its neighbourhoods, architecture and profiles promoted through the Office’s digital outreach programme.
The first two collections, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation in 2015 and 2017, profiled runner Ethiopian-born Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh and Emiratis with foreign-born parents like the UAE ambassador to Russia, Saif Ghobash and Mr Nusseibeh’s daughter, Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and President of UN Women.
This is striking in a country where immigration is virtually non-existent and mixed marriages can still carry a social stigma.
In this way, the message of the office might not only shift how Emiratis and the UAE are viewed abroad but could change how citizens define themselves.
In an era of divisive identity politics, the message of shared cultures and a common human experience is one of social and strategic importance.
“I believe the political disorder that we see around us made more countries aware of the need to bring culture into the heart of its political strategies in establishing relationships with other countries and nations,” said Mr Nusseibeh. “There are a number of elements that have been evolving in the last few decades that have made cultural diplomacy truly at the heart of any foreign policy consideration for any country.”
“Cultural diplomacy at the heart of any foreign policy”
Mr Nusseibeh is well placed to lead this mission. In 1967, he first worked with a family contracting company in Abu Dhabi before becoming a stringer for international media outlets, telling the story of the Trucial States when foreign media first took an interest in the Gulf.
He became a translator and adviser for Sheikh Zayed in 1968, and witnessed the sheikh’s astute grasp of cultural diplomacy.
“Sheikh Zayed’s love for humanity was deeply firm and was the foundation of his foreign policy strategies. He truly believed that we as a human race are one family and that we need to work with each other to understand each other, to strive for peace and stability so that we can bring prosperity not only to our own people but also to those around us who are in need of help.
“This is why from the outset Sheikh Zayed had an outlook that said we must utilise our resources not only to help our own people but also to help those who are in need.”
This legacy remains. The November 2017 opening of the Louvre-Abu Dhabi broadcast Emirate’s ideals of universalism to a wide global audience. Looking ahead, the same values will be promoted at Expo 2020 Dubai, said the Minister.
“It is a narrative that we are proud of because it is a narrative about a country that stands for moderation, it stands for humanitarian aid, it stands for peace and stability.”