Soft power and the creative contribution: more moves from the UAE government

The UAE government has announced the establishment of a “Creative Industries Contributions Index” to be created and managed by the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.

That sounds like a really pragmatic solution to finding out what creativity is worth to the country – it will “reflect an unambiguous structure of the economic returns of cultural activities and highlight the role of the cultural sector in supporting economic development”.

That would have an immediate value in demonstrating the importance of the arts and related sectors to policy-makers and neoliberal commentators alike. There are many opportunities in using the current value of oil to devise alternative sources of state income when the wells start to run dry, and one of them certainly involves the economic potential of art, design and other creativity.

“The future of our cultural development should be based on creativity and innovation,” as Sheikh Mohammed said. “Economy, culture and politics are components that interact to create a nation, and build a state … The development of our country depends on a well-established and forward-looking culture.”

The future of our cultural development should be based on creativity and innovation …

At the same time comes the announcement of a new UAE Cultural Development Fund, to be overseen by the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. There’s not much detail about what exactly this is, how much cash it will have to use, when it will start work, or how it will operate in practice; but the press release says the fund’s objectives include “providing necessary funds to support cultural activity within the country and encouraging projects and initiatives aimed at promoting the development of the UAE cultural product”.

Additional objectves are listed as “the participation of all segments of UAE society in the implementation of cultural development plans, which is one of the main components of comprehensive development”; and the fund will also “encourage the role of the private sector in the process of cultural and knowledge development”.

It all sounds like part of the broader push towards soft power. So too did the ambitiously named Future of Culture Retreat, organised by the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last week.

A number of UAE cabinet ministers and senior government officials have just concluded a meeting with prominent politicians, diplomats, cultural leaders, business leaders and media figures (no, magpie wasn’t invited) to consider “a comprehensive developmental plan for innovative cultural initiatives and projects”.

Noura Al Kaabi, the articulate and imaginative Minister for Culture and Knowledge Development, appears to be the prime mover. The press release quoted her remarks at the Retreat: “The Ministry is taking an active role in the development of a cultural and intellectual society to keep pace with the rapid cultural and technological developments witnessed within the UAE … We take pride in the UAE and its achievements, proving to the world that Emirati citizens are not only capable of keeping pace with global development in various fields and sectors but are at the forefront of such developments”.

She reported that “through nine different sessions, we brainstormed a wide range of visions, suggestions, initiatives and ideas related to the future of Emirati culture”. They generated “more than 17 recommendations and outcomes”. Many are predictable enough, given the session titles – for instance, there was one on National Identity, Values and Community Cohesion which recommended that a plan be developed “to promote the culture of the UAE within UAE society through joint initiatives with the Ministry of Community Development”.

Some other proposals were very specific – developing an index of UAE Art Works, creating a cultural developmental fund, support for Arabic digital content, an Emirati culture project map, open data repositiories for culutural information, a National Orchestra.

And there were a number of suggestions for the development of the creative scene in the UAE, including work plans to support cultural and creative industries in the country “according to specific criteria”.

There was an international perspective too, with a specific soft-power session on Cultural Diplomacy to strengthen ties with other countries. An enhanced role for the cultural attaché in overseas embassies and more cooperation with UNESCO were on the agenda here.

In September 2017, the UAE’s shiny new Soft Power Council launched a Soft Power Strategy that aims to increase the country’s global reputation abroad by highlighting its identity, heritage, culture and contributions to the world. The strategy’s four main objectives look like a really sound approach:

to promote the UAE’s position as a gateway to the region (ok, that’s a pillar of the country’s existing economic strategy)

to develop a unified direction for various sectors including the economy, humanities, tourism, media and science (if “unified” means joined-up thinking, we’re all for it. So many countries seem unable to do this)

to establish the UAE as a regional capital for culture, art and tourism (they sound like three very different things to us, but clearly Abu Dhabi for one has decided on a premium offer for high-value holidaymakers that includes top-notch art and cardamom coffee)

to establish its reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world (provided they don’t want to express political aspirations or opinions deemed antithetical to the country or its rulers. This one is going to be a tougher sell for instance to people from across the world who have been raised on the traditions of Western-style democracy, but the sunshine and absence of income tax might help)

Actually, our carping reaction to that last point obscures the fact that the political and economic situation of the UAE are the major factors in anticipating that the soft power strategy will work, and will work well. The country doesn’t have to accommodate different social/political groups and water down policies in order to get them approved by an electorate; nor does it labour under the economic pressures that mean short-term considerations trump the long view.

If the UAE chooses to be a world leader in punching above its weight, we confidently expect that this will happen within the very brief timeframe set by the 2021 Vision; and equally we expect that a sound, sensible approach to the art scene (albeit one predicated on the long-term economic value of the creative industries) will be part of that drive.

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