It is an open secret that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are considered to be the pioneer country among other Arab states when it comes to the use of so-called ‘soft power’ in diplomacy. In order to implement the main objectives of this concept, the UAE authorities rely heavily on diverse mechanisms, especially on public policy. The core idea of public diplomacy can be summarized as follows: public diplomacy represents the process of communication between a government and international audience, that aims at explaining national ideas and ideals, as well as cultural mindset of a country to the international community. Nowadays, the UAE actively uses digital tools and the Internet to benefit from public diplomacy. Thus, Emirati public policy transforms into digital diplomacy.
Statistic data suggests that the UAE is a country of active Internet users, widely represented on various online platforms and social media. The possible explanation, undoubtedly, lies in the high percentage of young people in the population structure. According to Global Media Insight, 9.52 m out of 9.61m people living in the UAE use social media - nearly a whole country. Interesting to note that around 140k users join Emirati online world annually. The polls reveal WhatsApp being the most popular messenger, while Facebook, Instagram and Twitter top the list of most used social networks. No wonder that the UAE government tries its best to promote positive national image via social media channels applying SMM, branding and PR mechanisms. In addition, official documents and strategies focusing on digital diplomacy are being issued regularly. For example, in 2017 the authorities introduced UAE Soft Power strategy, that places media diplomacy among six other most crucial ways of soft power implementation.
Emirati digital diplomacy can be classified into two elements: administrative measures on domestic level aiming at digitalization of the government in order to ensure the image of the UAE as the most developed country in the Middle East; and UAE soft power on the international online stage.
- In this regard, probably the most important is the fact that all government institutions of the UAE enjoy online presence through websites and digital platforms and apps, offering state services online. In the long run, UAE government seeks implementation of a paperless e-government. Thanks to such state-sponsored initiatives as, for example, Smart Mobility, every citizen is able to receive an app kit for a smartphone to benefit from state services. By the way, the achievements of the UAE related to the use of technologies and innovations in public administration has already deserved international attention. In 2018, Swiss International Institute for Management Development (IMD) published World Digital Competitiveness Rating. The UAE was ranked the first in the Middle East and the 17th in the world (overtaking Germany) in terms of digital economy development.
- The UAE on the international online stage. Over the last few years, the UAE has succeeded in exploiting social media diplomacy mechanisms that contribute to promoting the Emirati national brand, in particular by means of online presence of the UAE rulers and government officials. For example, the UAE Prime minister’s account in Twitter is followed by 9,8 million users (11th most followed account among other world leaders); UAE Foreign Minister’s Twitter has 4,5 million followers; Instagram profile of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince has 2 million followers. Naturally, state institutions are presented on social media. Besides, the UAE government establishes specialized agencies to coordinate social media diplomacy, for example, UAE Office of Public Diplomacy. High popularity the UAE enjoys on social media is undoubtedly considered a powerful tool of soft power which helps in cultivating an attractive image and particular patterns associated with this country. This is what directly and positively affects the creation of national branding. Interesting to note that in 2019, a renowned advertising agency The Future Brand presented its annual report on world national braidings. The UAE was ranked the first among other Arab states (outrunning Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and 16th globally.
UAE digital diplomacy develops rapidly and witness new tendencies. One or its recent «trends» is digital diplomacy (i.e. soft power to a certain extent) in paradiplomatic context. By paradiplomacy we understand diplomacy implementation on the level of federal subjects. In this regard, the Emirate of Dubai is considered to be pro-active. This Emirate is characterised by high population density, large number of foreign expats and recognisable online image. Dubai authorities make every effort to create a smart government which would be positioned as an example of «government of future» for other states. In order to implement this ambitious goal, Dubai officials worked out the e-government project nearly 20 years ago. They deepened this approach by launching Dubai Smart Government Initiative in 2013. Later Dubai authroories presented Smart Government Applications for gadgets and introduced digital channels for communication between citizens and the government in Youtube and Twitter. These measures have transferred public administration of Dubai to the world of online. Moreover, Dubai officials are engaged in developing local digital strategies. In this context, we can mention Dubai Internet of Things Strategy, a unique document for the Middle East that covers the use of digital technologies in state affairs management. This issue is also deeply considered in Smart Dubai 2021 strategy that sets a goal of making Dubai a top «smart» city in the world.
Nevertheless, like in every situation, there is always the reverse side of the coin. Despite peaceful nature of Emirati digital diplomacy, the UAE was implicated in several scandals. In 2017 the Middle East region was shaken by the Qatar diplomatic crisis that involved the Gulf states, including the UAE, which decided to impose a so-called blockade on Qatar. In 2017 and 2018 Arab media sources reported that the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had used fake bot pages in Twitter shortly before the Qatari crisis erupted to add fuel to the flame of anti-Qatar sentiments, and after the crises to maintain the hostile rhetoric. At the beginning of the diplomatic conflict, anti-Qatari sentiments in the UAE reached such a point that the UAE authorities threatened everyone sympathizing with Qatar on social media platforms with imprisonment. According to some sources, the UAE was also involved in the fake news spread to damage Qatar’s international image. For example, the UAE contributed to spreading the fake news related the ignition of aircraft engines in at Hamad International Airport in Doha by means of fake Twitter accounts. Later the accounts, as well as the news were deleted by Twitter as they violated Twitter terms of service. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, are also believed to work on creation of so-called Internet trolls using troll farms to influence sentiments of targeted audience.
UAE digital security. Safe online interaction has definitely become one of the most acute issues for the UAE to such an extent that the Emirati rulers address this problem in their official addresses to the nation. In this regard we cannot but touch upon the «Letter of the new season», issued by the UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid in 2019. He noted that «stirring up chaos on social media wastes achievements which thousands of teams toiled hard to build.» What is more, His Highness emphasized that «the reputation of the UAE is not a gaining ground for those who are looking for more followers», what clearly demonstrates the UAE approach towards digital security. In addition, Prime Minister added that it is the UAE Foreign Ministry that is in charge of coordination of online actions of the government. The Foreign Ministry cultivates the image of the UAE on the international stage, while clarifying information regarding Emirati diplomacy for the international community. It’s also worth mentioning that in terms of digital security, the UAE has worked out its National Cybersecurity Strategy in 2019, that sets the objectives of cybercrime eradication, UAE critical infrastructure protection, raising the awareness about cybersecurity among the citizens and creation of cyberprofessionals’ teams.
In conclusion, it should be underlined that at the current stage the UAE is actively involved in the digital sphere and uses media tools to shape the Emirati brand in order to implement digital diplomacy and soft power.
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