The role of art in diplomacy

Alliances cannot be forged without demonstrating awareness about the society one aims to connect with

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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In 1985, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd bin Abdulaziz visited the United States for the first time after assuming governance. The reception he received was massive.

During this visit, the then-American President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech during a dinner hosted at the White House in honor of the king. Since the speech raised issues related to Arab relations with Israel, the king decided not to respond to Reagan and not to deliver the speech prepared in advance. He chose to talk about sports in Saudi Arabia.


Back then, the Saudi league played in tournaments and won championships. It was a smart speech that maintained the sanctity of the occasion as there was possibility of a difference of opinion due to the different positions on the peace initiative proposed by him.

After dinner, the king accompanied Reagan to another hall where a band was playing music and a girl was singing opera. The king was jubilant as he listened to the creative artistic work. Art in, its different forms, plays important political and diplomatic roles.

During his visit to China, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented the painting “The Silk Road” – by artist Ahmad Mater – as a gift to the Chinese president. It was a diplomatic message to China. Earlier, Prince Saud al-Faisal had diplomatically invested in Condoleezza Rice’s interest in music and cinema. He found out about her taste and, on one occasion, presented some CDs to her as a gift.

Rice, who studied French and plays the piano, has been fond of Mozart since childhood. She said playing music is very relaxing although it’s not easy when one plays pieces of famous composers. She is fond of German composer Johannes Brahms’ music because it’s solid and expresses deep emotions.

Rice also said that she does not like music with excessive emotions and therefore is not attracted to Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and does not care much about Russian Romantic-era musicians like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Art brings in what politics is incapable of and it establishes the basis for joint political projects

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Music to the ears

Art for diplomacy surfaced during the talks between Saudi Culture and Information Minister, Adel al-Toraifi, and his counterpart in Japan. While in Tokyo, Al-Toraifi spoke about music, the royal academy of arts and the progress of music in Japan.

He said: “I am a fan of the classical music. My favorite is Brahms’ symphony no.2 and I especially liked it when Austrian composer Herbert Von Karajan presented it in the 60’s, and I think he’s widely recognized in Japan. I would like to one day see a Saudi young man who can play the cello on the international level like famous artist Yo-Yo Ma.”

Art brings in what politics is incapable of and it establishes the basis for joint political projects. The recent American-Iranian rapprochement began with talks about art. By the end of 2009, a conference about Afghanistan was held in The Hague. The conference was attended by American diplomat Richard Holbrooke and his consultant Vali Nasr.

During one of the breaks and while the participants drank coffee and ate some snacks, Holbrooke reached out to head of the Iranian delegation, Mehdi Akhondzadeh, and talked to him about an Asian arts exhibition which he visited and voiced his admiration of some of the displayed Iranian pieces which date back to the era of the Iranian Safavid kingdom. Mehdi Akhondzadeh smiled and nodded in approval. At that point, Holbrooke’s aides then realized that the Obama administration intends to engage in serious negotiations with Iran.

In his prominent book “A history of diplomacy,” Jeremy Black discusses how art has been linked to diplomatic work. In a chapter on the 17th century, he notes how art played a big role in politics. He narrates how the envoy of the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel in London bought paintings and a mini pocket telescope for its prince in the mid-18th century. Black also notes how Russian Queen Catherine the Great used her diplomats to own works of art of which the most prominent were those at the Houghton Hall.

He adds that diplomats were also expected to buy works of art for other prominent figures. Black also highlights the role of famous painter Peter Paul Rubens at clearing the political atmosphere in terms of English-Spanish relations at the beginning of the 17th century as he played a skillful diplomatic role.

Art and culture play a role in the world of politics. The diplomacy sheltered by art and armed by culture can infiltrate societies and charm leaders. It reflects respect for countries, nations and people.

Alliances cannot be forged without demonstrating awareness about the society one aims to connect with. Each society has its history, symbols and legends and prominent politicians spend a lot of time discussing all that with their counterparts. This is where art plays a role and improves the prospects of negotiations.

In his aforementioned book, Black said diplomacy is a game that’s based on making alliances and it is part of the game of war or at least of the game of using power.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 08, 2016.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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