Culture and ‘soft power’ in Saudi diplomacy

Hassan Al Mustafa

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In parallel with King Salman's visit to Moscow the Russian capital, the Saudi Cultural Week in Russia was held, which ran October 2-8 and included many artistic and musical activities.

This type of event does not take place often during the Saudi official visits abroad. It presents Saudi culture as a small part of a larger picture. The weak presence of cultural activities within Saudi Arabia reflects a gap between officials and those who are engaged in different types of culture. Many traditional politicians believe that culture cannot serve them in their diplomatic work, nor help them to make political or military gains, or be critical negotiations between nations.

This way of thinking reflects confusion and ignorance; they deal with policy according to strict and monotonous standards that close horizons and do not interact with the world around them. The reality of policy is that it is a living organism that grows and is affected by what is around it. Policy develops through experiments and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

Hence, culture is as an integral part of political and diplomatic work, not in its in doctrinal systems, but as a bridge for cooperation, understanding and dialogue between peoples and between different governments.

Diplomacy in its modern form

Culture and the arts provide a common ground for realizing the “other,” to define their features, to understand their concerns, fears and aspirations.

The role played by culture is precisely what diplomacy needs in its modern form. It is not really about winning, or defeating the other, but rather it is a mechanism to establish permanent understandings and create a network of broad economic, political and social interests that make countries feel in need of each other. Stability and independence of each country becomes an inherent interest for its neighboring countries, while gaining a mutual benefit.

Hence, culture is not an instrument through which the politician practices their influence, but rather makes its own effectiveness, shows the diversity of the society it stemmed from, reflects its lifestyles, music, theater, arts, and the narratives this society tells about itself; that’s how culture creates a link with the party it addresses.

Dealing with this modern and liberal approach to culture requires a diplomat to be highly educated and able to distinguish between preaching and informing, so that he can practice "soft power" in a professional and persuasive manner. This could not be done without specialized training programs, as we have seen circulated by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its diplomats.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

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