Last week, as delegations from the new US administration, Russia, China and the EU gathered at the Munich Security Conference to discuss the strategic challenges facing the international community, a very different international assembly was taking place at the Abu Dhabi headquarters of the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.
As ministers in Germany prepared to debate matters diplomats define as “hard power” – military and economic issues relating to the future of the European Union, Nato and the West – Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak, the UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, the British ambassador to the UAE and British Council representatives unveiled details of an initiative that represents diplomacy at its softest.
A collaboration between the British Council, the UK government and local strategic partners such as Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA) and the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration is a series of events that range from the recent performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End record-breaking musical Cats at Dubai Opera, to scientific conferences on the UAE’s future urban development.
“The UK/UAE 2017 initiative is cultural diplomacy at its best, using the creativity and passion of our brightest talents to forge a new and lasting collaboration that engages and inspires future generations,” Sheikh Nahyan said at last week’s unveiling of the initiative’s spring season.
It followed the programme’s launch under the auspices of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the Prince of Wales in November.
Rather than a roster of treaties and military commitments, the aim of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration is to employ culture in its broadest sense – including the arts and literature, sport and education, science, technology and business – to foster understanding between the two nations and to strengthen cultural and economic ties.
The bonds are already considerable, according to Philip Parham, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the UAE.
“More than 100,000 British nationals live in the UAE and they have made and continue to make an outstanding contribution,” Mr Parham said, reflecting on just one example of that contribution, the impact of UK-based designers on the UAE’s urban fabric.
“In December I had a moment when this struck me particularly, when I was standing in front of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque,” the ambassador said.
“Behind me was the mosque, beautifully decorated with mosaics designed by the British artist Kevin Dean. In front of me was this incredibly memorable new monument, designed by the British artist Idris Khan and to my left was the [Sheikh Zayed] bridge, designed by the British architect, Zaha Hadid.”
Mr Parham might have added Dubai’s World Trade Centre and the Burj Al Arab to his list of British architectural imports, as well as Abu Dhabi’s Zayed National Museum, World Trade Centre and Masdar City, but his message was unambiguous – building on such a deep relationship in a meaningful way has represented a significant challenge.
Luckily, the person responsible for rising to the occasion is no stranger to the UAE’s cultural scene.
Before joining the British Council as head of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Culture eight months ago, Hannah Henderson worked for the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival for almost five years and before that was head of arts for the British Council in the Middle East, a role in which she designed and delivered the organisation’s first regional arts strategy for the Gulf.
“The intention of the whole year is that it will give a greater depth and contemporary focus to the relationship between the two countries,” she said.
“But because there’s a long and strong history of collaboration in pretty much every sphere imaginable, it’s about looking at what this means today, right now, through the lens of culture.”
What that allows, Ms Henderson said, is for individuals and organisations to collaborate and engage in ways that are not transactional but based on mutual benefit and understanding.
It is an approach that results, she said in projects that are quite different from those predicated on commercial considerations.
“We start from the position of not programming a festival, but of building an understanding and working together,” she said, citing accessibility and inclusivity workshops developed with the Sharjah Museums Department as an example. “They are developing programmes two to three years in advance, they don’t need any help with that. So we asked what we could do that would help the museums to develop in an area of their choosing.”
The result is a series of workshops aimed at UAE-based museum professionals that will draw on UK expertise in creating museum environments that cater for audiences that include people with disabilities.
If some of the public events in the year’s spring season sound like more traditional British fare – such as performances at Dubai Opera by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox or roving, outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – Ms Henderson is determined to avoid accusations of cultural imperialism.
“It’s not about importing British cultural products, it’s about looking at two-way knowledge transfer so everything we are doing is done in partnership,” she said. “There’s no project that is the British Council bringing a British product or a British artist to the UAE and putting it on here. Every single project has a British partner and a UAE-based partner and all of them have been developed to meet the needs of both.”
Despite being one of four years of creative collaboration the British Council is running this year – the others are in India, Korea and Malaysia – the themes of the UAE season have been tailored, Ms Henderson said, to complement the country’s strategic aims in developing a society to make the transition to a post-oil, knowledge-based economy.
“It’s about looking at how all of these projects, the vast majority of which have dedicated education, skills and capacity-building elements linked to them, can help to equip the next generation of Emiratis with skills that will be useful to them in the UAE.”
Ms Henderson’s emphasis on a long-term approach to cultural engagement was echoed by Randa Haidar, head of cultural programmes for Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority.
“Culture doesn’t just manifest itself in festivals, exhibitions and museums, it’s very fluid and it transcends into other areas of knowledge that are very much needed for the continuous progress of our fast-developing nation,” said Ms Haidar during last week’s launch.
“Fields like anthropology, research methods, documentation and political science are also needed, but culture is always the starting point, so it’s important for the success and for accessibility to [culture] to happen.”
Ultimately however, whether it is as a long-standing friend, a trusted adviser or as a partner with proven cultural bona fides, the point of soft power programmes such as the British Council’s Year of Creative Collaboration is to make sure that the UK is one of the UAE’s first ports of call when it comes to more worldly issues of investment, business and trade.
“It’s aiming to engage at every level and I think that this is what cultural diplomacy is enabling us to do in a meaningful way,” Ms Henderson said.
“It’s harder to measure but is equally real. It’s outside the sphere of traditional diplomacy but very much complements it.”
For more information about the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration and its spring programme, visit: www.britishcouncil.ae/en/uk-uae-2017