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The UAE ranked 10th in the world in the 2023 Soft Power Index, the country’s highest ranking ever and the highest in the Middle East for the fourth year running. The index, which assesses countries based on culture, diplomacy, education, business and trade, governance, and digital engagement, is based on the concept of “soft power,” which refers to the ability of a country to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

The UAE has emerged as a significant player in this realm, integrating its economic capabilities and diplomatic charm to foster relationships and influence international affairs.

While the Soft Power Index is a valuable tool for measuring the UAE’s global influence, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the UAE’s appeal the metric should be merged with an analysis of the country’s multifaceted foreign policy strategy, which combines elements of “smart power” and reputational security.

Smart power is a combination of soft power and “hard power,” the medium of foreign policy that pertains to tools such as military force and economic sanctions. The UAE’s move to become a global aviation hub is an example of leadership employing smart power.

Through airlines such as Emirates and Etihad, the UAE has connected more than 150 destinations globally, enhancing its geopolitical significance. To these ends, the country leveraged its economic influence (hard power) but also promoted cultural exchange, tourism and connectivity (soft power). The country has also invested significantly in infrastructure to support their aviation industry.

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A responsible global actor

The UAE tries to attract admiration from other nations through different initiatives. It promotes Emirati heritage and values on the global stage through investments in the culture sector, as exemplified in the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Opera.

In the humanitarian realm, the UAE provides medical aid and relief supplies to countries in need, enhancing its reputation as a compassionate and responsible global actor. In 2022, the UAE disbursed approximately 3.45 billion in foreign aid to various developmental, humanitarian, and charitable projects across 155 countries.

The UAE is also a progressive and tolerant society. To this end, the government has introduced reforms that seek to align the country’s social policies with global norms. The UAE has significantly advanced gender equality and judicial reforms, ensuring equal pay across genders and revising personal status laws to allow non-Muslims to handle marriage and divorce affairs based on civil law and personal status laws.

Additionally, the UAE promotes interfaith dialogue, highlighted by the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which symbolises tolerance and understanding among diverse religious communities. These efforts are not merely internal changes but strategic moves to bolster the country’s international image.

A paragon of safety

The UAE stands as a beacon of security in a region that has often been troubled by instability. Its low crime rates and the complete absence of domestic terrorism highlight its status as one of the safest destinations for residents and visitors.

The UAE ranks highly in terms of safety and security according to various global indices. Numbeo’s Safety Index for 2024 ranks Abu Dhabi as the world’s safest city, with Dubai also placing high at fourth. According to a 2024 Gitnux Marketdata Report, the country is considered the third-safest in the world.

To achieve this security, the UAE has pursued smart-power strategies that showcase technological prowess and societal unity in defence preparedness. In 2014, the government introduced mandatory military service for adult males to bolster the country’s reserve troops.

Strong, capable nation

To further ensure localised innovative defence solutions, the EDGE Group, a conglomerate of 25 companies, was founded in 2019. The company has grown to become one of the world’s top-25 weapons manufacturers. The UAE has also acquired advanced systems such as the THAAD missile defence and F-35 jets, underlining its state-of-the-art military capabilities.

Beyond defending its own interests, the UAE wants to be known as a strong, capable country that can contribute to international security. The army regularly participates in military drills with global powers and regional allies, which not only bolsters its defence readiness but also strengthens diplomatic ties. This robust approach is integral to the UAE’s reputational security.

By integrating smart power and reputational security into its foreign policy, the UAE has effectively enhanced its influence on the global stage, complementing the traditional metrics of the Soft Power Index.

This approach has not only projected a positive international image but also fostered strong global partnerships, establishing the UAE as a respected and influential entity in the international arena.

Dr Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and Lead Researcher at the Rabdan Security & Defence Institute (RSDI), Abu Dhabi UAE