Many might find proof of the decline of American might as the US recoils from the world and wrangles with its allies after announcing decisions to withdraw from important parts of the world and from no less important treaties and conventions.
No one will dispute that the US of Donald Trump is a far remove from the US of Barack Obama, George W Bush or Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, the US’s presence in the world is pretty much as pervasive as ever due to America’s soft power, which begins with the English language — the language most used globally for a variety of purposes and the one most universally accepted as a means of communication when a lingua franca is required.
Beyond the language, there are the US multinational companies, including those that offer reform and progress services to countries around the world, and there are the US arsenals of heavy weaponry in the realms of the arts and letters.
The net worth of Apple and Amazon have now passed the trillion-dollar mark and other US firms are poised to follow suit. This speaks not just of economic clout but also of a soft power that possesses the skills and capacities to change the world and mankind.
If all the foregoing are indications of the role soft power plays in the prevalence of US influence in the world from which the US is withdrawing, they also give us an indication of how important soft power is to the Arab world at a time when the international reputation of Arab and Islamic states have sunk to a nadir for many reasons, foremost among which are extremism and terrorism, the refugee crisis and other fallout from the waves of the so-called Arab Spring, and the false repute Arab countries have acquired for instability, hostility to the West and aversion to humanitarian values.
Such perceptions come on top of those identified by scholars, such as Bahgat Korani of the American University in Cairo, who have studied the Western image of the Arab, which varies from “oriental bazaar merchant” and billionaire to savage Bedouin, oriental belly dancer and terrorist.
Recently (meaning in the post-Arab Spring period), a number of Arab countries have entered a stage of domestic reforms. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has evidenced this in the daily messages sent out by its embassies, sometimes more than once a day.
These messages not only furnish updates on important economic developments (preparations to export natural gas, the realisation of a budgetary surplus, the latest step in the Aramco giga-project) or on geopolitical developments (such as the latest situation in Yemen or Iranian actions in the region), they also give us important insight into the exciting developments taking place in Saudi Arabia’s soft power.
The Kingdom is rediscovering itself. It is unearthing ancient antiquities dating from the pre-Islamic era and readying them for display to Saudis and foreign tourists alike.
Hardly a day goes by without some news about a book exhibition, a music concert or a culture and history fair in some part or other of the far-flung nation.
In short, there is a major revival of ancient and modern Saudi heritage in progress and the substance of this is being made available to numerous platforms for publication and dissemination. All this adds to the two Holy Sanctuaries situated at the peak of Saudi Arabia’s soft power and its influence throughout the Islamic world.
We find a parallel process unfolding in the UAE where the focus is largely on soft power related to technology and modernity in general.
But it is also a fact that the Arab world, as a whole, has a rich and vast historical heritage in view of its situation at the corner of the world that was home to Sumerian, Pharaonic, Phoenician, Hellenic, Roman, Nabatean and Arab Islamic eras and that is universally celebrated as the birthplace and beacon of the Abrahamic faiths.
While the Arabic language is one of the UN’s official languages, its speakers — about 350 million, or slightly more than the population of the US — primarily live in an area measuring over 9,000 km2 (or about the size of the US) and form, in and of themselves, a vast cultural market. Moreover, much of their cultural and historical heritage may not necessarily have been in Arabic.
The point here, in brief, is that the Arabs have so many sources of soft strength that need to be tapped, packaged, marketed and utilised in the framework of an outlook that regards the Arab region as a single cultural market.
Regardless of inter-Arab quarrels, national boundaries, Arab rivalries great and small, the fact is that, thanks to modern technologies, our shared language has generated patterns of interplay that are not unlike those within the borders of a single nation.
On social networking sites, we find exchanges between people from across the Arab world.
They may be more numerous when it comes to football matches, more diverse on artistic or literary subjects, or more heated on political issues, but in the end, there is interplay. Moreover, the interplay also includes Arabs living abroad, outside the Arab world.
The sources of soft power and the energies generated from the abovementioned types of interplays at home and abroad can radiate many cultural signals across the world.
Above all, they broadcast the message that the Arabs are not the barbarians portrayed by their enemies abroad but rather active participants in the contemporary global civilisation and, indeed, those who laid the initial brickwork for this civilisation.
Secondly, they say that the Arabs, today, have a story to tell about reform, peaceful change, the reconstruction of the state and efforts to support its economic and social foundations.
Thirdly, after a period of turmoil and destruction, the Arabs have entered a stage of construction and development. In some Arab countries, this phase has much in common with similar phases in Europe between the two world wars, in the US in the aftermath of the civil war, and in Russia and China following the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions and following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the death of Mao Tse-Tung.
Fourthly, the Arab reform process unfolding in many Arab countries not only seeks to rebuild the nation state and reform the economy but also to resurrect the illuminating image of Islam.
Given that Arabs are the speakers of the language of the Quran, they have both the credibility and the knowledge that enables them to stand at the forefront of global resistance against terrorism and extremism.
Fifthly, the Arabs are not, as has been claimed, “the exception” to global development and progress. What they have undergone has been experienced by other countries that have developed and progressed at varying rates.
Perhaps now is the time to activate Arab soft power, whether through the existing institutions for this purpose, in the Arab League, or through new institutions that may be more dynamic and effective in responding to the changes taking place in Arab countries.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: