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UAE and Qatar stake billions in ‘soft power’ showdown

Digital rendering of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum

Dubai, United Arab Emirates | AFP | The opening this week of the glittering Louvre Abu Dhabi museum marks the latest stage in a multi-billion-dollar “soft power” showdown between energy giants Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Culture, media and sports have turned into battlegrounds for branding and global recognition.

“There is certainly competition there for soft power hegemony between the Gulf monarchies,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London, with the Gulf states vying for investments, tourism and branding.

Dubai, the economic capital of the Emirates although not a player in oil production, is ahead of its rivals in the post-hydrocarbon era, having already established itself as a trading, services and tourism hub.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi opening Wednesday is the first of three international museum launches in the Emirati capital, to be followed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, and a Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum.

The UAE, whose political capital is oil-rich Abu Dhabi, covers the size of Scotland with a 10-million population, of whom 12 percent are Emirati nationals.

It is the fourth largest OPEC producer with proven reserves of 98 billion barrels.

A third of the size of Belgium, Qatar has 2.6 million inhabitants, 13 percent of them nationals. It is the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and its reserves rank third after Russia and Iran.

Qatar staked its claim to prominence on the international stage when it was selected in 2010 to host football’s World Cup 2022, but Dubai can boast it has evened the score with its selection in 2013 as host of Expo 2020.

Also in the sports arena, Qatar has since 2011 owned France’s top football club, Paris Saint-Germain, and paid a whopping $460 million in the summer for superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

BeIn Sports, also belonging to Qatar, has exclusive rights to broadcast matches in Europe’s most highly prized leagues, adding to the prestige of Qatar’s often controversial satellite news channel Al Jazeera.

– Global appeal of sports –

The UAE, which in April announced the launch of a “Soft Power Council” as part of efforts to make itself “a global example of prestige and excellence”, has also homed in on the selling power and massive appeal of sports.

Abu Dhabi has since 2009 been a fixture on the F1 Grand Prix circuit of world motor racing, and Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan, a member of its royal family, owns Manchester City, which currently sits on top of the English Premier League.

The name of Dubai’s Emirates airline, as a key sponsor of Arsenal and Real Madrid, is emblazoned across the replica football shirts of millions of fans.

Arsenal’s stadium is also named after the carrier, while the Manchester City ground carries the name of Abu Dhabi’s airline, Etihad.

The UAE-Qatar rivalry has sharpened since June when Abu Dhabi joined a Saudi-led Arab bloc in severing ties with Doha on the accusation that it supports extremist groups, a charge denied by Qatar.

In a war of words last month, Qatar accused the UAE of “petty jealousy” when it appeared to question the legitimacy of awarding the World Cup 2022 to Doha.

Mathieu Guidere, a Middle East expert and professor at the University of Paris, said the crisis in the Gulf showed “the scale of the rivalry between the young princes of the new generation, which is not a good sign for the future of the region.

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