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Fly Emirates: How the UAE Used the Airline Industry to Build Soft Power

Since the Ruler of Dubai, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, helped launch the United Arab Emirates’ “Vision 2021,” a blueprint for the country’s economic and social reforms, Dubai has actively pursued economic diversification strategies. While oil revenues still make up 1% of the UAE’s GDP, successful diversification efforts have reduced this number significantly from 25-30 years ago, when oil accounted for almost half of the emirate’s GDP.

A major part of the UAE’s diversification strategy has been a focus on the tourism industry, which has grown to represent 11.6% of the UAE’s GDP. Dubai recognized the sector’s potential to improve its future prosperity, and has utilized “destination branding” strategies to attract both international business and leisure travelers. The emirate has also invested heavily in its airlines, airports, and connecting infrastructure with the goal of making itself into a global connectivity hub for international events such as the World Expo in 2021-2022 and the upcoming COP28 environmental summit in Dubai.

Established in 1985 and headquartered in Dubai, “Emirates Airlines,” the UAE’s flagship airline and one of its two flag carriers alongside Etihad, acts as a global ambassador for Dubai and the UAE—not only through its far-reaching flight schedule and wide range of destinations, but also through sponsorships of major football clubs such as Arsenal, AC Milan, and Real Madrid, and sporting events such as the PGA Tour, ATP tennis events, and the Dubai World Cup of horseracing. The emirate’s strategy is to leverage the name it has made for itself as a world-class destination into so-called “soft power,” defined as a country’s ability to influence others through attraction, persuasion, and cultural appeal rather than through coercive military or economic means. The strategy seems to be working; in the 2023 Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index, the UAE was ranked in the top ten.

Emirates Airlines is an integral part of Abu Dhabi’s efforts in this regard. “Aviation diplomacy,” a form of soft power, can be understood in reference to promoting and projecting national identity. Emirates carries the UAE’s flag around the world and serves as a driver of public diplomacy. Similarly, Dubai’s main airport—a layover stop for many travelers between Europe, Africa, and Asia—helps to brand the city as modern and world-class. In this way, Emirates Airlines has become an important conduit in building the international image of the country. The airline is an example of the judicious use of soft power, and has transformed into a carrier with a global identity.

The Making of a Modern Hub 

An integral part of tourism is the airline industry, and the Emirati government has invested heavily in building world-class airports and airlines that not only bring people to the country but also bolster its international reputation. In 2023, Dubai International Airport (DXB) was recognized as the world’s best airport, according to the Business Traveler Middle East Awards; it is anticipated to welcome 83.6 million passengers in 2023, an 1800% percent growth from 1988. Moreover, according to the 2019 OAG Megahubs Index—which ranks airports and airlines based on their connectivity and the number of connections they provide—Dubai Airport topped the ranking in the Middle East and Africa, with a connectivity index of 168. Dubai’s strategic location between continents makes it an ideal layover point for many long-haul flights. Around 80 percent of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight of Dubai, making it a transfer point accessible to nearly everyone.

Adjacent to Jebel Ali is Al Maktoum International Airport, a major cargo airport and among the largest air cargo facilities in the world. The UAE’s logistical infrastructure provides “frictionless” movement of cargo, distinguishing it from other ports in the Middle East that face significant bureaucratic and political challenges. The UAE’s ability to sustain its role as a “nexus state,” as Christian Henderson, a Middle East scholar from Leiden University, has described it, relies on its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in the global economy. During the height of the COVID pandemic, Emirates aircraft bereft of passengers were converted into cargo planes, and the airport became an air hub for the shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines in specially designed containers.

Building Influence Through ‘Affordable Luxury

Emirates Airlines enjoys significant competitive advantages over other international airlines. Because of the UAE’s abundance of oil and government support, Emirates has a lower fuel cost than competing airlines, and Dubai keeps its airport charges lower for its flag carriers than its competition. Emirates’ non-unionized workforce not only keeps labor costs low, but also reduces the chance of strikes interrupting flight schedules.

The flexibility of Emirates schedule also gives the airline an advantage. There are no night curfew rules in Dubai, so passengers can choose from flights at any time of day or night. This unrestricted schedule empowers the airline to offer an extensive network of connecting flights, reducing layover times and enhancing the overall travel experience for its customers. As a result, Emirates Airlines can offer competitive fares, maintain high profitability, and invest in enhancing customer experience and expanding their global network.

One of Emirates most prominent soft power tools is its extensive sponsorship deals with major football clubs. The airline “invests some $300 million per year into the brand building through advertising in their foreign destinations and also in significant sports sponsorships,” according to Lohmann et al. Through its partnerships with top clubs like Arsenal FC and Real Madrid, Emirates gains valuable exposure to a global audience, ingraining Dubai into the minds of millions of sports enthusiasts worldwide. The airline’s—and by extension the nation’s—association with prestigious football clubs amplifies its brand, fostering positive perceptions and generating goodwill towards Dubai and the UAE.

Furthermore, Emirates Airlines has taken several measures to provide “accessible luxury” to international travelers. On their flights, they offer high-quality dining experiences, a wide selection of alcoholic beverages, and state-of-the-art entertainment; in airports around the globe, the airline has lounges for its first- and business-class travelers, as well as loyalty club members. Emirates also offers various layover programs for travelers with long transit times. They provide complimentary accommodation, meals, and visas to passengers with long layovers, encouraging them to explore the city during their stay.

The Branding of Dubai: Bigger, Better, Bolder

In addition to developing its airport capabilities and hosting international events, Dubai has proactively engaged in destination branding strategies to transform its global image. The city has positioned itself as a prominent international hub that is an exciting destination for business and tourism. Dubai has indoor attractions such as Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates, outdoor entertainment venues, and cultural attractions such as the Museum of the Future.

With over 40 malls, Dubai has also marketed itself as a major shopping and tourist destination. The city has launched festivals such as Emirates Holidays, Dubai Shopping, and Dubai Summer Surprises to encourage more spending in its retail stores. They have also leveraged social media, highlighting the extravagant experiences of celebrities such as international football players Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, and Mohammed Salah who visit Dubai.

To advance its destination-branding strategy, Dubai has emphasized an approach that advertises the world’s “biggest” and “best” in every possible category. Examples of this approach include the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping center; the Palm Fountain, the world’s largest seawater fountain; and DXB, the world’s busiest airport by volume of international travelers. Cornelia Zeineddine, a researcher for the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, indicates that the destination branding strategy has largely “cemented its brand of superlatives in estate and luxury tourism.”

Another compelling factor that contributes to Dubai’s international appeal is its embrace of cultural diversity and openness to foreign cultures. The country “began to forge and wield tolerance as a geopolitical tool—in most cases used to support its soft power goals” in the mid-2010s. In 2016, the UAE cabinet issued its National Tolerance Program, and Abu Dhabi has followed this up by holding the first World Tolerance Summit in 2018 and declaring 2019 the Year of Tolerance in the UAE.

Dubai hopes to build on the success of Expo when it hosts COP28 in December 2023. The conference will bring together world leaders, climate change experts, and non-governmental organizations to discuss environmental policy, offering the city and the country an opportunity to strengthen its foreign relations and global influence. This type of global connectivity would not be possible if Dubai had not preemptively invested large sums in airports and related infrastructure.

The UAE has established itself as a leading destination through the implementation of effective destination branding and the development of world-class airports, airlines, and transportation infrastructure. By embracing diverse cultures and promoting tolerance, it has significantly amplified its global influence.

By strategically prioritizing its aviation sector, Dubai has emerged as a global hub, appealing to international travelers and business. Dubai’s reputation has been further bolstered through the hosting of prestigious events such as Expo 2020 and the upcoming COP28. These events allow the country’s leadership to build influence through non-political means, and position the UAE, a relatively small country, as a strong user of soft power.

Other cities and airlines around the world are also striving to become major travel hubs. Competing airports, such as Doha’s Hamad International Airport, and airlines, such as Qatar Airways, as well as airlines from the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, are all vying for a share of the aviation and tourism market. Overcapacity on certain routes can lead to fare wars and reduced profitability. Thus, in order to maintain its leading position and distinctiveness in comparison to regional rivals, Dubai must consistently host larger and more prominent events. These events not only bolster Dubai’s global visibility but also enhance its competitiveness as a premier travel destination. By offering a diverse range of world-class events, from international conferences and exhibitions to cultural festivals and sporting spectacles, Dubai will ensure a dynamic and ever-evolving appeal that draws both business and leisure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: UAE

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Dr. Kristian Alexander is a senior fellow and director of the International Security & Terrorism Program at Trends Research & Advisory in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Zachery Kennedy is an MA student in Political Science and Public Affairs at Saint Louis University, Madrid, Spain. He was an intern at Trends Research & Advisory, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during the summer semester of 2023.


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