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Pursuing Greater Influence: The GCC States’ Use of Soft Power

Featured speakers: Professor David Des Roches (moderator), Dr. Diana Galeeva, Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Professor Simon Chadwick, and Dr. Paul Michael Brannagan.


The six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have each affirmed the use of “soft power” as an essential part of their overarching national strategies. Soft power, as outlined by American international relations scholar Joseph Nye, refers to the use of diplomatic and cultural tools in order to promote a country’s image abroad and improve its international relationships—usually contrasted with “hard power,” or the pursuit of foreign objectives via direct coercion and military force. Each of the six Gulf states has sought to bolster their international reputations through soft power: each has pursued regional and international mediation efforts, made substantial investments in sports—perhaps best exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s LIV golf tournament and Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup—and highlighted domestic art and cultural programs.

This strategy has clearly had positive impacts for the GCC states’ international relations and their perceptions around the world. However, the use of soft power has also come with controversy. International human rights organizations have accused the six GCC states of using achievement in diplomacy, culture and sports to cover up domestic struggles with political freedoms and labor rights. In particular, the six states’ ambitious sports programs have led to accusations of “sportswashing,” or promoting sports development as a way of distracting from human rights concerns.

What is the status of soft power in the six GCC states? Has it been an effective tool of statecraft? What benefits are associated with the use of soft power? Have there been any drawbacks to its use

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