The war in Ukraine has shaken all aspects of the international order, including well-established alliances and powers that underpin broader global dynamics. GCC-Russia relations have attracted the attention of experts, since this will have direct repercussions for crucial spheres such as the energy market. Most discussions of GCC-Russia relations have focused on bilateral trade of commodities including oil, how this alliance could help both sides overcome Western sanctions However, limited consideration has been given thus far to the role of culture as a soft power tool in fostering bilateral relations between Russia and the GCC. Could culture emerge as an alternate path towards bilateral dialogue? How can both sides draw upon cultural connections to further bilateral cooperation in economic and military spheres?
The article sketches various potential areas of soft power cooperation between Russia and the GCC and outlines how these tools could promote further dialogue. Soft power refers to the ability to use indirect influence, rather than coercion, to achieve one’s objectives, including obtaining desired results through persuasion, agenda-setting, and attraction. Soft power consists of three main nodes: political values, culture, and foreign policy. In explaining how soft power operates, Nye (2004) argued that "co-optive power—the ability to shape what others want—can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture and values.." In other words, a state can attract other nations through utilizing the appeal of its own cultural identity or values. Cultural material can be a unifying factor in developing bilateral cooperation in the fields of heritage, film, education, media, and fashion, among others.
Some GCC states have utilized film festivals and production as an effective soft power tool. The Qatari government has implemented several film initiatives in an effort to cast Qatar as a cultural hub. Qatar hosted an annual film festival in association with Tribeca between 2009 and 2012 and has been reasonably successful in launching a national film industry.
Film production has been cited as a key element of US soft power. Nye draws attention to the importance of cinematic portrayals of US court cases in normalizing the idea of a strong legal system among Chinese viewers. Hollywood has perhaps more influence in China than do US economic or political initiatives. Qatar’s Hollywood is the Doha Film Institute, which describes itself as "dedicated to film appreciation, education, and building a dynamic film industry in Qatar that focuses on nurturing regional storytellers while being entirely global in its scope." The Qatar Film Institute has co-financed movies, including two 2019 Oscar-nominated films, Capernaum and Of Fathers and Sons. A limited number of movies have also been filmed in Qatar. These include Black Gold, which premiered in Doha in 2011 after being partially filmed there, and was held up as an example of Qatar’s filmmaking potential.
Filmmakers in Qatar—or indeed any GCC state—could combine efforts with Russian filmmakers. Given that the 2018 World Cup was held in Russia and the 2022 edition in Qatar, another potential area of focus could be shared sporting traditions and the personal stories of famous athletes. Movies such as Champions and The Legend 17 are quite popular among Russian audiences.
Furthermore, access to international media depends upon the political situation of the country in question. One outcome of the Ukraine war is that US streaming giant Netflix has suspended services in Russia, while the six Gulf states have reportedly warned Netflix over content violating "Islamic values." As a result, Russia and the GCC could develop an alternate streaming service or rely on Shahid services – the largest library of Arabic series, shows and movies, which would bring Russian movies to GCC audiences or even to the wider Arab world. Turkish movies have had great success in both regions. However, Russian viewers’ unfamiliarity with Arab cultural contexts limits the appeal of films produced in the region, while Middle Eastern audiences are similarly unfamiliar with Russian cultural references. A shared movie platform would be an effective soft power tool to build greater cultural familiarity between the two regions.
Cultural heritage is another possible sphere for bilateral cooperation. In recent years, GCC states have built internationally-recognized museums, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi (UAE), Etihad Museum (UAE), the Museum of the Future (UAE), the National Museum of Qatar, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf), and the Katara Cultural Village. GCC states were among the leading buyers in the global art market from the late 2000s to early 2010s.
As Nye explains, some scholars have approached soft power as simply the power of popular culture. However, it would be a mistake to confuse soft power dynamics and the cultural material it sometimes draws upon. For example, the popularity of Pokémon games has not been leveraged by Japan to assist in achieving policy goals. The effectiveness of any power resource depends on the context. Establishing world-class museums does not guarantee Qatar influence in other countries. Indeed, the preservation of culture can be seen as a normal national process, particularly in the context of developing tourism.
Russia and the GCC have effectively employed temporary joint exhibitions for political ends. For example, when Russia celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the official acceptance of Islam by the Volga Bulgars in 2022, it also hosted other exhibitions and cultural initiatives. During the International Scientific Congress "XVIII Faizkhanov Readings," held in Moscow on 1-2 November, 2022, the National Library of Russia also hosted "The East of Ignatius Yulianovich Krachkovsky: Alpha and Omega," an exhibition dedicated to one of the founders of the Soviet school of Arab studies. Likewise, an exhibition entitled "Gardens of Islam: The Light of Faith Through the Ages" aimed to shed light on works of art that depicted historical turning points and key figures in Russian Islam. The latter were presented in two series of portraits: "Muftis of the Russian State: From Empire to Federation," and "Imams of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque." This exhibition took place at the State Central Museum of Contemporary History from 25 November 2022 to 15 January 2023.
The works discussed above, which focus on Islamic heritage and the Muslim world, could be exhibited at prominent museums in the Gulf as either temporary or permanent exhibits. Artifacts which relate to shared Muslim identities could help bring Russia and the GCC closer together. Russia and its cultural capital, St. Petersburg, contain a variety of beautiful architectural styles. The Yusupov palace at Moika combines baroque and rococo styles, but also serves as a soft power tool aimed at Tatars and international tourists. The House of Yusupov is a Russian princely family descended from the monarchs of the Nogai Horde. In this palace, a richly embroidered piece of headgear known as the kalfak is displayed at the center as a reminder of Yusupov family’s Tatar roots. The palace also contains an astonishing Mauritian drawing room, which represents tie with the East. Such spaces could be used as venues for Russia-GCC dialogues or even for potential GCC exhibitions in Russia.
The Tatar kalfak also draws attention to the potential of fashion as another avenue for bilateral collaboration. In my previous article, "‘Made in the GCC’: Dressing abayas around the world- myth or reality?", I examined to how fashion can serve as a soft power tool and provided examples of specific lines created by designers. For example, Dolce & Gabbana recently launched Style Arabia, their first-ever collection of hijabs and abayas. Abayas are a billowy, figure-concealing robe popular in more conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-style abayas could become fashionable among Russian Muslims or could even be adopted as a fashion symbol more generally. Meanwhile, features of Russian Muslim cultural heritage could be also marketed locally or at mega-venues such as the Global Village, a shopping and entertainment destination in Dubai that unites bustling bazaars with breath-taking performances, diverse cuisines, and shopping. Indeed, this site already includes a Russian pavilion.
Further inclusion of Muslim identities, nations, and cultures will contribute to soft power diplomacy. Due to limitations of space, this article has not examined the potential for developing other bilateral ties through education or the media. In the latter case, crossover platforms could be expanded beyond RT Arabic. However, the examples discussed in this article shed light on how soft power could draw upon cultural connections to bring Russia and the GCC closer together and build upon other areas of collaboration.