The Middle East Needs Its Own Soft Power Institution like the British Council

Supporters and promoters of the Arabic language should take note of some enduring developments from the early 20th century. For out of the cauldron of imperialism and war came the seeds of world-culture formation.

Start with Britain. By 1934, a worldwide financial depression had undermined trade and living standards. Competing ideologies were on the rise, with communism flourishing in Russia and fascism erupting in Germany, Italy and Spain. Another world war was only five years away. But even as it set about rearming, the British government created what would become the archetypal weapon of soft power. The British Committee for Relations with Other Countries was created to build “friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries … creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust.” Eighty-five years on, we know it as the British Council.

It isn’t alone. Germany has its Goethe-Institut, forging “partnerships…in over 90 countries [to] create enduring trust in Germany.” Italy’s Dante Alighieri Society works to “promote…Italian language and culture throughout the world” and the Institut Français “promotes French culture internationally.” Joining these in 2004 was the Confucius Institute, whose aim is to promote the Chinese language and China’s culture. Plans are to have up to 1,000 Confucius Institutes by next year.

Together, these government-funded organizations reach tens of millions of people each year, pursuing the central mission of strengthening their national economies by reinforcing the importance of their respective languages.

So where in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century is the voice of Arabia?

The British Council and others were born in a world defined by European colonialism. Today, the influence of those once great powers is waning and in this new world the growing influence of the Gulf states is undeniable.

Oil wealth has been intelligently exploited to begin diversification away from reliance on fossil fuels. Today, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are engaged and invested around the world.

This influence is advancing on all fronts. This month thousands of athletes from 190 countries descended on Abu Dhabi for the Special Olympics World Games, the first held in the region. Next year, the ranks of millions of tourists who already throng to Dubai annually will be swollen by some 25 million visitors to Expo 2020, the first staged in the Arab world.

In the UK, Arabic is now being promoted as one of the most important languages needed to plug a national skills gap estimated by a parliamentary review to be costing 3.5 percent of GDP. A report from the British Council itself lists Arabic as one of five languages the UK needs most. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, meanwhile, regards Arabic as one of a handful of essential languages for its diplomats.

Arabic is on the cusp of becoming a global language. What better time, then, for it to find its voice in world affairs and carry the educational, cultural and linguistic beacon to the West?

The Arab world needs its own “British Council” to promote the language and reinforce its growing importance. The days have gone – or should have – when English-speaking businesspeople could visit the region and expect the locals to speak their language. But this is not about pride. Instead, it is a pragmatic reinforcing of the importance of the Arab world, and word, in the modern era.

To be sure, institutions like the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Center for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, established in 1994 in Beijing, do exist. Since its founding, the Sheikh Zayed Center has trained over 1,000 students in Arabic. But to maximize its impact, any future globally dispersed “Arabic Council” should be broadly based. The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council would make obvious founding partners, but a pan-Arab council would also gain much from the inclusion of nations such as Egypt and Iraq, responsible for many cultural and social developments that have enriched the world.

Modern Arabia lacks a true and coherent voice and image in the West, which in turn lacks true understanding of the Arab world, which frequently is portrayed in the Western media in only negative ways.

This must stop. Misunderstandings about Arabia and Islam have plagued relations between the region and the wider world or decades, with catastrophic consequences. As the Arab world moves front and center, it is no longer enough simply to shrug. Arabia must make its case and what better way to do so than by taking a leaf out of the playbook of the British Council?

The council, seen as a vital weapon in the UK government’s armory, has offices in over 100 countries, including three each in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and others throughout the region. Each is focused on the reinforcement of British influence through the promotion of the English language, arts and culture. Last year, worldwide the council reached more than 758 million people, either directly or through online initiatives, broadcasts and publications.

In a 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review, the UK government pledged it would “further enhance our position as the world’s leading soft power promoting our values and interests globally with our world-class diplomatic service … and institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council.”

The Gulf can afford to wield such soft power, but it cannot afford not to. When millions come to Dubai next year, at the heart of Expo 2020 they will find the World Majlis, a “space for respectful yet inclusive dialogs [that] aims to start a global conversation on topics of great significance for our times.”

The Majlis is an ancient concept in Arab society, a word loosely synonymous with “council” but rich with cultural resonance. What better word to hang above the doors of hundreds of “Arabic Council” buildings around the world, each offering lessons in Arabic alongside social and cultural engagements designed to shine a light on the values of the true Arabia, in the process building cultural and social bridges that the world so badly needs.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.