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Conference Report
British Cultural Diplomacy in the Gulf
From the 1950’s until the 1970’s
Luigi Gaspardone

On Wednesday, 19 June, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) hosted Dr Gerald Power, professor of Anglophone studies at the Metropolitan University of Prague who presented his research — in collaboration with EGIC — into the role of British cultural diplomacy in the Arab Gulf from the 1950’s until the 1970’s.


Power aims to shed light on a little-known page of British history, which concerns a (then) peripheral area of the British Empire, which quickly embraced the path of modernisation and progress and is now the economic pivot of the Middle East. Specifically, Power’s purpose was to explore the role of education and culture in shaping UK-Arab relations in the wake of the British withdraw East of Suez in 1971. To do so, Power investigated the archives and records of the British Council’s venues in the Gulf—the UK’s cultural missions.


According to Power, two main concepts emerge. The first is British exceptionalism in managing  international affairs. This is characterised by a pioneering instinct and independence—a tendency confirmed by the current Brexit saga. The second concept is that post-World War II Great Britain was a power in decline, increasingly incapable of protecting and controlling its larger Empire after the 1960’s.


Interestingly, it was during the 1960’s that the global perception of the Arab Gulf changed sharply and Power identified three interlinked dynamics that positively shocked the Gulf: expanded oil production, the ‘modernisation’ of government and society and the opening of the Gulf to the outside world. Albeit with different degrees of success, the region experienced a period of prosperity. The first Emirate that undertook the path of innovation — culminating in its independence in 1961 — was Kuwait, the country that was focused on in this part of Power’s research. 


During this period, the British understood that they needed the local leaders’ endorsements and cooperation more than the Arab leaders needed the British. Together with the political, social and economic transformations, the dispute over Israel and the Suez crisis, much of the Arab world experienced waves of social demands, cosmopolitanism and the germination of international political ideas. Among these, the most dangerous for the British, was Arab nationalism (re: pan-Arabism), born in Egypt and proliferated through the region. A newly established middle class was gaining ground in the Gulf, many were foreigners coming from Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese and Iraqi families. The ideas they brought, the clubs and societies they founded, politicised  young generations of Arabs that began to assemble in political groups and that accused their governments of being puppets of a colonial power.


The fear of revolution and the resultant instability was concrete. This was highlighted by several UK ambassadors to the Gulf in their memoirs. They worried that the cultural war against Egypt for the control of the region was being lost. The British concluded that their traditional approach to maintaining their national interests in the region — providing military aid, and government support and advisory — was no longer adequate. Therefore, a great amount of resources, investments and attention was devoted to culture, education and public relations. Accordingly, the permanent Kuwaiti British Council opened in 1954, which also constituted the central base from where to reach Qatar and Bahrain.


The purpose of the Council was to improve the UK’s image in the eyes of the Gulf Arabs—to build cultural bridges among the two. Activities ranged from English language teaching, scholarships to meritorious students, the organisation of artistic events and, additionally, the British offered assistance to governments, institutions and cultural associations when necessary.


Power questioned the effectiveness of the British Council’s work in the Gulf during the 1950’s and 1960’s; up to the last years before the UK’s withdraw from East of Suez. There is no definitive answer to this question, however, the use of soft power served as an alternative way to establish contacts with Gulf populations that otherwise would have experienced only the British military presence, oil company representatives and British contracting firms. The use of institutional cultural diplomacy helped the UK foster deeper relations with the Arab Gulf. Today, Gulf relations with the UK continue to be stronger than ties with any other European power.


EGIC will continue to host Dr Gerald Power for the next years as part of his wider research into the history of UK-Gulf relations. Stay tuned for the next chapter and the next event.

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