Written by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.

The use of soft power has become an important element of China’s foreign policy. In its pivot to the Gulf ,China has used soft-power resources to strengthen its foothold in the region. Qatar is a good case in point.

Educational partnership is perhaps the most apparent element of Chinese soft-power initiatives around the world, including Qatar. As Rasmus Bertelsen argues, educational institutions have become important soft-power sources as they function as bridges between individuals, financial resources and information in their society of origin and their host society. Acknowledging this, China has exerted various efforts to bolster its educational soft-power in Qatar by tethering its aspirations to the worldwide popularity of its language and culture. The Translation and Interpreting Studies (TII) of Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU) signed an MoU with Chinese Embassy in Qatar to collaborate in the areas of language teaching and cultural activities. Today, Chinese courses are being offered at the institution.

In a visit to China last year, the Qatari government conveyed its decision, and reportedly offered a grant of $10m to establishing a Middle East research program, reportedly named the Qatar Middle East Studies Project, to advance Peking University’s ongoing research on the Middle East and Gulf region. The two universities also planned to expand their areas of partnership, including in engineering.

Other efforts are manifest in the form of media partnerships. In recent years, media strategy has become an important part of Beijing’s soft-power endeavours. From the mid-1990s, China has stepped up its external propaganda and has increased its investments in internationalising its media. As David Shambaugh writes, China’s post-Mao international publicity is oriented several objectives, and two of them are; to tell China’s story to international audiences and to pawn what is perceived widely as adverse foreign propaganda, such as the professed China threat theory.

In light of the above, it is already apparent that image management through Beijing-produced media, China has undertaken a systematic effort to establish regular channels of global communication. Among these efforts is establishing partnerships with the world’s major media channels. With Al Jazeera, which has become one of the largest and most influential television channels in the world, Qatar has become Beijing’s main target in its media soft-power strategy. China’s Central Television (CCTV) signed a partnership agreement with Al Jazeera in 2013. Under the agreement, Al Jazeera was also given permission to open a representative office in Beijing. Though there was a controversy which led to its closure, the office was re-opened again in 2014.

Another tool adopted by China to augment its soft power is cultural exchanges. As China’s Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng once declared, culture has become the third pillar of China’s diplomacy. Beijing has been exporting various elements of its culture through an elaborate network of cultural enterprises, interactions, and exchanges. An important cultural initiative has taken place in Qatar, where the Qatar China 2016 Year of Culture is held under the patronage of Qatar Museums’ (QM) Chairperson in partnership with Qatar’s Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Qatar. The initiative is intended to connect the people of Qatar and China through exploring the contemporary and traditional cultures of both countries, through innovative cultural exchange activities, exhibitions, festivals and educational programmes.

The idea of the tie-up was discussed during the Emir’s visit to China last November, and made official in April by Qatar’s Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Dr. Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, when he met with the Asian country’s Cultural Minister Luo Shugang in Beijing. One important highlight of the event is the exhibition What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China, which includes works by 15 contemporary Chinese artists and curated by the famous Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. After his solo exhibition – “Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab” — the word for “mirage” – at Mathaf in 2011, Cai returns to Qatar as a curator to present the exhibition which features the artists and collectives working in a variety of media.

Chinese culture, however, is no stranger to Qatar. In previous years, the “Joy Spring Festival” has annually been celebrated in Qatar. In 2010 dancers from Ningxia came to Doha to stage their performance as part of the Arab culture capital celebrations. This was followed two years later by Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming who opened an exhibition of his paintings which includes portraits of famous individuals in the Arab world. More recently, Chinese a martial arts show was also held at Qatar’s Dragon Mart in early 2015.

Traditional Chinese medicine has become increasingly popular in the country, where numerous clinics can now be found. One reason for its growing popularity, as Qatar University professor Dr. Jacqueline Armijo argues, is that some traditional Chinese medical treatments, particularly cupping or moxibustion (in Arabic al-hijama, or kasat hawa in the traditional Gulf dialect) are perceived as Sunnah (in-keeping with Prophetic teaching).

Although these channels have solidified China’s footprint in Qatar, its influence has been fortified via the presence of Chinese diaspora. As Shaun Breslin contends, with the increasing number of Chinese workers, tourists, students, and businessmen overseas, interactions with local populations play a considerable role in shaping China’s image. Currently, there are approximately 6000 Chinese living in Qatar, and it is reported that the largest group of Chinese diaspora in the country is construction workers. As Chinese enterprises have been conferred for some development projects in Qatar, there is an increasing back-and-forth of Chinese workers, both professionals and non-professionals, to the country. With China’s growing immersion in various fields in Qatar, there has also been an increasing number of Chinese tourists, students, and businessmen.

Acknowledging the importance of people-to-people interactions both countries’ air carriers have increased the number of flights to and from China. The two countries have signed an agreement regulating the employment of Chinese workers in Qatar. In the run-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Doha plans extensive infrastructure constructions and China is expected to use this opportunity to relocate companies and workers to Qatar.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a Ph.D Researcher at the University of Manchester. Image Credit: CC by Juanedc/Flickr.