The rise of digital economic diplomacy


After weeks of hard work and preparations, we were a week away from the Global Forum for Agricultural Innovation (GFIA), an agricultural trade fair that takes place annually in Abu Dhabi. We had been building momentum towards this event, planning a large incoming horticulture mission from the Netherlands, energized by a previous visit during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) in Jan 2020. Unfortunately, we had to hit the brakes just a week before the planned event and incoming trade mission. As many can probably relate, it’s rather odd to lay blame solely on a virus, but it was true. COVID-19 had officially began disrupting our 2020 plans.

Like dominoes, we witnessed one exhibition, conference, event and meeting being postponed or cancelled after the next. Perhaps the biggest wrench thrown into our 2020 plans was the postponement of Expo 2020 by one year. No doubt, it was a wise and balanced decision, but a challenge nonetheless.

Faced with so much uncertainty, how do we continue the valuable work we do? How do we evolve diplomacy, be it economic, public or otherwise?

Diplomacy, at the heart of it, is the crisscrossing paper-cup-phones that we often played with as children. It is about maintaining channels of communication, strengthening relationships, and increasing cooperation towards common objectives and goals. While diplomacy is unquestionably made easier with the shake of a hand, sharing a cup of coffee, or breaking bread together – COVID-19 has certainly awoken us to the opportunities of “digital diplomacy”.

But perhaps we need to take a step back and ask some important questions first:

  1. What is “digital diplomacy”?
  2. Is it something that’s even new?
  3. Is it always a good thing?

In a nutshell, digital diplomacy is the digitization of the various activities performed under the diplomacy umbrella, including political diplomacy, public diplomacy, economic diplomacy along with a whole range of other “diplomacies”.

The digitization of diplomacy has in fact been taking place for quite some time now, evolving alongside social media. This is especially true for political and public diplomacy, while digitization in economic diplomacy is only just now beginning to take off.

With public diplomacy, communication, which was once one-directional and through limited channels, has now evolved significantly and become more online. Through social media, governments, via their representatives, institutions, embassies etc. began communicating directly with the public, reaching a much broader audience than before. This is undoubtedly a positive development.  The digital shift has allowed for greater transparency, accountability, and access – with citizens being able to reach out to their representatives and vice-versa. Looking at COVID-19, the ability of government institutions to pass on useful information and updates to the public on new rules and regulations, testing, repatriation etc. highlights the benefits of having greater engagement.

The digitization of political diplomacy on the other hand, may have taken a darker turn. While foreign policy positions have become more transparent than ever, it might not necessarily be a good thing. Moving conversations that usually took place behind closed doors to the public social media arena has in many cases eroded the meaningful and constructive dialogue within and between nations. “Twitter diplomacy” is a good example of this, whereby statements are sensationalized for public appeal, and bilateral relations are reduced to a game of individual ego and machoism.

This finally brings us to economic diplomacy, which has experienced the most lag when it comes to digitization – up until now that is. While many digital tools have emerged over the past 20 years that can facilitate trade and business, it remained largely traditional, with bilateral trade meetings having continued to take place in person and trade missions rooted in physical conferences and exhibitions. The majority of government instruments that support business development, internationalization and export remained physical in nature – just like the GFIA exhibition we were working towards. However, like many other areas in today’s world, economic diplomacy was also ripe for disruption, and nothing could have been more disruptive than COVID-19.

So how do we evolve economic diplomacy? Especially in these turbulent times when people, businesses, and the whole world is looking to their governments for leadership and guidance. It is a difficult question to answer, especially from the microcosm of a single Embassy. Nevertheless, I do believe that we’re on the right track. As businesses and organizations globally adjust, re-evaluate their business models and prepare for a post-corona world, we too are having our moment of introspection.

It would be wrong to suggest that every human interaction can be reduced to a digital equivalent, especially in diplomacy. Moreover, digital fatigue is a serious issue that many of us are facing. Still, what we’ve been able to accomplish to date is truly impressive. We’ve continued to maintain our core services and are even challenging ourselves to push beyond.

Though we are still experimenting based on our own experience and emerging best practices, below is a snapshot of what we’ve accomplished so far:

  1. Enhancing our economic bilateral cooperation
    • Development of Joint Economic Committee between the Netherlands and the UAE
    • Held multiple video calls with ministries and ministers on areas of strategic cooperation such as food security, culture and education
  1. Maintaining and expanding our local network
    • Reaching out to local companies and organizations that can partner with Dutch businesses and knowledge institutes
    • Partnering with other organizations where possible to improve our services and reduce redundancy (i.e. partnerships with the Netherlands Business Council and BeNeLux Business Council in the UAE)
  2. Checking up on Dutch companies in the country
    • Carrying out calls, video calls and virtual roundtables to see how companies are doing, understand their concerns/priorities, and support them where possible
    • Sharing information on economic stimulus measures in the Netherlands and Gulf countries
  3. Supporting small and medium sizes enterprises (SMEs) in the Netherlands
    • Raising awareness on market opportunities in the Gulf region through a series of webinars on: food security, water technology, clean energy, logistics, health care and beyond
    • Organizing virtual match-making sessions between Dutch SMEs, Dutch industry associations and local stakeholders
    • Developing an energy technology portal showcasing Dutch innovations to be used for export promotion

Our colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Enterprise Agency (RVO) in the Hague, are continuously collecting best practices and cooking up new ideas and tools for enhancing our economic diplomacy. Like the Kickstarter voucher developed by RVO to support Dutch SMEs whose international activities have been impacted by the Corona crisis.

While some of these measures are temporary due to COVID-19, the vast majority are not. The world is undoubtedly in a period of transition, including how we do business and facilitate it. However, one thing is certain, digital economic diplomacy is here to stay.

Do you have any ideas on how to expand and further develop digital diplomacy? Please let us know, and share your suggestions!

Author: Omar Saif, Regional Advisor on Water-Energy-Food Nexus Gulf Region – in collaboration with the Economic Departments in Abu Dhabi & Dubai