Cultural diplomacy: Between politics and entertainment

Gihane Zaki
Tuesday 17 Jan 2023

The roots of political entertainment, a mix of politics and spectacle, can be traced back to ancient Egypt, writes Gihane Zaki


Let us first agree that the experience of being entertained has always been magical, overwhelming, and sensational. This feeling of being “out of this world” for a certain time has also become a necessity for everyone as a result of the stressful life we are living through.

Over recent decades, governments have also strongly associated entertainment with politics, forming a hybrid product called “political entertainment” that aims to retain the basic purposes of entertainment – to boost the public mood through amusement, fun, and laughter, to release the stress of everyday life and ensure the mental well-being of the population, and to promote a healthy lifestyle – while allying these with politics.

The political facet of what scholars have recently dubbed “political entertainment” is strategic and is part of the soft infusion of politics into cultural diplomacy. This trendy form of entertainment unlocks the power of engaging, informing, or persuading mass audiences while offering them a variety of comfortable ways to consume political content.

On a global scale, politics has become increasingly infused with entertainment.  

But what is “entertainment”? The Oxford English Dictionary says the word has a mixed origin, with the first part, inter, coming from Latin and meaning “among” and the second part, tenir, coming from French and meaning “to hold.” As a result, the word literally means “to hold mutually” or “to hold intertwined,” or, in its modern sense, “to engage and keep occupied the attention, thoughts, or time” of a person.” The dictionary also provides synonyms like “merry-making,” “pleasure,” and “delight.”

The Cambridge English Corpus says that “entertainment” is an action providing amusement or diversion delivered especially by performers.

In ancient civilisations, “entertainment” was an important part of a nation’s politics, and it continued over many centuries in various impressive forms such as royal ceremonies, processions, celebrations, religious festivals and other artistic expressions. The roots of political entertainment can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with satire, the earliest known form, being found in literature and the performing arts. Satire was thus the forebear of today’s political entertainment.

Over time, the forms and methods of delivering such entertainment to the population have shifted, sometimes dramatically. But many types of entertaining events still have a serious purpose and can also be seen as expressions of “soft power” that are intended to achieve political objectives and reach national targets in indirect ways.  

At the beginning of the third millennium, the word “entertainment” was also upgraded and given a stand-alone portfolio in government akin to the more traditional “ministry of culture.” The Arab world has become known for its work on the development of this trendy industry, aiming to improve the entertainment and events business as a branch of the economy using tools like marketing, sales, and branding.

In May 2016, with the aim of regulating the entertainment industry, overseeing the development, advancement, and expansion of this new sector, and also seeking to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage, the Saudi government decided to create a new portfolio for entertainment.

A few months before the creation of this Ministry of Entertainment in Saudi Arabia, the UAE had also advanced in a similar direction, though it saw things from a different point of view. In February 2016, a UAE Ministry of State for Happiness and Wellbeing was created to help to achieve a happier society and to create greater social good and satisfaction.

The announcement was made by UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum through his Twitter account when he nominated Ohoud Al-Roumi as the first minister, guaranteeing the first steps on this new social path.

One question that may come to mind as a result of these developments is whether entertainment can harm the deeper meaning of culture.


ENTERTAINMENT OR CULTURE: Without many of us realising it, entertainment is everywhere in the world today. It pervades our daily lives, impacts our perceptions of things, and affects our social attitudes, as well as making the world around us smaller and closer.

Social media, cinema, television, advertising, and other similar industries provide a large part of our leisure activities. There is no doubt that the entertainment and mass media that we encounter every day influence how we behave or act in certain ways. Their rapid development has become a source of controversy, triggering debates about their potentially negative impacts upon societal standards and on fundamental ideas such as the idea of beauty.

Moreover, our values have been modified as a result of the spread of entertainment, and our perceptions of the real meaning of culture seem to have been especially susceptible. The pivotal question is whether there is a difference between culture and entertainment.

The word entertainment seems to be well-defined, while the word culture, on the other hand, has had a wide range of definitions over time. It is an extremely complex concept, especially in countries having a glorious past that are the cradles of civilisation, meaning that they retain knowledge going back millennia as well as ancient beliefs, artforms, morals, laws and customs, and other habits acquired by people as members of society.

Culture is defined as a set of patterns of human activities within a community or social group and the symbolic structures that give significance to social standards and the tangible and intangible heritage. Recent research has also classified culture as “a psychic defence mechanism” consisting of “learned behaviour” and “ideas in the mind,” immediately recalling the importance of education in shaping the mind and influencing the spirit and giving a role model to individuals, as all infants in the world are born cultureless but later acquire it as a result of their development.

Behaviour, attitudes, values, ideals, and beliefs, as well as motor activity, are all powerfully influenced by culture.

Prominent US leadership expert Anese Cavanaugh has published a book entitled Contagious Culture in which she focuses on how to unlock the power of creativity and the sense of beauty among individuals today. Perhaps the vicissitudes and lessons of history can help us to figure out how culture can shape minds and how cultural events can shape citizenship.  


SHAPING IDENTITY: The influence of culture on shaping identity is an old story.

In the fourth century BCE, the cultural influence of ancient Greece reached its peak in the Mediterranean and beyond. Without a doubt, the main purpose of this was to protect Greek identity, but it also had another purpose in enhancing openness and promoting a new philosophy.

The term used to describe the influence of Greek culture on the peoples the Greeks conquered or interacted with was “Hellenism.” In ancient times, after the eclipse of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, Greek culture, the Greek language, and Greek values significantly impacted the rest of the world. Throughout history, non-Greek peoples have adopted and assimilated ancient Greek values, and Hellenism has been synonymous with cultivated people living according to certain social standards.

Hellenism was also larger than simply the Greek language and culture. It became a part of humanity’s shared heritage.

Much the same thing is true of the “Francophonie” today that goes beyond those men and women who speak French as common language. The term appeared for the first time in around 1880, when French geographer Onésime Reclus used it to designate people and countries speaking French.

Whether we are considering Hellenism in the ancient world or Francophonie today, such cultural standards have affected and continue to affect the rest of the world through culture and entertainment. They also carry with them ways of thinking and acting that go beyond the possession of a common language.

Speakers of such languages enjoy access to an entire mindset and set of cultural attitudes and therefore also share a common ground of values. They have thus been “conquered” by these acquisitions – though in a soft way.


The writer is an MP and member of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee and a researcher at the French National Research Centre CNRS-Sorbonne University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: