Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The New Race for Contemporary Arts Dominance in the Middle East

| October 2018

A new war is brewing in the Middle East in the fields of art and culture. Following years of instability and ethnic strife in the Middle East and the security consequences of the Arab Spring, Green Revolution, and the Islamic State, the traditional Middle East art leaders in Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus have taken a backseat to the Gulf States.

The region’s traditionally conservative Gulf monarchies have bolted on to the scene, with an explosion of capital investment in museums, airports, architecture, art shows, and universities, to the tune of billions of dollars. Their aspirations are fueled by a competition to become the contemporary art and culture hub of the Middle East.

These projects are being driven by a combination of societal prestige, enrichment, education, and economic diversification. If successful, these projects can increase high end tourism creating positive ripple effects inside local economies. Some observers see expression for youth as a deterrent to Islamic Terrorist groups. Local contemporary artists have emerged such as Ahmad Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem (Saudi); Abdullah al Saadi and Hassan Sharif (Emirati); Wadha al Suleati, Sophia al Maria, and Wafika Sultan al-Essa (Qatari).

Dima Abdul Kader, the Co-founder of emergeast, an online art gallery promoting and selling artworks from the Middle East’s rising artists told me:

“The arts and culture movement in the Middle East has taken a front seat in the quest for societal growth. Whether grassroots or institutional, each country endeavors to cement an arts and culture framework as a core fundamental of the respective social fabric for generations to come. Collectively, the Middle East as a region possesses potential to become a leading player in the arts and culture industry in the next decade.”

Whether it is the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, or the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, each Gulf country is involved. Cultural diplomacy is being utilized to secure commitments from Western institutions, galleries, and architects. Much like a Western political campaign, each country has invested heavily to sign up art endorsements from influential art figures and institutions in the West. Typically, once a Western country forms a relationship in the Gulf, it stays exclusively with its partner state.

Michael Macaulay, Senior Vice President of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s told me:

“From the Museum of Islamic Art and National Museum in Doha, to the Museum of the Future and The Ethiad Museum in Dubai, The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, to the immense development of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the sheer scale of museum evolution in the region over the past decade is utterly unprecedented.

The monumental ambition of these projects presents vast challenges as well as considerable risks. Of course there have been a number of high-profile and well-publicized acquisitions of major artworks and artifacts at the highest institutional level, but wider collecting trends are evidently burgeoning throughout the region.

Although Sotheby’s has been providing services to clients in the Middle East for over 40 years, in the past five years they have seen a 30% increase in the number of buyers from the region, who have cumulatively spent $830 million in worldwide auctions in that period. In the global field of Contemporary Art these somewhat more domestic behaviors are significant as eventually private philanthropy can define a more universal cultural legacy. Many of the great museums in the United States, for example, are entirely defined by what were once the discreet and often eccentric habits of private collectors. We are manifestly at the earliest possible beginnings of an era of ‘culture-creation’ in the Middle East, which is already redefining the identity and role of the museum. However, beyond the spectacle of fabled masterpieces in architects’ palatial halls, acting as brand ambassadors and beacons for global tourism, the seed of enduring cultural legacy is surely rather growing in the regions’ galleries, art fairs and auctions.”

Since 2000, the UAE has been busy creating a vast arts scene filled with new museums, collectors, and pavilions. The three largest emirates have each adopted their own distinct strategy.

International renowned collector and gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac noted that “the UAE activity has provided an important impetus for the entire region.” In the capital Abu Dhabi, the focus is on museums, international relationships, and long-term economic planning. These global collaborations include the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum, and the British Museum up until 2017 when the collaboration ended.

Ropac commented that “Abu Dhabi has made a name for itself in the field of museum architecture, submitting a successful concept for the museum island. The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi is impressive, not only in its architecture, but also with its multidisciplinary program, which ranges from Islamic art and archaeology to European art, covering all centuries, right up to contemporary art. The focus there is on a museum culture that on the one hand serves education, and on the other represents the backbone of a new generation of culturally open-minded people."

At its November 2017 launch, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid declared the Louvre Abu Dhabi “an architectural masterpiece, a cultural icon, and an artistic platform that combines East and West,” showcasing firmly the UAE’s brand of religious and cultural tolerance. Once inside, the exhibition of the Greco-Roman nude sculptures and the jewel-like samples of the Three Holy Books symbolizes religious tolerance.

“The Card Players,” oil painting by the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, early 1890s.

The Card Players, oil painting by the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, early 1890s.

Dubai’s financial status has conferred a number of benefits in the contest, giving rise to a developing commercial art scene, alongside the Museum of the Future - an incubator for futuristic innovation - the Jameel Arts Center, and the Etihad Museum. Ropac observed that “Dubai has managed to create a very open climate for galleries, and also, above all, for artists. Over ten years ago, we were already able to show several artists from Iran in Paris, including the Haerizadeh Brothers. For political reasons, they were no longer able to return to Iran, and they now live in Dubai, in an open artistic climate which allows them freedom in their work and exchange of ideas with other artists.” As an expression of the culture, emotion, and the mind, art fundamentally depends on the values of individuality and open mindedness that Dubai has worked carefully to cultivate.

In contrast to the top-down approach pursued by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sharjah deepens its engagement in arts and culture with a bottom up approach, connecting local creators with international audiences. In Sharjah, we have seen the creation of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization (opened June 2008), Sharjah Heritage Museum (opened in 2005, renovated and re-opened in 2012), and Sharjah Art Foundation’s Biennial. The Barjeel Art Foundation collection has been housed since May 2018 at the Sharjah Art Museum (a separate entity founded in 1997) under a five year agreement.

The ruling family of Sharjah has been intimately involved in all of these cultural efforts. The emirate’s ruler, Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, has driven the construction of numerous museums and art institutes for decades, while his daughter, Sheikha Hoor, has followed in his footsteps, helping to run the Biennale, which featured the private art collection of influential art patron Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.

Ropac noted that “Sharjah has established itself in the top league of major exhibitions, with its own Biennial, founded in 1993. As director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi is incredibly committed and personally involved in the choice of curators as well as in local support for the artists. It was in Sharjah that I first came across important artists such as Imran Qureshi from Pakistan with whom we are continuously working together ever since.”

The art narratives across each emirate are bound together by a desire to engender unique and enriching experiences for local audiences and to create a setting that is culturally rich, intellectually engaged, and connected to the global art world.

The UAE has provided internationally renowned artists with a canvas for decades, long before the current struggle for cultural influence. When they visited Abu Dhabi in 1979, the husband-wife team of Christo and Jeanne Claude conceived a massive sculpture project which they called Mastaba to be built in the spectacular sand dunes of Abu Dhabi. The Mastaba, Project for Abu Dhabi is to be made from 410,000 multi-colored barrels to form a mosaic of bright and sparkling colors echoing Islamic architecture. Shifting originally from the Empty Quarter - the vast desert stretching across the Arabian Peninsula - Christo has now set his eyes on Al Ain, the ancestral homeland of the ruling Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi and known internationally as “The Garden City of the Gulf.” In addition, Christo is keen on realizing the Mastaba project because it is the last project he conceived with his wife Jean Claude before she died in 2009.

While the Abu Dhabi Project has yet been realized, Christo, during this summer 2018, has pulled off a scaled down version of the Abu Dhabi Mastaba in a floating structure in London's Serpentine Lake called The London Mastaba. This structure is a 600 ton pyramid-like form that glows red-orange consisting of rows of 55 gallon barrels laid end to end to comprise 90 foot long flanks sloping at a 60 degree angle, each cylindrical container colored with identical bands of red and white.

Though the theme of oil barrels appeals to Gulf audiences, the Mastaba also conjures up notions of pharaonic structure and wealth determination that can resonate across the Arab World, from Casablanca to Karbala. Alongside the success of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Mastaba may be the key for the UAE to secure artistic dominance in the region.

Hanan Sayed Worrell, a Senior Representative for Abu Dhabi’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, emphasized that “the UAE offers a rare confluence of resources, vision, and a young population - attributes that have and will contribute to its growth as a cultural force. The contemporary art scene in the UAE is equally conscious of its responsibility to local audiences and its ability to connect with a much larger global community.”

Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, said that she is “proud to be a supporter of this thriving art scene that emulates a good gender balance in many of its aspects. “What is so wonderful about the cultural sector is that it all boils down to talent. Talent, and not gender, is what should define you in the art world.”

Michael Jeha, Managing Director and Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Middle East told me:

“In less than 15 years the Middle East has developed a very active cultural scene, including all aspects from opera houses and galleries to museums and performances. There is a much greater emphasis on art as strategic vision for all Middle Eastern countries that can be detected. Christie’s arrived 13 years ago into the region – it was a very forward-thinking decision made by our management at the time – and within a year we had opened an office and held the first ever art auction in the region.

Since then, we have helped many regional artists to become recognized by a much wider audience. At the time of our first auction, there were only about 5 galleries were active in the UAE, and no museums or art fairs had been founded. This has dramatically changed over a very short period, and most importantly, many more people are now able to appreciate museums, galleries and art as a whole.”

'Untitled Lamp Bear' by Swiss artist Urs Fischer

Untitled Lamp Bear by Swiss artist Urs Fischer. (Courtesy of the author)

While the art competition in the Gulf has been heating up over the last few years, it has been given an extra element of fierceness due to the Qatar diplomatic rift that pitted Doha against its Gulf neighbors in June 2017. Over the last decade, in Doha, we have seen the creation of Qatar Museums with Qatar Museums Authority, Museum of Islamic Art, National Museum of Qatar, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, ALRIWAQ, and Katara. Some of Qatar’s efforts, observers note, have been fueled by competition with the UAE. Qatar is estimated to spend about a billion dollars per year on art.

But for Qatar, it may be about something entirely different and some observers in the region question whether Qatar is competing against UAE and Saudi Arabia for arts and cultural dominance. The Museum of Islamic Art opened a full decade before the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Some observers note that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a response to Museum of Islamic Art, but Qatar certainly wasn’t thinking of the Museum of Islamic Art as a competition with anyone. For Qatar, it’s about showcasing and continuing Arab Identity. The challenge for Qatar, and the reason they’ve developed so differently from the UAE, is how to become a modern country without adopting Western Culture.

Qatar brought Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) - the first public art university - to Doha in 2004, not as a trophy, but to develop their own artists. VCU now holds in Richmond, Virginia an annual Islamic Art Symposium. Some observers in the region note that the Qataris are not competing for the same art and culture trophies as the Emiratis and Saudis. The Gulf sees art as an imperative part of the culture and society they are building. The Qataris, while certainly buying a few trophies that attract tourists, are mainly funding efforts that give voice to Arabs in art, film, architecture, and education.

Much like its rival, Qatar has embraced personal relationships to advance its prestige. As the UAE has invested capital into architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster, Doha has embraced Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Richard Serra, Urs Fischer, and architects like I.M. Pei. The airport in Doha installed a huge yellow teddy bear, designed by Urs Fischer, symbolizing happiness, contentment, and safety. (Note: Architect Zaha Hadid designed a 2022 Qatar World Cup stadium, unveiled in 2013 and well before the Qatar blockade.) According to Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "of all the forms of competition between the Gulf States, from economic to military, diplomatic architectural, my preferred manifestation is the competition to collect art, especially that which originates in the Middle East which is in dire need of preservation."

Museum of Islamic Art

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. (William G. Rich)

By investing in art and culture, the Gulf states are crafting a sense of historical prestige and a cultural narrative for their local citizens and visitors to feel and bring home. These narratives not only evoke the past, but also communicate a vision of where each country is heading and do so from a position of strength. The contest for art dominance captures the sentiment that these states have learned: control of the narrative confers true cultural power.

Contemporary art and geopolitics are intertwined and are both explicitly and implicitly enlisted for political, societal, economic, diplomatic, and international relations. The changing position of art and culture embodies the Gulf’s traditional role as a global crossroads and its dynamic future ahead. The scale of culture-creation - ambition, conception, organization, and execution - has been utterly unprecedented and Gulf States have been using Museum diplomacy to shape their agenda.

The race for art dominance in the Middle East will continue over the next several years. Each Gulf capital will continue competing with infusions of capital for public and private art purchases to shape its cultural narrative. Whether the billions of investments in art will provide for an alternative future beyond oil, boost local tourism and economic figures, or help provide Gulf youth with new forms of expression as a shield against Islamic terrorist movements, it is necessary to watch the art landscape and its impact on geopolitics and Arab identity for the region. The question that lies ahead is how these large investments in art can translate into geopolitical strength, security, stability, and identity in one of the most dynamic and competitive parts of the globe.

Uniquely, the Qataris understood the branding of owning great masterpieces. In recent years, Doha has displayed a Richard Serra sculpture “East-West/West-East” that stands miraculously erect in the desert. According to the 2014 New Yorker article on the Richard Serra in the Qatari Desert, Nicolas Niarchos noted that "the spot in the desert had been suggested to Serra by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the former Emir. He told Serra that it was a place he remembered from his youth, where herds of antelope gathered.” The Qataris’ purchases also include some of the world’s most expensive paintings, like Cezanne’s The Card Players.

With regard to the role of art in Qatar’s future, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser noted “we are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development.” In 2010, Sheika Mayassa observed that “establishing art institutions might challenge Western preconceptions about Muslim societies." She went on to say that "in order to have peace, we need to first respect each other’s cultures, and people in the West don’t understand the Middle East.” Though Doha came early to the scene in 2011 with the Museum of Islamic Art, the UAE has received international recognition given the successful completion of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi

Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892.

Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892.

Jean-Paul Engelen, the former Director of Public Art & Exhibitions for the Qatar Museums Authority and currently the Deputy Chairman of Phillips, acknowledged “what has been going on in Qatar for over the last ten years now has been part of an incredible vision. The world’s leading architects and artists have delivered projects that simply could not have taken place anywhere else in the world. The most exciting effect has actually been the interaction between these brilliant minds and the Qatari students at the universities such as VCU or Qatar University. It makes very clear that this was not some vanity project; this is about the future.”

Following the investments by its neighbors, Saudi Arabia under its Saudi Vision 2030 started pledging in 2016 to invest $64 billion into cultural infrastructure over the next decade. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, an explosion of investment is emanating from Saudi Arabia, as exemplified by the record purchase of Leonardo da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi and the creation of the Misk Art Institute, an artist-led organization operating under the auspices of the state-funded Misk Foundation. (Note: The Saudi role in the da Vinci purchase has not been confirmed and the Louvre Abu Dhabi is now the owner. At the time of publication, the Leonardo da Vinci painting opening has been delayed.)

In addition, Saudi Aramco has built the Snøhetta-designed King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dammam. These moves are especially noteworthy, given Saudi Arabia’s traditionally conservative stance on entertainment and art, even by the standards of the Gulf.

Kuwait has been an art center since the 1930s and was the first Gulf country to grant scholarships in the arts. With numerous galleries that promote local artists, Kuwait has not deployed billions in investments like their neighbors the UAE and Qatar. We have also seen the creation of Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre and Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre.

Richard Serra sculpture, East-West/West-East, in Doha, Qatar. (Courtesy of the author)

Richard Serra sculpture, East-West/West-East, in Doha, Qatar. (Courtesy of the author)

Led by the efforts of Bahrain Minister of Culture Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Bahrain, though held back in part by its precarious economy and geopolitics, has investments in art that pre-date its independence. Bahrain was the first Gulf country to begin painting classes (1919) and open a cinema (1930). Today, the island nation houses 13 art galleries, including the La Fontaine Art Gallery that blends ancient and contemporary art exhibits together, as well as the Albareh Art Gallery, which features artists from across the Middle East, including Saudi, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Lebanese artists. Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim al Khalifa sponsors the Art Bahrain Across Borders festival, which supports the expansion of the local market.

Oman, as the oldest independent state in the Arab world, has a deep commitment to local art and tradition. The first art gallery is Bait Muzna that opened in 2000. It became part of the Bait al Zubair museum, which hosts the country’s finest private art collection. However, the heart of culture in Oman is the National Museum in Muscat, which was established in 2013 and opened in 2016, featuring the first fully-equipped learning center and conservation facility, in accordance with the International Council of Museum’s regulations. The Royal Opera House Muscat reflects unique contemporary Omani architecture and distinguishes Oman from the rest of its Gulf neighbors.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Sharjah based Barjeel Art Foundation, told me “over the past two decades the Arab Gulf States have made significant strides in accumulating not only regional but global art. There are several sides to this story. On one hand the Gulf States recognize the financial value of these works as well as their ability to put them on a global culture map. They also understand that these works are tools of soft power. Finally these works can help with diversifying the states income if they are able to use them to attract tourists.”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Greenwald, Michael.“The New Race for Contemporary Arts Dominance in the Middle East.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2018.