Building a lucrative art scene in the Middle East

Sumnima Udas
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With volatility in the oil market, the investment in a high-profile art scene is part of a long-term game to attract tourists (Source: Getty)

The world’s tallest building, most expensive hotel, fastest rollercoaster, and the largest mall - the list is long. The United Arab Emirates is a country of superlatives.

It’s got the money, power and everything that comes with it. But perhaps nothing can better shape a nation’s identity and affirm its arrival on the world stage than cultural enrichment.

Art is soft power. It is positional. It’s also highly lucrative. And with the ongoing construction of world class museums like the $640m Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel, and Frank Gehry’s similarly extravagant Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich city is making a deliberate statement—it has arrived and is on its way to becoming a global hub for contemporary art and culture.

While filming CNN’s Silk Road: Past, Present, Future series, we had the opportunity to preview the making of Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of the most important and exciting cultural developments of our time. Rising from the desert dunes of Saadiyat island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the Louvre is a shimmering statement of UAE’s approach to diversifying its economy. With volatility in the oil market, the investment in a high-profile art scene is part of a long-term game to attract tourists and market the Emirates to the world.

But it’s not just marquee museums that drive a society’s cultural connoisseurship. The art hub of Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai’s Al Quoz district used to be an industrial area full of car parts factories. Now there are some 25 creative spaces and art galleries, providing that much-needed platform for home grown and regional artists. “Before, art had no value here” one gallery owner in Al Serkal told us, “people would spend money on fancy homes and cars but they could not think of spending on art.”

The arrival of auction houses like Christie’s in 2006 changed that. Suddenly art had value, it was a good investment and there was a market for it. Middle Eastern clients now account for some eight per cent of Christie's global turnover. Rising incomes in the oil rich country only helped that surge in interest. Christie’s has sold some $250m-worth of art here, 70 per cent of the buyers are collectors from the region.

Needless to say there is a lot of optimism in the market. And whether it’s top down or bottom up, the UAE’s focus on art and cultural enrichment shows it’s mapping out a new narrative. One where tiny but super wealthy kingdoms like the UAE and Qatar become the centres of culture and knowledge, connecting east and west.

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