Why you should care
Because this might be the best place to get art from cloistered places like Syria and Iran.
From the exploits of Marco Polo to the empire-building of Alexander the Great, the Silk Road connected the Western world’s explorers and traders with the East’s richness of goods. Chief among those products were salt, sugar, teas and spices, but that ancient network of trade routes also introduced Iranian, Indian and Chinese culture to countries dominated by Greek and Roman influences. Now, a tiny Gulf nation is emerging as a modern Silk Road junction of sorts.
The United Arab Emirates is about the size of South Carolina, and its seven sheikhdoms have existed collectively less than half a century. But the country is increasingly bringing otherwise elusive art to the rest of the world, at a time when the world is simultaneously more connected digitally than ever before and rife with tensions that make countries like Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Syria almost as inaccessible to the West as they were centuries ago. The UAE hosts more than 50 major art galleries, including at least 10 that showcase “exclusively, or significantly, Iranian artists,” says Sultan Al Qassemi, whose Barjeel Art Foundation is one of many cultural conglomerates that have emerged in the last five years. Art from Ethiopia, Tunisia and Iraq fill the UAE’s storefront windows, in addition to exhibitions from Brazil and Iceland.
Other significant displays come from places like Cairo, Damascus and Tehran — all lauded hubs for the visual arts, theater and cinema during the 20th century that have since suffered political strife. “Unfortunately, there’s an economic effect,” says Lebanon-born Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai, a fair that opened in 2007 with 40 galleries; in 2017, it featured 105 galleries from artists native to 48 countries. “Those capitals no longer hold the same standing.”
Dubai is a decade or two ahead of any competition in the area.
Sultan Al Qassemi, Barjeel Art Foundation
Key to the UAE’s emergence as an art hub is its relative prosperity and stability in a tense region. Riding on its deep oil reserves — and a more recent transition into a financial services nerve center — the UAE today boasts the world’s fourth-highest per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power parity, $14,000 more than the United States. That economic success has fueled immigration: Nearly 85 percent of its 9.2 million residents are expats. It has encouraged travel, granting visa-free access to over 50 nationalities (although, notably, not to residents from Lebanon, Iraq or Syria). And though a giant chunk of expats is South Asian or Filipino, who work in the country’s service sector with few long-term prospects of citizenship — and therefore of attachment — to the country, the UAE also has welcomed those fleeing the Middle East’s wars. And these immigrants have helped turn the country into a melting pot of not just ethnicities but of experience, harnessing both ancestral skills and the trauma of their journeys as strangers in a foreign land. The country’s art sector is a beneficiary.
“Dubai has been a safe haven for many,” says Ayad, whose family immigrated to the UAE after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. “There was a collective need to regroup but also take pride in our roots and heritage.”
The UAE’s largest city, Dubai’s status as an art hub has grown in parallel with its profile in business and tourism. In 2006, the British auction house Christie’s launched in Dubai the first-ever auction of international modern and contemporary art in the Middle East. “You had a point of reference for what the valuation of this artist was. Before then, a work could be valued at $5,000 or $50 and you had no idea why,” Al Qassemi says. Since, Christie’s has sold over $215 million worth of Middle Eastern art, swallowing 70 percent of the region’s market. Last year, U.K.-based Sotheby’s added an office and auction house here too. The growth isn’t just commercial. The UAE partnered with the French government to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November, the largest art museum on the Arabian Peninsula. If it can get past years of delays, Abu Dhabi is also expected to add a Guggenheim, the first of the world-renowned museums built outside of the Americas and Europe.
But challenges persist, as the UAE tries to establish itself on the global stage. The instability of the region has led many Middle Eastern artists to flee in the last decade, which “really denies us a lot of the talent we need,” says Al Qassemi. “Imagine what Europe would have looked like if all the artists fled to live somewhere in Southeast Asia.” Living costs are high, making it more affordable for artists to work from Amman, Jordan or Beirut. There are no nonprofit licensing models like those commonly seen in Britain or the United States, making it difficult for arts clubs or education groups to avoid paying crippling taxes. And there are few tax breaks for importing art, Al Qassemi says. “The margins are already so low,” he says, and with the taxation, “you really are at the knife’s edge.”
The UAE also still has work to do in changing its image from brash newcomer to global player. It is seen as particularly strong “for the younger and emerging artists,” says Nadia Samdani, director of the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh. Locally, patrons are supporting them, but Samdani sees fewer international buyers collecting UAE art outside of the UAE. “I don’t see as much interest in the Western world or Southeast Asia,” she says.
But upstarts often have drive, ambition and a point to prove, and the UAE is no different. It’s quickly building a buzz, buoyed by its youth and encouraged by its future-obsessed rulers. And as with most upstarts, the leaders of Dubai’s art scene aren’t afraid to talk some smack. “Dubai is a decade or two ahead of any competition in the area,” Al Qassemi boasts.