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Contemporary Culture in the UAE

Cultural renaissance
Visual arts
Film and television
Performing arts
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Heritage and culture are central to the UAE’s national identity and there is a deep awareness of the need to preserve traditional culture. However, there is also a renewed emphasis on the nexus between the traditional and the modern as well as the evolution of art and creativity in a region that has traditionally focused more on the spoken word in the form of poetry than other forms of artistic expression. In particular, there are some exciting developments taking place in the arts at a governmental level, but young Emiratis are also taking their artistic future into their own hands.

Cultural Renaissance
Abu Dhabi 2030, the ambitious and far-reaching urban planning initiative, seeks to establish the emirate as a regional centre for culture with a global capital city as its hub.

In pursuit of this aspiration and under the guiding hand of the Tourism and Development Company (TDIC), the emirate is developing Saadiyat Island as an 'island of art'. The plans include Guggenheim and Louvre museums, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, and a host of other cultural and artistic endeavours. The goal is not only to provide a repository of global art and culture for the UAE’s citizens to appreciate and enjoy, with all the benefits that will bring in artistic energy and creativity, but also to position the UAE capital as a world-class cultural destination.

’The aim of Saadiyat Island must be to create a cultural asset for the world. A gateway and beacon for cultural experience and exchange. Culture crosses all boundaries and therefore Saadiyat will belong to the people of the UAE, the greater Middle East and the world at large,’ Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed stated at the opening of an exhibition that showcased the iconic designs by many of the world’s leading architects for the public buildings on the island.

Foster and Partners’ spectacular concept for the 60,000-square-metre Sheikh Zayed National Museum encompasses a series of 125-metre-high aerodynamic towers resembling the wings of a soaring falcon. Evoking the traditional windtower, the ‘wings’ pull air through, which is cooled before entering the building. To be developed with the expertise of the British Museum, this is a museum devoted not only to the past, to the history, heritage and culture of the UAE, but one that will take these building blocks and bring Emirati culture and creativity into the present and future. The guiding light will be the principles and values espoused by the emirate’s much-admired late ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was also the first President of the United Arab Emirates and often referred to as ‘The Father Of The Nation.’

The fantastical Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which at 320,000 square feet will be the world’s largest Guggenheim museum, will feature permanent collections of contemporary art, galleries for special exhibitions, a centre for art and technology, a children’s art education facility, archives, library and research centre and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory. ’Approaching the design of the museum for Abu Dhabi made it possible to consider options for design of a building that would not be possible in the United States or in Europe,’ said Frank Gehry. ‘It was clear from the beginning that this had to be a new invention. The landscape, the opportunity, the requirement, to build something that people all over the world would come to and the possible resource to accomplish it opened tracks that were not likely to be considered anywhere else. The site itself,
virtually on the water or close to the water on all sides, in a desert landscape with the beautiful sea and the light quality of the place suggested some of the direction.’

Jean Nouvel’s light and lovely design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi owes much to Saadiyat’s natural surroundings:
’The island offers a harsh landscape, tempered by its meeting with the channel, a striking image of the aridity of the earth versus the fluidity of the waters,’ said Nouvel. ‘These fired the imagination towards unknown cities buried deep into the sands or sunk under water. These dreamy thoughts have merged into a simple plan of an archaeological field revived as a small city, a cluster of nearly one-row buildings along a leisurely promenade.
This micro-city requires a micro-climate that would give the visitor a feeling of entering a different world. The building is covered with a large dome, a form common to all civilisations. This one is made of a web of different patterns interlaced into a translucent ceiling which lets a diffuse, magical light come through in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture. Water is given a crucial role, both in reflecting every part of the building and acting as a psyche, and in creating, with a little help from the wind, a comfortable micro-climate.’

According to TDIC, ‘the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be a fine arts museum whose purpose and scope are universal. It will present paintings, drawings, sculptures, manuscripts, archaeological findings, and decorative arts, created and collected all over the world. The museum will be designed for the twenty-first century and dedicated to the people living or visiting the emirates. The galleries will showcase art from different civilisations, cultures and eras, while overstepping boundaries between techniques and geographic regions’.

The Maritime Museum pays homage to the UAE’s proud seafaring history. Designed by Tadao Ando, the dramatic building provides a meeting point of land and sea, whilst the fluid lines of Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre offers an organic shape in which all forms of artistic performance can be celebrated.

Next door, Dubai Culture is striving to achieve the vision of the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 ‘to establish the city as vibrant, global Arabian metropolis that shapes culture and arts in the region and the world’. The organisation has announced several initiatives that strengthen the historic and modern cultural fabric of Dubai. These include Muhammad the Messenger Museum, which will focus on and highlight the life and message of Prophet Muhammad; and The Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Patrons of the Arts Awards, honouring individuals and organisations who have made financial or in-kind contributions through sustained support to visual arts, performing arts, literature and film in the region.

Visual Arts
Whilst the ambitious plans for major new cultural projects are being implemented, a vibrant art scene is already stretching boundaries. Sharjah has been to the forefront of artistic endeavour in the UAE for many years. In 2011, it celebrates the tenth Sharjah Art Biennial where artists from other Gulf states, the Middle East and the rest of the world are invited to participate. The event continues to contribute enormously towards formalising art in the UAE and its perception abroad.

During the Biennial, art exhibitions and cultural events take place across a wide range of venues, including the Sharjah Art Museum, the Heritage Area, and the Sharjah National Theatre. In addition, Sharjah Art Museum and other museums, such as the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, regularly hold important exhibitions in conjunction with global organisations as well as workshops and summer camps throughout the year.

Another long-time player in the field, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, now subsumed by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA), has been providing a home for art and artists, both for creation and display, since the early 1980s.

ADTCA and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) are building on the efforts of the Cultural Foundation and taking them to a new level in preparation for the completion of world-class museums in the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Initiatives include staging unique exhibitions in cooperation with international organisations such as the Soloman R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Louvre, New York University Abu Dhabi, Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, Istanbul Museum and others. Many of the exquisite exhibits in ‘Islam: Faith and Worship’ had never before been allowed to leave their museums in Istanbul and, indeed, had rarely been on public display at all.

Local artists were also catered for under the umbrella of ‘Emirati Expressions’. Exhibitors ranged from veteran painters to a new generation of photographers, graphic designers, video and installation artists.

Manarat Al Saadiyat meaning ‘a place that provides enlightenment’ in Arabic, is a purpose-built 15,400-square-metre visitors' and exhibition centre, designed to showcase Saadiyat Island's exciting projects and host art exhibitions from around the world. This is part of the ongoing cultural programme run by TDIC dedicated to developing awareness and understanding of art and culture prior to the launch of the Cultural District. Facilities include a Contemporary Art Gallery – a 1,817 square-metre exhibition space exploring the contemporary arts, including a dedicated section for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in anticipation of its opening; a Universal Art Gallery – a 1,300-square-metre exhibition space showcasing the universal arts, including a dedicated section for Louvre Abu Dhabi in anticipation of its opening; a Central Events Gallery – a 660-square-metre multi-purpose space opening out onto a landscaped garden area for hosting Manarat Al Saadiyat’s special events calendar; and a Theatre – a state-of-the-art 250-seater auditorium designed to host Manarat Al Saadiyat’s varied performing arts programme.

The venue presented the world premiere of RSTW (Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool), a novel exhibition of masterpieces from the private collection of one of the art world’s pre-eminent figures, Larry Gagosian. This event was intended ‘to challenge the perception of what it means to be simultaneously a private collector and public figure, while instigating a paradigm shift in modern aesthetic experiences’.

Although the primary focus of commercial art shows such as Abu Dhabi Art Fair (usually held in November), organised by ADTCA and TDIC, and Dubai Art Fair (March) is to sell art, the fairs also bring unique art forms to the region, provide a forum for local artists to exhibit and for important discussions on the future of creativity in the region.

Art Dubai Projects is a not-for-profit curated programme of new commissions, film, talks, performances and radio dispatches.

In the lead-up to Art Dubai 2011, the Delfina Foundation through a new collaboration between Dubai Culture and Tashkeel, with the support of the British Council, instituted an international residency programme in Bastakiya where visiting and local artists worked side-by-side. The artists also exhibited in Al Bastakiya as part of Dubai Culture’s Open House programme.

Tashkeel studios in Nad al-Sheba Dubai, a collaborative committed to facilitating art and design practice, cross-cultural dialogue and creative exchange, supports and exhibits young and emerging artists. Members have access to studio facilities for fine art, photography, printmaking, textile printing, jewellery-making.

The UAE’s growing number of vibrant private art galleries continue to stage challenging and exciting exhibitions. One of the UAE’s oldest galleries – the Majlis Gallery in Bastakiya – has been in operation for over 20 years. Other innovative galleries include Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi, Meem Gallery in Dubai, and DIFC’s Empty Quarter Gallery, while Traffic Gallery’s founder and owner Rami Farook was the British Council’s International Young Design Entrepreneur in 2009.

Dubai also has a new not-for-profit art space. The Pavilion Downtown, a 1,500-square-metre space modelled on the Serpentine Gallery’s non-commercial arts shows, opened in February 2011. The Pavilion intends to stimulate on a number of levels, as well as the art gallery, the space includes a library, theatre and a café.

UAE artists are also gaining exposure internationally. The UAE participated for the first time at the Venice Biennale, in summer 2009. With Emirates Airline acting as a major sponsor, and with support from the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, Emirates Foundation and the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, the pavilion was called ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’ and was designed to offer a playful and provocative look at what has been described as the world's most prestigious contemporary art event. This was the first occasion on which a country from the Gulf has taken part in the Biennale.

Ever since the United Nations identified a ‘knowledge deficit’ in the Arab world though its controversial 2003 Arab Human Development Report, the institutions of the UAE have been meeting this challenge head-on.

Two translation projects responded directly to the UN’s criticism: Kalima is an ADTCA project that funds the translation, printing and distribution of foreign literature into Arabic. The initiative is translating more than 100 works of classic and contemporary titles into Arabic annually in accordance with its founding mission. Tarjem, a project of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, aims to translate more than 1000 books in three years.

Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (held in March), organised by Kitab, a joint venture between ADTCA and the Frankfurt Book Fair, continues to enjoy record crowds. Kitab also works year-round to tackle the most fundamental problems preventing Arabic publishing from becoming a an industry capable of supporting professional authors, notably piracy and the lack of distribution systems. The organisation helped found a UAE Publishers Association in 2009, in preparation for Abu Dhabi’s historic hosting of the International Publishers Association Copyright Symposium in February of 2010.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award was also established in 2007 to reward significant achievements in Arabic culture and promote interest in Arab literature.

Sharjah International Book Fair has been in operation since 1982. This is a ten-day annual event that bridges cultures, showcasing books and their publishers from many nations, with an average 400,000 visitors visiting annually. The main aim of the fair is to inculcate the habit of reading, especially among the younger generation, and to make quality books available at affordable prices.

The very-well attended Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, usually held in Dubai in March, hosts a wide-ranging world-class list of authors, philosophers, theologians, and commentators in Arabic and English (simultaneous translation available). This is an invigorating and inspiring celebration of literature at its best and a chance to tap into the creativity of successful writers. The festival also runs the Montegrappa Students' Writing Competition in Arabic and English, as well as a packed programme for younger children.

The title of the exhibition for the UAE Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, ‘Second Time Around’ referred back to the UAE's debut appearance at the biennial in 2009. Curator Vasif Kortun explained the rational behind his production: ‘. . .UAE artists were early on called upon to perform the role of chroniclers and represent the burdens of this sea change but are now negotiating and processing the complexities of what is becoming a predominantly visual culture’.

A love of and interest in verse, both classical Arabic and the colloquial ‘nabati poetry, known as ‘the voice of the people’, is a deeply rooted cultural attribute that has not been lost with modernisation. Composing poetry is viewed as one of the highest forms of literary expression. In the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is widely acknowledged as one of the finest exponents of ‘nabati verse but there are many revered exponents of the art throughout the United Arab Emirates.

The meeting of traditional Arabic poetry and modern media takes place through the highly successful television shows – Poet of the Million and The Prince of Poets, broadcast on Abu Dhabi TV and poetry TV channels.

Sponsored by ADTCA, the Poet of the Million competition specialising in ‘nabati poetry is watched by millions of viewers each week. The project includes a monthly magazine and a website that showcases online events complementing the TV programme.

The committee of judges includes leading critics from the Arab world with long experience in folk literature. According to ADTCA: ‘Their insight and critical vision has played a valuable cultural role in raising awareness of poetry among the public.’

On the other hand, the Prince of Poets Festival, although it has a similar format, is aimed at promoting and enhancing classical Arabic poetry, ‘reviving the positive role of Arabic poetry as a medium of expression, and discovering young talent and giving them the chance to develop and grow’. The programme, ADTCA claims ‘. . .connects poetry to the pulse of the community, and provides modern Arab poets…” The Prince of Poets won an International Broadcasting Award in London for the specialist genre TV category.

Both competitions are supervised by the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy, one of the largest of ADTCA’s projects. The aim of the Academy is to play a key role in investigating and documenting Arabic poetry as well as rehabilitating it as a modern literary genre.’

Film and television
International A-list starts regularly grace the red carpet at the UAE’s film festivals: the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF), the ten-day festival held each October at Emirates Palace; the Dubai International Film Festival, held in December at a number of venues in Dubai, and the Gulf Film Festival, also held in Dubai. The former provide an opportunity to enjoy a wide range of international feature films and documentaries, whilst the latter focuses more intensely on the region.

As sources of funding for film-makers dried up around the world because of the financial crisis, the UAE’s rapidly professionalising film industry has drawn increasing global interest. Government-funded organisations are working to educate a new generation of local film executives and financiers who will create a lasting indigenous film industry in the UAE.

Abu Dhabi Film Commission is an initiative launched by ADTCA in January 2009 with an objective of nurturing new talent and contributing to the promotion of Arab culture through film. Abu Dhabi Film Commission sponsors a diverse programme of training opportunities, production grants, the Emirates Film Competition, and the annual Circle Conference. The latter is organised in conjunction with Abu Dhabi Media Company’s billion-dollar film-fund subsidiary Imagenation Abu Dhabi and in parallel with the Middle East International Film Festival.

Abu Dhabi Film Commission also sponsors a year-round programme of master classes, with the aim of giving film-makers in Abu Dhabi the opportunity of meeting and learning from some of the top creative talent and personalities in the global film and television industry. Internationally ADFC continues promoting Abu Dhabi as a new filming location and promotes Abu Dhabi at film festivals and markets around the world.

Another film-related ADTCA initiative is its collaboration with the world-renowned New York Film Academy to found the first accredited film school in the Middle East. The hope is that NYFA-Abu Dhabi ‘will create a unique platform for the nurturing of young creative talent and develop a vibrant film industry for the region centered in Abu Dhabi’. Students at NYFA-Abu Dhabi will learn about all aspects of the film industry – creative and technical.

Media free zones in the UAE play a significant role in the development of the film industry and the nurturing of local talent. Abu Dhabi’s media free zone, named twofour54 after the capital’s GPS coordinates, has a vocational training academy, twofour54 tadreeb. Its business incubator, twofour54 ibtikar runs a ventures fund to invest in media entrepreneurs and a creative lab to turn media-related ideas into commercially viable propositions. Twofour54 also teamed up with MTV Networks International to launch Comedy Central Studios Arabia, which will develop and produce Arabic-language comedy content for the Middle East market.

The UAE’s original media zone was Dubai Media City (DMC), founded in 2001 by Tecom, a subsidiary of Dubai Holding, to foster the growth of Dubai’s knowledge-based economy. Today it has more than 30 buildings with more than 1200 registered businesses, including well-known brands like CNN, BBC, MBC and CNBC, DMC is one of a cluster of media free zones run by Tecom that includes Dubai Internet City, Dubai Studio City and the International Media Production Zone. These parks have been supplemented by the growth of smaller media free zones such as Fujairah Creative City and RAK Media City.

Television in the Arab world is unlike anywhere else as satellite owners from Morocco to Saudi Arabia share access to the same feed of more than 400 free-to-air channels. Within this vast choice, Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai TV have staked out a respectable market share, registering among the most popular channels. Dubai Media Incorporated, the parent company of Dubai TV, Sama Dubai, Dubai One, Dubai Sports Channel and the Dubai Racing Channel, also controls an array of media assets formerly held by Arab Media Group, a subsidiary of Tecom.

Performing arts
Abu Dhabi National Theatre; the Cultural and Scientific Association’s venue at Al Mamzar, Dubai; Sharjah’s National Theatre; theatres at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and Souk Madinat Dubai; as well as Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre at Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, amongst others, stage music, theatre and dance performances throughout the year, featuring international and local artists. The Theatre & Arts Centre was the first modern, non-profit, cross-community creative centre in the Gulf and is now playing an active role in community arts, both visual and performance.

The highly successful Abu Dhabi Classics series brings world-renowned performers such as the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Boys Choir to the UAE, sometimes to perform in spectacular locations such as Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain. The Classics series also focuses on Arabic music and invests time and effort into educational programmes, organising concerts for children.

Theatre as such isn’t necessarily an Emirati tradition but story-telling is an integral part of Arab heritage and in most cases the stories have a universal theme. One remarkable performance in Al Jahili Fort in recent years was a mostly Arab cast performing a reworked Richard III set in the contemporary Arabian Gulf. The adaptation was by the Kuwaiti-British dramatist Sulayman Al Bassam.

Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre is an annual festival that celebrates and fosters the art of theatre in the UAE. The youth are also catered for with the Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra.

ADTCA has also focused on the world music scene, inviting exceptional artists from all corners of the globe to perform the best of contemporary world music and dance in Abu Dhabi.

At the same time, ADTCA has paid particular attention to the Arab tradition in music: Bait Al Oud was set up by the Authority in Abu Dhabi to promote the traditions of oud performance. The oud or lute is one of the oldest stringed instruments of the Arab world and ADTCA points out that ‘in many ways it is considered the soul of the Arab people so closely is it linked to their cultural identity’.

An important part of its mission, ADTCA says, is to teach the techniques of oud playing and to raise awareness of the various schools and trends in oud playing. In this way, it hopes, the contribution of generations of oud players will be respected and carried on by today’s students. Ultimately the vision is to have a new generation of professional musicians in the UAE and create a musical nucleus of local ensembles to participate in musical festivals within the country and abroad.

Popular music events featuring international pop stars, blues and jazz bands are also regular features, especially in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

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