By Allison White

The market expansion that has taken place in the United Arab Emirates over the last decade has been sparked by the country’s desire to broaden its oil-based economy as local supply wanes and global energy interests shift. The government has focused its investment in the sectors of finance and tourism, seeking to lure international businessmen and travelers with tax havens and palm tree-shaped islands to an extravagant sanctuary at the nexus between East and West (1). A major component of this expansion has been massive support for cultural initiatives in three of the country’s seven emirates, ranging from the establishment of auction houses and commercial galleries in Dubai, to an experimental biennial in Sharjah, and finally to an ambitious cultural district with canonical museums in Abu Dhabi (2).

The recent global economic downturn is now playing a pivotal role in the continued development of the UAE’s cultural sphere. In the midst of an international financial crisis that has severely hampered the business and real estate segments of the country’s new economy, (3) the arts have continued to draw crowds and build a following; optimistic outlooks prevailed at the opening of the latest Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai in the spring of 2009 as well as at auctions hosted by the Dubai branches of Christie’s and Bonhams in October 2009. Some in the West appear eager to announce the downfall of the perceived excess embodied by the teeming wealth of the UAE. Will their dismal projections come to fruition or will the country endure and adapt to a fluctuating cultural climate? This paper follows international media reactions to the growth of international contemporary art markets and local contemporary art community-building in the UAE as it transitions from an era of prosperity to a period of realignment, while also citing assessments and responses to those often disparaging accounts from cultural figures throughout the Emirates. What emerges are diverse perspectives on internal and external forces that simultaneously clash and collaborate as they forge an emerging contemporary art community in the UAE.

The History and Scope of Growth

Dubai has been at the center of the worldwide attention directed toward the UAE. On a quest to be known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” the emirate with the smallest supply of oil reserves has been the runaway leader in developing real estate, tourism, and financial industries (4). As Dubai began attracting foreign curiosity and investment, it also drew the interest of the international art market. In May 2006, Christie’s held the first auction of modern and contemporary art in the Middle East. The results shattered all expectations as the sale earned double the pre-auction estimates (5). Consisting mostly of work from the Middle East and South Asia, the auction established Dubai as a center for artistic activity. Bonhams soon followed Christie’s lead and opened an office in Dubai in 2007. Galleries began cropping up throughout Dubai’s neighborhoods, from the former warehouse district of Al Quoz to the heritage area of Bastakiya in Bur Dubai, with establishments like The Third Line, B21 Progressive Gallery, and XVA/AVE Gallery promoting contemporary artists from Egypt to Iran and Palestine to India (6). Dubai inaugurated its annual art fair in March 2007, and the most recent incarnation of Art Dubai in March 2009 boasted 68 galleries, the satellite Al Bastakiya Art Fair, and a handsomely-funded Abraaj Capital Art Prize (7). In a few short years, the fair has become a key platform for art communities engaged with the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) region. The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA) has also teamed up with several museums in Germany to establish a group of universal museums in the planned district of Khor Dubai in the Jaddaf area (8).

Cultural development in Sharjah began in the 1980s and 1990s, (9) before the explosive expansion of the last ten years. The Sharjah Museums Department manages 18 museums, which range in focus from calligraphy to science to historic preservation, and the majority of which were founded in the late 1990s (10). The early push to make Sharjah a regional art hub was hampered by what has been described as “the mismanagement of institutions and funds.”(11) Despite such setbacks, the emirate’s cultural infrastructure has continued to solidify, particularly in relation to the internationally-heralded biennial that it has hosted since 1993. The 2009 edition pioneered a new approach to the organization of biennials by requesting proposals from contributing artists to be realized at the opening of the exhibition. Sharjah Biennial Director Jack Persekian, a curator from Jerusalem, did away with an overriding theme for the show and instead decided to highlight “process not product.”(12) The Biennial consistently provides a space for artists who work both in the region and outside of it to be critical about issues like the pace of industrialization in the Gulf, and the treatment of foreign migrant workers who provide the labor for that growth, along with environmental consequences of construction and the alteration of the landscape.

In recent years, institutional development has been focused on Saadiyat Island, a $27 billion project anchored on a man-made sandbar that juts into the sea off the northeast coast of Abu Dhabi. Serving as the pillars for this cultural nucleus are the Middle East outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, which are both slated to open in 2012. The Guggenheim endeavor is spearheaded by Thomas Krens, the former director of the full Guggenheim enterprise, and will be designed by architect Frank Gehry. Occupying 450,000 square feet of space, the Abu Dhabi location will be the Guggenheim’s largest facility; while the allocation of the space is still being discussed, it has been decided that contemporary Middle Eastern art will have a dedicated section, alongside other exhibition spaces, a research center, and a conservation laboratory (13). The Louvre Abu Dhabi, announced in early 2007, six months after the Guggenheim plans were revealed, will be designed by architect Jean Nouvel. The building carries a price tag of $525 million and the emirate will pay France an additional $747 million for artwork and curatorial services (14). The Louvre Abu Dhabi will house and display a portion of collections from 12 different French museums along with works from its own collection, which it has been building slowly over the three years. An exhibition that opened at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi to coincide with the groundbreaking of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in May 2009 featured 19 of these acquisitions, including an ancient Greek ceramic figure and two Edouard Manet paintings, as well as loans from French museums, such as Chinese Buddhist statues and a wooden stool from Benin; this diversity of objects demonstrates the organizers’ expressed interest in assembling and displaying artworks from a range of periods and civilizations (15). French citizens have been highly critical of this collaboration and other similar international undertakings, including a recent partnership with the High Museum in Atlanta, and ridicule the French government for selling off the country’s artistic heritage (16).

Other significant institutional projects scheduled for construction are a New York University campus, a performing arts center designed by British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum. Rita Aoun-Abdo, an advisor to Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC), which oversees the Saadiyat Island initiative, classifies the cultural venture as “’something new, experimental…It’s a lab. People who come from the outside with prejudgment need to forget all that and look again.’” (17)

Commentaries and Critiques

Aoun-Abdo’s reference to “prejudgment” on the part of people “outside” reflects the myriad conflicting views of the UAE’s cultural development that have bounced around throughout the international art world in recent years. Her comment also points to animosities that have emerged from these conflicting perspectives. In researching the creative growth in the Emirates, I encountered three major strains of thought. The first came from the statements of UAE government representatives and foreign players affiliated with official ventures, which are overwhelmingly positive and optimistic about the progress and costs of rapid construction of institutions, venues, and markets for the arts. Conversely, the second perspective that surfaced was a cynical opinion that the dizzying growth in the UAE is manufactured, unsustainable, and will inevitably fail, often expressed by cultural players outside the region. The final view, which is somewhat obscured by the extremes of the first two, is more tempered and complex, representing the hopefulness of artists and arts professionals working in the region mediated with a bit of caution about the pitfalls of heedless investment in arts and culture.

The government of the UAE is the primary champion of cultural growth in the country, and its partners in international initiatives are eager to trumpet the potential of the development. The ambition and vision of the government is revealed in a statement made by Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and the chair for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage: “One of the essential goals for us is to create a cultural bridge. In 20 years Abu Dhabi will be a beacon of peace and culture, an oasis of culture and peace.”(18) This desire to serve as an exemplar for the Middle East and the larger Islamic world, while also endorsing a positive and benevolent image to the West, is echoed by Mubarak Al Muhairi, the managing director of TDIC, when he talks about cultivating the arts in order to increase tolerance within the societies (19). The noble light in which UAE officials view their projects also tints the proclamations of outsiders involved in the region. In response to the outcry of factions of the French citizenry over the Louvre’s international endeavors, Henri Loyrette, the Louvre’s director, speaks of the need for France to keep pace with the evolution of the art world landscape. In early 2007, he declared that the Louvre “cannot refuse to answer the questions posed by globalisation. All the world’s museums, from the British Museum to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, are moving beyond national borders. Our ambition is to invent our own model.” (20) Loyrette’s comments echo the idealistic notions promoted by Emirati cultural figures while reflecting his own commitment to innovating the boundaries of the world’s oldest public museum.

In addition to grandiose announcements about the value of the mission in the UAE, project representatives and supporters also tend to gloss over some of the challenges facing the art community in the Emirates. One of these challenges is the lack of local artists, arts administrators and arts educators. John Martin, the director of Art Dubai, ignores the implications of this as he states matter-of-factly in a January 2007 interview with Flash Art magazine that “Dubai is unlikely to develop its own scene of resident artists,” but rather will exist “as a place that caters for a diverse group of collectors coming from throughout Asia.”(21) This casual dismissal of the importance of cultivating a local art public to support the international activity is indicative of the scarcity of interest or desire on the part of foreign agents like Martin, to encourage Emirati education and engagement surrounding contemporary art. A developing local scene might diminish the current strength of international influence in the country’s cultural sector and with that the ability of the international community to financially profit from cultural growth in the region. However, in the last couple of years, Emiratis themselves have begun driving such efforts, which I explore in more detail later.

Other significant hurdles to the full flourishing of contemporary art in the UAE are the constraints imposed by its conservative political sphere. This obstacle came to the fore at Art Dubai 2008 when the Prime Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, and his son, Culture Minister Sheikh Majid al-Maktoum, asked that Pakistani artist Huma Mulji remove one of her sculptures from the exhibition space. The piece, titled Arabian Delight, is a taxidermy camel folded and stuffed into a large suitcase, referencing the Gulf’s reputation for cruel treatment of foreign workers. The organizers of Art Dubai refused to comment on the incident, effectively stifling any debate about censorship and artistic freedom that might contradict the message of tolerance that they aim to promote. (22)

On the reverse end of the spectrum are commentators who highlight the drawbacks of the UAE’s burgeoning art scene. Some of these observers are inhabitants of the region, and their criticisms concentrate on the importation of Euroamerican culture as a basis for Emirati artistic growth, as well the negative aspects of such rapid economic development. University of Sharjah sociologist Hashim Sarhan questions the value and benefits of bringing the Louvre and the Guggenheim to the UAE when he contends, “Why should we [Emiratis] wear other people’s clothes? We have to wear our own clothes. If we wear other people’s clothes, we will not feel comfortable.”(23) Emirati artist Reem Al Ghaith, who was the youngest artist featured in the 2009 Sharjah Biennial, creates multi-media sculptures of Dubai landscapes and construction scenes that reference the perilous labor and environmental conditions at building sites throughout the country (24). Al Ghaith explains that her work reveals the obscured “labourers who you never really see” along with the demolition and development that “just keeps eating the land.”(25) Sarhan and Al Ghaith’s testimonials reference local reservations and concerns regarding the evolving cultural, social, and environmental climates.

Most pessimistic assessments, however, tend to appear in American and European art publications, which often predict the eventual stagnation and failure of the UAE’s cultural endeavors. They take the form of bleak oversimplifications, like the judgment expressed by Matthew Collings in a June 2008 Modern Painters article that claimed the UAE is “devoted to money…No one really pretends that life is about anything else.”(26) Other analysts prefer to make dismal, trite projections such as the one made by Valentina Sansone of Flash Art when she mused in mid-2008 that given the lack of arts infrastructure in the UAE, “we can only wonder if it won’t remain just an oasis in the sand.”(27) Sansone’s choice to set up the opposition of “we” and “it” establishes a separation between the Flash Art reader and the Emirati community and, furthermore, seems to challenge the UAE to prove its viability to the rest of the art world. The most scathing account of the development in the Gulf that I encountered in my study manifested itself as outright disdainful mockery, courtesy of Judith Benhamou-Huet writing for the French Art Press magazine in January 2008. She opens her piece with the announcement that, “Today in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, there is nothing. Nothing for a lover of art and culture, that is. Just a recreation of a Bedouin village where you can buy slippers made in China and stale Iranian saffron.”(28) The author’s portrayal of Abu Dhabi as a tacky tourist trap belittles and dismisses the scope and nuances of the cultural development of the area. This sarcastic tone continues throughout the article, as she preciously refers to “episode[s] of the ongoing ‘Middle East Art Bonanza.’”(29) The shallow, one-dimensional representation of the Emirates that these commentators propagate reinforces through contrast the depth and richness of the European and American art capitals in which they have been raised and educated. For these players to admit that there are real opportunities for artistic innovation offered by the developing infrastructures in the UAE would be to strike a blow at existing art world hierarchies. Therefore, perhaps in order to reassure themselves of their own relevance, they deride the aspirations of the UAE and denounce them as superficial and transitory spectacles.

However, the resistance that these commentators display toward the consideration of the UAE as a serious art center obscures the complexity of the region’s potentials and pitfalls. Critics that do shed light on the various layers of the country’s cultural initiatives are overshadowed by the extreme perspectives of the two cohorts discussed above, making their analyses particularly valuable. Those with a more balanced approach tend to be scholars or residents of the Middle East who are familiar with the cultural and social dynamics at work, but who also do not have a direct stake in the success of the UAE’s ventures. This affords them the space to be relatively critical and objective. Murtaza Vali, an art historian and writer concerned with the region, draws attention to the hypocrisy inherent in some criticisms of Abu Dhabi’s collaborations with international museums as he reviews the Sharjah Biennial of 2007, titled Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change. He states that such projects have “ruffled feathers as far away as France (the French, of course, know absolutely nothing about building a tourist economy around art and culture).”

The biting sarcasm that Vali adopts is his response to what he calls the “condescending Western media,” typified by essays like that of Benhamou- Huet, mentioned above (30). However, Vali is also comprehensive in his analysis as he takes issue with the legitimacy of local efforts as well as distant interpretations. He questions the validity of the Biennial’s decision to make “ecology” a focal point of the exhibition, given the UAE’s history as an oil-based economy and its brazen manipulation of the physical landscape for the purpose of industrialization and development (31).

This well-rounded approach to criticism is also evident in an article by Negar Azimi, an editor at the Middle Eastern-focused magazine Bidoun, which appeared in the April 2008 issue of Artforum. Like Vali, Azimi highlights the double standard that emerges from some Western assessments of development in the Emirates, as she interrogates the validity of Emirati claims about encouraging a commitment to fostering art education among local audiences. In addition to her thorough and substantive analysis, the author also calls attention to the broader implications of the current historical moment in the Middle East. Azimi notes that while there are risks involved in the rapid growth in cultural infrastructure, the possibilities of such expansion are something to nurture. “It stands to pioneer a new sort of cosmopolitanism,” she asserts, “linking the cultural capitals of Cairo and Beirut—to each other and to the rest of the world—and to reinvigorate a region that has been subject to one too many narratives of failure.”(32)

The threat of failure is one that continues to loom over the region, particularly as the worldwide economic downturn endangers investment, travel, and construction.

From Prosperity to Realignment

The global recession has hampered growth in the economy of the UAE, most significantly in Dubai. Jobs have been slashed, real estate prices have dropped, and credit is difficult to obtain. In February 2009, Dubai’s wealthier neighbor, Abu Dhabi, purchased ten billion dollars in bonds from the struggling, debt-riddled emirate (33). In November 2009, the stateowned investment firm Dubai World announced that it would not be able to make payments on its debt for the next six months, sparking worries throughout the international financial markets (34). Headlines appearing in publications like the New York Times, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal give readers the impression that Dubai is on the verge of complete financial ruin, with references to downward spirals, bursting bubbles, and soaring burdens. A Middle East Times editorial by a South Asian expatriate living in Dubai rails against the recent “feeding frenzy amongst the pundits and chattering classes who have prophesied all these years Dubai would not last long.”(35) The war of words that unfolded between cohorts of commentators during the UAE’s quick ascent has continued during the current period of stasis and slowdown.

As a result, for an arts writer living outside the region, it has been a challenge to sort through the jumbled opinions on the health and direction of the cultural sector. Reporting in March 2009 from the synchronized openings of Art Dubai and the ninth Sharjah Biennial, Artforum portrayed the overall mood of both events as melancholic, with figures such as Thomas Krens and architect Rem Koolhaas (who is designing a 1.5 billion-square foot Waterfront City in Dubai) trumpeting the region’s vitality while many spectators voiced their skepticism about its longevity (36). Local Emirati newspapers are predominantly positive, vaguely boasting about unprecedented crowds and enormous successes. During a February 2009 conference in Berlin about the progress of the UAE’s cultural development projects, disparate reports were given: Michael Schindhelm, the cultural director of DCAA, announced that the Middle East Center for Modern Art and a theater complex have been stalled while Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, one of Abu Dhabi’s premier cultural representatives, insisted that the construction on Saadiyat Island would continue unimpaired (37).

The perspectives of individuals living and working in the Gulf’s art world with whom I spoke also gave me a variety of impressions about UAE happenings. Maissa Alsuwaidi, the Operations Manager for the Sharjah Museums Department, informed me that she has observed a decrease in commercial gallery activity, but that the recession has motivated Sharjah institutions to expand the content and scope of their programming, evidenced in the Sharjah Biennial by the expansion of the film and performance programs (38). Sharing a different take on the commercial gallery sphere, artist William Andersen, an American living in Kuwait, noted that he has witnessed steady sales and a strong interest in representing emerging artists at galleries in the area, including at the Opera Gallery in Dubai where his work was featured in a group show during the summer of 2009. However, a gallery owner in the region stated that he felt things had come to a “standstill” and that the community is rather “pessimistic.” (39) Clearly, the global economic slowdown is not having a universally negative impact on the UAE, but it certainly is a ubiquitous financial and psychological presence in the minds and daily lives of many, as it is throughout the rest of the world.

Dubai seems to be in a much more precarious position economically when compared with its fellow emirates. Abu Dhabi has greater oil reserves and more money while Sharjah has stretched its development out over the course of several decades, as opposed to condensing it into several years. However, in the midst of the anxiety about the fate of Dubai, it is reassuring that the art market, though contracted, remains lively. Art Dubai 2009 welcomed 14,000 attendees, (40) up from 12,000 in 2008, (41) and while sales figures varied between exhibitors, editors from ArtAsiaPacific noted the overall energy of the crowd was optimistic (42). Dealers’ heavier focus on artists from the Gulf and the Middle East, as opposed to those from the West or the Indian subcontinent, signaled a desire to invest in and fortify local art communities.

This trend was also echoed in the October 2009 Christie’s auction in Dubai of International Modern and Contemporary Art, which saw approximately three-quarters of its lots sold for a total of $6.7 million. This sum represents a 50 percent increase from the April 2009 sale, demonstrating a modest but healthy rebound. The sale was solidly centered on work from the Middle East, and it set records for Arab, Turkish, and Iranian artists. Michael Jeha, the Managing Director of Christie’s Middle East, declared the event reveals that “despite the global economic troubles of the last year, the appetite for art in the Middle East continues to grow, as does the international appreciation for Middle Eastern art.”(43) While the initial phases of cultural development in the UAE have, thus far, made attracting international acclaim and audiences the priority, it appears that economic uncertainty has redirected many efforts toward engaging the local publics and supporting regional artists.

Fostering Local Communities

Examples of these efforts have taken a variety of forms and have been promoted by a range of arts administrators and organizations. Many of these endeavors have unfolded over the last year, but two important projects pioneered by Emiratis themselves were formulated a couple of years earlier, breaking important ground for these later ventures. The Flying House in Dubai, an exhibition space and archive, was opened in January 2008 by businessman Abdul Raheem Sharif, who wanted to establish a venue where he could display the vast collection of work by his two artist brothers that he had been storing away for decades. Today, The Flying House promotes and showcases the work of Hassan and Hussein Sharif, two of the UAE’s most esteemed artists, alongside other artists living and working in the Emirates (44). Also looking to make her own opportunities is Emirati artist Lateefa bint Maktoum, who developed a gallery and studio program called Tashkeel with the help of her former teacher, which also opened in Dubai in January 2008. After graduating from art school in the UAE, Maktoum observed that many artists “had fantastic concepts but [they] didn’t know how to execute them. So we created a situation where people could learn from each other. We intended for it to grow organically rather than in a planned fashion.”(45) Grass-roots and artist-run initiatives such as these laid the foundation for the community-building projects that have developed since the global financial crisis.

In early 2009, the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi hosted an exhibition curated by Anne Baldassari of the Musée National Picasso in Paris titled Emirati Expressions, which featured over 150 works by 87 local artists. Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development Investment Company initiated the project and received close to 500 submissions, eliminating the group’s early worries that it might not attract enough interested artists to fill the space (46). While some commentators chose to ignore the importance of the show by dismissing the entire body of work, with headlines like “Derivative at Best” announced by a critic posting on, many art writers and critics living in the region recognized and applauded the ambitious undertaking (47). Emirati Expressions presented the art of emerging as well as veteran artists from the country, encouraging both participant and audience to consider the visual arts a viable career path. Aiming to foster a community among these arts practitioners is the Portfolio Gallery, which opened in Dubai’s Al Quoz district in September 2009. In addition to hosting exhibitions of photography by artists working in the region, Portfolio also houses a communal space where artists can meet, share a cup of tea, and discuss art (48). This focus on cultivating connections and collaborations between UAE residents is a very new direction for Emiratis, but it is creating a lot of opportunity and excitement within the country.

Two other significant endeavors have adopted a more international scope while continuing to prioritize the local arts community. The UAE had its first entry at the Venice Biennale in 2009, with a pavilion curated by Tirdad Zolghadr, a native Iranian currently based in Berlin, who previously co-curated the 2005 Sharjah Biennial (49). At the center of the Biennale’s Arsenale, the space presented a solo show of Dubai-based photographer and filmmaker Lamya Gargash, as well as the work of several other Emirati artists, videos of conversations between some of the UAE’s prominent cultural figures, and architectural models of several Saadiyat Island projects. The pavilion’s commissioner, Dr. Lamees Hamdan, expressed in an interview soon after the event’s opening that she feels “the Venice Biennale speaks very much to UAE artists themselves…who are very underrepresented…in everything.” Furthermore, she hopes that “the pavilion will not only speak to an international audience, but also to commercial galleries back home, that there are some talented individuals that you guys are not representing.” (50) The first annual Abu Dhabi Art fair that took place in November 2009 concentrated on doing just that, by featuring a strong contingent of MENASA artists and galleries. Formulated after artparis-AbuDhabi 2009 was cancelled due to financial woes, Abu Dhabi Art included a greater number of regional galleries than artparis-AbuDhabi had in previous years, along with hosting an extensive range of performances, lectures, book launches, and exhibitions relating to the promotion of the contemporary arts communities in the Gulf and neighboring areas.

Initiatives related to issues of education and funding are also helping to nurture these communities. The governments of the UAE are increasingly investing in arts education at institutions such as Zayed University in Abu Dhabi as well as the planned New York University outpost in the same emirate (51). Others are looking to begin cultivating contemporary art discourse within the artistic community. A group called Thinking Cloud organizes workshops in Al Quoz as well as at museums in Sharjah surrounding topics of cultural identity and pedagogy. British co-founder Laura Trelford explains that Thinking Cloud fills a need “to further analyse and discuss the new trend of contemporary art, bringing together practitioners, critics, gallery owners, art students and a general art interested public to debate pertinent issues.”(53) Still other parties are dedicating themselves to ensuring that regional artists have the financial support they need to continue their practices and pursuits. The Dubai-based investment firm Abraaj Capital inaugurated its Abraaj Capital Art Prize at Art Dubai in 2009 and it plans to annually award its sizeable $200,000 gifts to teams made up of one artist and one curator. Only artists living and working in the MENASA area are eligible as Abraaj’s mission is to “raise awareness of innovative and experimental work being created by artists” in that part of the world (54). Trelford, who is also the Abraaj Capital Art Prize Manager for Art Dubai, emphasizes that many of these young initiatives “place education and documenting artistic practice and development at the core of their work—producing books, videos, and archival material annually.”(55) This growing concentration on fostering an educated, critical, and well-equipped art community within the UAE is a very welcome shift for those inside the country, as well as for proponents of its cultural expansion outside the country who have been yearning for government and institutions to encourage the grassroots development necessary for a strong foundation in the arts.

Clash and Collaboration

The interaction of influences within the United Arab Emirates’ evolving cultural landscape raises important issues surrounding the potentials and pitfalls of various arts infrastructure models in an emerging art market and community. The international art world figures and institutions recruited by the Emirati government during the initial years of the country’s cultural development bypassed and dismissed efforts to cultivate a local art public. In response to this neglect, and in the wake of a financial crisis that prompted the questioning of the reliability and longevity of foreign investment in the UAE, Emirati artists and officials launched their own initiatives related to opportunities and education for the native and resident population. This progression can be read as a clash between global versus local, external versus internal, or foreign versus native; however, these forces are not entirely distinct, as demonstrated by the contributions of arts administrators such as Tirdad Zolghadr and Laura Trelford, who have channeled their backgrounds and experience into working with artists living in the UAE.

As curator Zolghadr declares, “the crisis might actually be good. There’s currently a lot of local support for more sustainable, smaller-scale projects that don’t reap immediate rewards…We need to think in the long term and not only go after artists who raise a ruckus on the art market.”(56) It remains to be seen how accessible and successful the UAE’s educational and community-building initiatives will be, but it is a promising sign that the country is increasingly looking to the talent and tenacity of its residents and neighbors to enhance the efforts of international agents as they guide it through tough economic times and into the future.


1. “UAE’s growth to remain buoyant on diversification,” Kuwait Times, February 21, 2007, Business News section,

2. The seven emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwain.

3. “Real estate and bank stocks in UAE hit by investor worries about fourth quarter earnings,” Gulf News, January 14, 2009, Business/Markets section,

4. Maymanah Farhat, “United Arab Emirates,” ArtAsiaPacific, Almanac 2009 262.

5. Antonia Carver, “Art Market: Frieze, Christie’s and the Dubai effect,” Bidoun, Winter 2007 27.

6. Murtaza Vali, “Dubai: Art Entrepot,” Art Review, July/August 2007 82.

7. Lucian Harris, “Art Dubai and the Future of the Middle East Art Market,” Apollo, March 2009 29-30.

8. Germany signed a memorandum of understanding with the UAE in 2004, which outlined a long-term strategic partnership between the two nations in the realms of politics, culture, military, and economics.

9. Mahmoud Habboush, “Speaker hails German goodwill towards UAE,” The National, November 26, 2009, UAE section,

10. Maissa Alsuwaidi, e-mail message to author, April 27, 2009.

11. Alsuwaidi is the Operations Manager for the Sharjah Museums Department.

12. Ibid.

13. Farhat 261.

14. Louisa Buck, “Sharjah Biennial: open invitation to artists leads to focused and evocative show,” The Art Newspaper, April 2009, http://

15. Guggenheim, “Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum,”

16. Sharon Waxman, “An Oasis in the Desert,” ARTnews, February 2009 72-3.

17. Carol Vogel, “Abu Dhabi Gets a Sampler of World Art,” The New York Times, May 27, 2009, Arts Section.

18. French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended the Louvre Abu Dhabi groundbreaking as well as the opening of the exhibition as part of a trip he took to the UAE capital, which also included the inauguration of a French military base there.

19. Alan Riding, “The Louvre’s Art: Priceless. The Louvre’s Name: Expensive,” The New York Times, March 7, 2007, Arts Section.

20. Waxman 69 and 72.

21. Waxman 70.

22. Waxman 77.

23. Adam Sage, “Purists villify Louvre over ‘vulgar’ plan to lease out masterpieces,” The Times, January 8, 2007, Business Section,

24. Aaron Moulton, “Questions to the Co-Director of the Gulf Art Fair,” Flash Art, January/February 2007 57.

25. The Editors, “Art Fair Report: A Caravan of White Cubes,” ArtAsiaPacific, May/June 2008 94.

26. Waxman 74.

27. Human Rights Watch has published multiple reports in the last several years documenting rampant abuse of the immigrant workforce in the UAE on the part of Emirati employers.

28. HG Masters, “Labor Abuses Reported on Museum Island,” ArtAsiaPacific, June/August 2009 35.

29. Robert Bound, “Just So Hot Right Now,” Monocle, May 2009.

30. Matthew Collings, “Doo Buy! Giddy asinine wealthy fun in the United Arab Emirates,” Modern Painters, June 2008 38.

31. Valentina Sansone, “1000 and 1 Art Dubai,” Flash Art, May/June 2008 83.

32. Judith Benhamou-Huet, “The Emirates Art Bonanza,” Art Press, January 2008 16.

33. Judith Benhamou-Huet 16.

34. Murtaza Vali, “Sharjah Biennial 8: ‘Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change.’” Bidoun, Summer 2007 103.

35. Ibid.

36. Negar Azimi, “Trading Places,” Artforum, April 2008 394.

37. “The Outstretched Palm,” Economist, February 26, 2009, Finance and Economics Section, cfm?story_id=13186145.

38. Chip Cummins, Dana Cimilluca, and Sara Schaefer Munoz, “Dubai’s Woes Shake UAE, Region,” The Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2009, Business section,

39. Aijaz Zaka Syed, “View from Dubai: Don’t Write Us Off Just Yet,” Middle East Times, February 26, 2009, Politics Section,

40. David Velasco, “The Gulf Between,” Artforum, March 27, 2009, Scene and Herd Section,

41. Henrik Thomsen, “In den Sand gesetzt,” Die Tageszeitung, February 4, 2009, Art section,

42. Maissa Alsuwaidi, e-mail message to author, April 27, 2009.

43. William Andersen, e-mail messages to author, April 18, 2009 and November 7, 2009.

44., “Art Dubai Announces Dates for Its 2010 Contemporary Art Fair,”

45. Salwat Ali, “Art Dubai 2008,” Architecture Design Art, July 2008, Art section,

46. The Editors, “Art Fair Report: Old World Exodus,” ArtAsiaPacific, May/June 2009 66.

47., “Christie’s Auction of International Modern and Contemporary Art Realizes $6.7 Million,”

48. Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder, “The Flying House,” Nafas art magazine, April 2008,

49. chinar tree, “’We want to cultivate art from Dubai.’ An Interview with Lateefa bint Maktoum at Tashkeel,” December 2008,

50. Gareth Clark, “Emirati Expression,” Time Out Abu Dhabi, February 1, 2009, Art section,

51. Valerie Grove, “Emirati Expressions,”, Review section,

52. Canvas Guide, “Impressive Portfolio,”

53. Clint Burnham, “Report: Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism,” Canadian Art, March 12, 2009, Features section,

54. Al Manakh, “Interview with Lamees Hamdan Gergash,” June 25, 2009,

55. Sara Raza, “The United Arab Emirates’ Grand Designs,” ArtAsiaPacific, March/April 2009 64-5.

56. Ibid 65.

57. Laura Trelford, e-mail message to author, November 8, 2009.

58. Art Dubai, “Abraaj Capital Art Prize,”

59. Laura Trelford, e-mail message to author, November 8, 2009.

60. Lyra Kilston, “UAE Pavilion,” Modern Painters, May 2009 59.