Art and the Desert: Welcome to Dubai

Gordon Finlayson takes us on a journey to the rapidly growing arts scene in the United Arab Emirates in the first of his columns on art in the desert, brought to you direct from airconditioned Dubai.
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Welcome to the inaugural Arts Hub column from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Each month, through this column I’ll be exploring the arts life of this region, from a country that sits on the fringes of Asia, Europe and Africa, with its diverse communities, rapidly growing economy and endless ambition. Understanding the arts scene here is difficult without context about the region, so in this first column, I’m going to try to capture just a small snapshot of what makes Dubai and the UAE tick.

To situate Dubai on the globe, it is around seven hours flying distance east of London, three hours west of Mumbai, five hours north of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania fourteen hours northwest of Sydney and about pretty much the exact opposite side of the world to Los Angeles. The country is composed of seven different Emirates, each with its own ruling family packed into an area roughly the size of Austria. Back in the 19th Century the states of this region ceded responsibility for their defence to the British crown, an obligation which her Majesty’s government finally gave up on in the latter part of the 20th century, kindly handing back governance in 1971, just in time for the ruling families of the UAE to turn this region into the world’s largest piggy bank by pumping a certain sticky black liquid out of the sand dunes.

The environment here fluctuates somewhere between paradise and the eternal fires of damnation. During winter the warm days, clear skies and cool waters of the Gulf make Dubai an idyllic place to sip cocktails by the pool at your hotel, but come summer, when the temperature regularly reaches forty five degrees Celsius, windows fog up from the humidity and the sky clouds over with a murky mix of sand and exhaust fumes the city shows that paradise it aint always. During summer most people spend as much time hiding away in air conditioned comfort of their houses or workplaces and venture out in their air conditioned cars, stopping only to unload at air conditioned malls, cafes or hotels.

Today this small country is home to about four and a half million people, of which only about twenty percent are actually UAE nationals, the rest of the population is composed of a massive imported labour force, the backbone of the economy is composed by labour from the Indian subcontinent, Arab and Iranians also compose a large proportion of the population while Pilipino service workers and white collar Europeans, Australians, South Africans and Americans make up most of the rest of the population. It takes only a short drive around Dubai to reveal some of the stunning contrasts: within fifteen minutes you can pass by sumptuous Emirati palaces and gardens, through poor Indian districts lit up with bright neon, past seaside congregations of high rise apartments and around Truman Show style suburban compounds complete with well manicured lawns, tennis courts and polo clubs. Dubai itself is a city of staggering wealth, but is built on the backs of cut price labour from the subcontinent and Asia, construction workers from Pakistan, taxi drivers from Southern India, service workers from the Philippines.

The UAE is located in one of the most volatile regions of the world; sitting just a ferry ride across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and close by to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this locale the UAE itself is a bastion of stability, with a low crime rates and no major recorded terrorist incidences. Few of the governments in the region are actually elected, the UAE is a federal collection of small monarchies, and likewise, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the Kuwait also all have their own royal families. It’s a region that, thanks to oil reserves, has a staggering amount of wealth, wealth that has been bolstered in recent years by high oil prices and increased demand from China’s economic revolution.

Dubai in particular has been a hub for investment of a considerable amount of wealth from the region over the past decade, with much of it going into areas such as real estate, hotels, the media, airlines and tourism. Building sites are ubiquitous in this city, everywhere you look there is a new skyscraper being erected or massive offshore land reclamation project occurring. Dubai currently is building the tallest building in the world, features what is said to be the only seven star hotel in the planet and has several massive land reclamation projects in progress. Dubai is like some sort of massive Sim City wet dream, full of incomprehensibly grand plans – one of the project currently underway, ‘the World’ involves the building of 300 islands in a seven kilometre diameter recreation of a map of the world some four kilometres off the coast of Dubai that will house an new ocean city of hotels, houses, retail centres, restaurants and cafes all linked by an elaborate ferry system. Through these developments Dubai is well on the way to becoming one of this century’s major tourism capitals. With its liberal government Dubai has also become a centre for touring performing arts, pop concerts and clubs and has a host of annual festivals including a jazz festival, international film festival and features the annual Gulf Art Fair.

In the UAE, Dubai competes for economic development with its neighbour Abu Dhabi, a larger emirate that has enjoys more oil wealth than Dubai but has had world’s attention taken away from it by its neighbour’s amazing growth. Not to be outdone however, Abu Dhabi is trying a different tack and is positioning itself as a centre of culture with plans to spend nearly half a billion dollars over the next ten years building a national art collection, and other announcements that a new Guggenheim franchise will be located there and a multi-hundred million euro deal done with the Louvre to use its name and host parts of its collection there. On the other side of Dubai the small emirate of Sharjah has been hosting a Biennial since 1993 with the stated aim of developing artistic links in the Arab world. Throughout the region the super rich are an important market overall for cultural produce from around the world, particularly in a region where status is important and European and American goods cultural products are highly valued.

All of these factors are likely to see the UAE develop as a regional centre for the global arts industry over the coming years, through the growth of tourism and leisure industries in Dubai, government funded arts projects in Abu Dhabi, plus the added factors of population growth in the region and the development of other Emirates and countries in the region, the UAE is likely to continue to grow in importance for the global arts industries as a market for cultural products and an employment market for arts workers.

Gordon Finlayson
About the Author
Gordon Finlayson is a entertainment lawyer and freelance writer based in Dubai. He has extensive experience in the music industry, media and technology, and also writes for