Noura Al Kaabi on keeping UAE arts sector afloat amid pandemic: 'If there are freelancers or businesses struggling, let us know'

In an online discussion with Sultan Al Qassemi, Al Kaabi explains how her ministry is addressing the slowdown in the creative sector

Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Noura Al Kaabi during the online Cultural Majlis with Sultan Al Qassemi. 
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As the coronavirus pandemic causes an economic slowdown that is also crippling the arts and culture industry, Noura Al Kaabi has revealed some steps the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development is taking to keep the sector alive in the UAE.

“We are in a mode of adapting and modifying,” the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development said in an online conference on Wednesday night. Her ministry has been gathering information from industry figures to “understand who is being affected and how the government of the UAE can support the sustainability of the creative and cultural sector”, she added.

The smaller businesses are definitely affected, and medium-sized ones will be ... and this is where you can see the measures taken from a local government perspective, from rent to soon – VAT – and I hope also utilities

Al Kaabi spoke live via an online ‘Cultural Majlis’ hosted by Sultan Al Qassemi. More than 150 people, including key figures from UAE art institutions, educators and artists, were in attendance.

She also put a direct call out to people working in the arts in the Emirates: “If there are any businesses or freelancers in the UAE that are struggling, please let us know. It’s important for us to look into ways that we can support one another.

“People say culture and arts are nice to have, to hang in offices, to buy some art, but I think it’s more than that ...,” she said. Creative and cultural sectors aid in diversifying the UAE economy, she added.

During the discussion, Al Kaabi shared that her ministry has been in weekly meetings with other ministries, including the Ministry of Economy, to present financial concerns to federal and local governments to move forward changes in policy.

VAT relief and other support for SMEs and freelancers 

Al Kaabi acknowledged the vulnerability of freelancers and SMEs during the crisis, and indicated that the government is preparing more measures to alleviate the burden on these individuals and entities, including potential VAT relief.

“I believe everyone is important in the creative and cultural sector, specifically freelancers. The smaller businesses are definitely affected, and medium-sized ones will be affected in a way, and this is where you can see the measures taken from a local government perspective, from rent to soon – VAT – and I hope also utilities …” she said.

In the UAE, emirates such as Abu Dhabi have already implemented stimulus packages to ease the burden of costs for consumers and businesses, including subsidies on water and electricity charges. Developers such as Dubai's Meraas and Nakheel and Sharjah's Alef Group have also put rent-relief measures in place for commercial spaces.

More economic support announcements to be made 'soon'

Al Kaabi said that announcements would be made soon regarding additional economic support, and expressed reassurance that the sector’s concerns are being heard.

“There is an urgency, and there are also leaders who are making sure that we are not that quiet when it comes to sustaining our economy and business and talents within the UAE,” she said.

The minister also called on private individuals to boost funding efforts. “It’s time for the patrons of art to step in, for individuals who feel that they can support a certain gallery or a certain research study or scholarship to do so,” she said, noting that these initiatives could come in the form of employing a freelancer for a project or acquiring an art piece from a local artist.

Al Kaabi said she recently purchased work from an Emirati artist. “This is something that is easy to do. It’s important to look at the quick steps, like buying art, and then the longer sustainable measures that we need to focus on, for the next three to six months,” she added.

An opportunity to alter the status quo

She considers the current moment as an “opportunity” to alter the status quo, including finding ways to simplify processes within ministries, such as the procurement of creative works and services.

“We’ve always been doing it the difficult way, the red tape way, the bureaucratic way. Now we are looking into how we can offer freelancers, artists and creatives a very straightforward way that we can commission their work without such a long process,” she said.

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development emphasized on the significance of Arabic poetry in the UAE as a means of preserving the language for future generations, at Poets Retreat and launch of the UAE poets club. Courtsey: Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.
Noura Al Kaabi speaking about the importance of Arabic poetry in preserving language last year

"After this, we cannot go back to square one, the way we used to do work,” she noted of the things being learnt during this crisis.

More broadly, Al Kaabi said her ministry aimed to emphasise the crucial role of the arts and culture sector in the economy.

She said her office has recently completed a study that upholds this argument with data, though she did not specify what the figures entailed. “It’s a number that will make everyone who is sitting on the table say ‘This is an important industry’,” she said.

“People will say that there are different priorities than watching a play or seeing an exhibition, but I think the numbers, which we will start sharing with our stakeholders, will reflect that the creative sector is a sector ... it has accounting, human resources, finance, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers. It is an industry. Therefore, it is crucial for us to look at how it is impactful, not just from the beauty side of it,” she added.

Al Kaabi's own love for the arts: 'made me understand that even if we're different, it's OK'

Speaking of her own personal connection to the arts, Al Kaabi said she's “always been an avid lover of music and movies".

"Art is something that I started appreciating more than 10 years ago. Nothing bonds us together more than art. It’s the way you wake up and listen to Fayrouz … It will change my mood and make me look forward to my day.”

Stay strong. Keep creating. Beautiful things come from solitude. It's times [like these] that we redefine the way we think

She highlighted the influence Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation had on her. “It was a place where I felt I travelled to many places at the same time, so it made me think better, perform better and understand that even if we’re different, it’s OK. I think this is where art affected me growing up.”

Closing the discussion with words of encouragement, Al Kaabi returned to the issue of the pandemic.

“We’re all in it together. [The virus] doesn’t matter who we are, where we come from or what status we’re in. The most important thing is that we stay optimistic.

"We are beautifying the world around us, from the music, the art, the books, literature, the films …” she said.

“Stay strong. Keep creating. Beautiful things come from solitude. It’s times [like these] that we redefine the way we think,” she said.