The rise of the Gulf’s creative entrepreneurs

This century has so far seen intense investment interest and support of creative and cultural development in the UAE

New hubs are springing up throughout the UAE to support a growing creative economy. The Cinema Akil theatre on Al Serkal Ave. Courtesy of Instagram Cinema Akil 
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Twenty years ago, pursuing art in the Arabian Gulf wasn’t widely considered an ideal full-time profession. But contrary to the stereotype of starving artists, the growing number of creative entrepreneurs and the rise of the region’s creative industry are now proving otherwise.

The creative industry is a sector not be taken lightly. In the United Kingdom, for instance, creative work contributed more than £100 billion to the country’s economy. Between 2010 and 2017 the gross value-add of the creative industry increased 53.1 per cent; nearly twice the rate that the economy as a whole witnessed in growth during the same period, according to UK government statistics.

The UAE is a country that appreciates and supports the creative industry.

The image of a solo artist painting away in a studio is evolving to a perception of artists as creative entrepreneurs, making a substantial living from their art and contributing to the economy.

The 2000s have so far seen intense investment interest and support to the creative and cultural development in the country. In 2009, the UAE became the first Gulf nation to have a permanent pavilion at international art exhibition Venice Biennial. Louvre Abu Dhabi, Warehouse 421, Al Serkal Avenue, Jameel Art Center, Sharjah’s Museum of Islamic Civilization, Art Dubai and Art Abu Dhabi have enriched the country’s art scene and helped transform it to become the regional art centre that it is today.

The Internet, social media platforms and the gig economy have aided thousands of creatives in the Gulf in sharing their work online and providing exposure for further business opportunities.

Aljoud Lootah is a compelling success story. The Emirati designer is the founder of Aljoud Lootah Design Studio, a business specialising in product design and corporate gifts such as planners, as well as furniture and home accessories. The forceful designer also organises art workshops and has showcased her work in London.

Though considered by some a relatively new art field, digital artists from the Gulf are also contributing to the growing art scene and some have turned their artistic skills into thriving freelance businesses.

Last year, I got to know 23-year-old rising Saudi digital artist, Shahad Nazer. The self-taught freelancer is becoming increasingly popular in the Gulf’s digital art scene for her strong conceptual and emotional artwork.

She is constantly commissioned by regional media and is currently collaborating with a leading global food and beverage brand on a project she will announce soon. Ms Nazer, who became financially independent as a result of her commissioned work and her printed art that she ships to clients in the region, sees herself as a creative entrepreneur. But as exciting as it is, the field still presents some challenges to her as an artist, and one’s number of followers on Instagram can play a massive role.

“Unfortunately, people look at the number of followers you have on social media, rather than the creativity of your content. So, businesses usually go for those with a higher number of followers.” says Ms Nazer.

Despite the challenge, there’s a growing demand from regional businesses that are looking for regional creative entrepreneurs to work with and are not necessarily seduced by the number of followers these artists have.

Bahraini digital artist and illustrator Hala Alabbasi’s work can be seen on the branding of popular homegrown Parker’s restaurant, where she worked on the branding of its packaging and the restaurant’s façade. Dubai based high-end footwear label Tamashee is also a brand the 29-year-old has collaborated with. Like Ms Nazer, she has also worked with regional media outlets to illustrate magazine covers.

“This type of art is not well known in our region. However, businesses on social media have started recently to give some opportunities to the digital artists,” says Ms Alabbasi.

The growth of the creative industry across the Gulf states and especially the UAE is vital as economies move away from oil. The opening of new creative hubs and spaces such as Hayy: Creative Hub in Jeddah that will serve as an incubator to support creatives from Saudi Arabia and the region when it opens later in the year are important now more than ever.

Who knows, perhaps the region’s economy could come to depend on this industry very soon.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati journalist and entrepreneur, who manages her marketing and communications company in Abu Dhabi.