Creativity and the future of the arts in the UAE

The National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries was launched last month

A workshop on graffiti art at World Conference on Creative Economy 2021, Dubai. Victor Besa / The National
Powered by automated translation

It is well known that the Covid-19 pandemic decimated creative industries, at great cost to the estimated 30 million people globally working in the creative sector.

Creatives in the UAE were not spared either, with a recent report from The Ministry of Culture and Youth (MCY) estimating that 75 per cent of companies and freelancers incurred a loss in revenue due to the cancellation of cultural events. One of every five freelancers lost their entire earnings during the past year.

But lockdowns also highlighted two things about creative industries: the importance of cultural activity to individual well-being and community resilience; and secondly, the sector’s resilience in the face of adversity. (The MCY report noted that the adoption of digital strategies was essential in generating new revenues, with half of the participants leveraging new digital initiatives during 2020.)

Art has been a vital tool for human expression, identity and for meaning throughout history. And as the UAE looks ahead to its next phase of development, the arts are very much in focus. Abu Dhabi plans to invest Dh22 billion ($6bn) over the next five years in its cultural and creative industries.

The National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries was launched last month, ahead of the UAE's golden jubilee, to increase the economic contribution of the cultural and creative industries to at least five percent of GDP in the next 10 years.

This strategy was underpinned by the recently announced legal reforms that include a strengthening of copyright laws to offer greater protection to people working within creative sectors, including art and culture, music, fashion and the knowledge economy.

This investment of funds and the development of legislation will be vital to the development of the UAE’s arts sector, allied with the fantastic work that is being done by people and organisations at a grassroots level. So, the question now is: what needs to happen next, and how will this benefit our communities?

I have had the benefit of witnessing the creative sector’s development for seven years, in my role as executive artistic director of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). When I started in 2014, there were very few places for local artists to perform original material, even though they were making good music on their own at home.

Bringing Rooftop Rhythms - open mic nights into our programme helped build a community in music and spoken word. These were all necessary steps that helped artists perform regularly, getting that vital 10,000 hours of practice, along with the chance to collaborate with other artists.

A theme of the current season is to help develop the UAE’s nascent dance scene. Events like our recent UAE National Day performance Hekayah, The Story demonstrates the increasing vibrancy of the locally based artist community. The issuing of “creative visas” to help attract and retain talent has helped. It is also important for artists to develop their professional skills, including branding, contracts, negotiations, intellectual property and marketing. During the peak of Covid-19, for example, artists who diversified their revenue base survived.

To this end, with the support of the US Mission to the UAE, we’ve launched Numoo, a year-long development initiative for UAE-based artists that will help them build a sustainable career. And Mubadala has invested in The Arts Center’s overall season, with a special role as presenter of Off The Stage, our ongoing series of workshops, masterclasses and talks, to expand the artistic ecosystem.

Expo 2020 is also extremely useful in continuing this development, by providing a host of opportunities for artists to play to new, global audiences on a daily basis. Expo’s theme – Connecting Minds, Creating the Future – is also an apt description for the role that art plays in helping us understand our complex, interconnected world.

Regionally relevant art becomes part of the way a city or nation understands and brands itself. This is important in facilitating dialogue, helping residents make sense of their society, and giving the wider world a more coherent sense of the UAE’s unique narratives.

I already see artists who are instantly recognisable as being from this country – for example, there are bands here who combine the oud with electronics, jazz and breakbeats, which is a sound unique to the UAE. The Arts Center was also fortunate to present It Ain't Where You’re From by the Dubai-based filmmaker Philip Rachid in September, which is a powerful cultural exploration of the Middle East’s underground hip hop scene. This is a story that could not have been told anywhere else.

I expect to see this kind of artistic expression develop further in light of Abu Dhabi being awarded the status “City of Music” by the Unesco Creative Cities Network, which will promote co-operation among cities that are designated cultural hubs.

As we look ahead to what this means for the continued development of this nation, I reflect on the remarks made by Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, at a recent panel discussion. I was struck by her upbeat assessment of what art means to people here. With the UAE as a true home to many expats, she described how during the pandemic the arts brought the community together in solidarity.

Art was an essential component for people to process the trauma of the pandemic, and it will help us develop as a society, as we look to a future that will unfold in surprising and beautiful ways that only our imagination can conjure.

Published: December 13, 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: December 15, 2021, 7:50 AM