As the UAE celebrates Hazza Al Mansouri's historic trip to space, it is only right to feel proud about the success of the country's fledgling space programme and its impressive record of scientific progress.
In the midst of the coverage about Al Mansouri's journey, though, it has been easy to overlook another announcement that, in years to come, may prove to be the starting point of another journey towards innovation and progress in a vastly different field. It is news that artists, authors and innovators will soon be able to apply for the UAE's first long-term cultural visa. The announcement was made by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, after a meeting he held with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority last week.
The agency, he said, would now seek to implement what he called a "new cultural vision" for the emirate, using its 6,000 art and culture companies, five creative clusters, 20 museums and more than 550 annual cultural events to establish the city as a global art destination. Complementing this, he said, a new international literature season will be launched, while the Al Quoz area will be designated as a creative free zone.
Some of the groundwork for this aspirational objective is already in place. The annual Emirates Literature Festival has a well-established international reputation. Local firms have secured Dubai’s position as the top book-publishing centre in the Arabian Gulf. Top international auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies have already selected Dubai as the prime regional centre for sales of fine art and jewellery, as well as important manuscripts from the Islamic world and elsewhere.
Dubai already has architectural masterpieces like Burj Khalifa and is dotted with buildings designed by some of the world’s top architects. The Expo 2020 pavilion, due to open a year from now, will only be one of many more world-class examples of design.
With the strong commitment from government to promote the new visa, we can expect further growth in these sectors.
For that growth to reach its full potential, however, it will be essential not just to depend on organic development within these sectors – from those already here or engaged with the Emirates from overseas – but to achieve two other tasks.
One is to encourage the artists, authors and innovators already here to recognise that the UAE offers a friendly environment in which they can develop. A key element to that, particularly early in their careers, will be the knowledge that securing a visa will not be a problem. The second task is to encourage people from abroad to move here, to add their vision and skills to the broad pool of talent already present.
Since its establishment nearly 50 years ago, the UAE has always welcomed people from overseas. They have contributed to the building of excellence in a variety of fields, from engineering to construction, from education to healthcare, from financial services to the environment. The cross-fertilisation of cultures and faiths has been fundamental to the building of a tolerant and forward-looking society.
But, perhaps in the past, there has been a focus on the skills to be found in these professions while what might be classified as "the arts" have received insufficient attention. I look forward to seeing the way in which authors, artists and innovators can also make a greater contribution to the evolution of our national cultural landscape.
It will take time before the benefits become apparent. But the staging of more literary events and the establishment of the Al Quoz creative free zone – as well as the seven new "Schools of Life" to teach young people skills in art, innovation and creativity – should lead to some immediate results from Sheikh Mohammed’s important initiative.
Looking forward, I urge those preparing to implement the initiative to give thought to how we can ensure that there will be a steady flow of young people seeking to apply for these visas. To achieve that, perhaps we need to examine the inherent biases in our education system.
I am all in favour of an education that devotes attention to mathematics and the sciences. But we need to see more recognition of the value of subjects which may, currently, be viewed as of lesser importance. I hear, for example, that subjects like music, art, drama or design are given less weight in terms of the formal assessment of qualifications. As a result, students who are gifted in these fields are often persuaded by both parents and teachers to opt for more conventional subjects when it comes to formal examinations.
If the UAE is to emerge as a creative hub – and I firmly believe that it has the capacity to do so – it is from these fields that many of our best artists, authors, innovators and musicians will come forth. We need to encourage them.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture