This a take on the UAE’s traditional Al Sadu weave, something unique and synonymous with the heritage of the UAE Image Credit: By Pranith Ratheesan/ Gulf News

Today, as the nation celebrates the golden jubilee of the formation of the UAE, the signposts of its transition from an oil-based economy to a creative and knowledge-based one is evident across all seven emirates.

Taking the Father of the Nation, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s famous saying, “A country that loses sight of its heritage and culture risks its present and future” to heart, the UAE leadership has been not only preserving Emirati culture and heritage but also investing heavily in the creative industries ensuring long-term sustainable growth prospects for the nation.

Apart from developing museums and heritage sites and reviving indigenous arts and crafts, the Emirates have been exploring various formats for cultural storytelling.

Dubai’s thrust

The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, or Dubai Culture, is the government entity responsible for maintaining the emirate’s rich heritage, nurturing creative talent and supporting cultural diversity.

“We continually seek to enable the sector as an economic driver, while positioning Dubai as a global centre for culture, an incubator for creativity and a thriving hub for talent,” says Shaima Rashed Al Suwaidi, Dubai Culture’s Director of Marketing and Corporate Communication Department, while speaking to GN Focus. “Dubai Culture works within the framework of its strategic road map 2020-2026, which is in line with the Dubai Creative Economy Strategy that aims to transform the emirate into the global capital of the creative economy by 2025.”

Dubai Culture’s remit is to weave the emirate’s cultural journey over the years in the public consciousness through stories told through words and art shared over generations, while throwing light on the nation’s heritage for the world.

One such canvas that embroiders the city and reflects its ambition like no other is its architectural spirit that continuously raises international bars of accomplishment with every modern edifice. Apart from the iconic Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s marvels of engineering include the Binghatti Pearls, designed as a tribute to Dubai’s pearl diving history with a facade emulating pearl shells; futuristic designs such as the upcoming Opus by Zaha Hadid; and the Museum of the Future, a structure adorned by intricate calligraphy and listed as one of the world’s most beautiful museums by National Geographic.

Dubai is committed to establishing partnerships with the private sector, deeming public-private partnership as essential for the government’s plans for building a sustainable and competitive economy based on knowledge, expertise and diversity. “Take for instance our partnership with Google Arts & Culture platform (see boxout on page 40), which allows people to visually explore Dubai’s unique history and ever-evolving creative scene,” says Al Suwaidi. “In addition to the six museums and heritage sites that Dubai Culture manages, the authority grants creatives a number of platforms to express themselves, including Sikka Arts Festival, Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre, and Emirates Airline Literature Festival, among others.”

She lists the emirate’s projects such as Dubai Centre for Heritage Development, which aims to be an educational platform for students to learn about the UAE’s heritage; School of Life, launched to translate the ideas of creative people into successful works; and community initiatives like Ramadan Heroes that support the government’s mandate to develop a knowledge-based society. “While promoting a cultural and creative environment, it also integrates cultural content in innovative ways across the UAE’s educational curriculum to enable today’s youngsters feel proud of the nation’s heritage and culture.”

Abu Dhabi’s cultural commitment

While Dubai showcases larger-than-life projects across the spectrum, Abu Dhabi is harnessing both individual and institutional efforts to celebrate Emirati culture and heritage to create a positive narrative in the region. Through its many projects the emirate is gradually transitioning from importer and consumer of art and design to creator and exporter of design-driven products and services.

Abu Dhabi’s effort to dominate the scene, the Saadiyat Island Cultural District houses the largest single cluster of world-class cultural assets. It is fast growing into the UAE’s cultural hub with the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum as the main attraction and will include upon completion the Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith- dialogue facility.

While the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are universal museums, they are designed to be rooted in UAE culture. “The Louvre Abu Dhabi draws connections between global cultures and civilisations, but never forgets its position in the UAE and wider Arab world,” says Manuel Rabaté, Museum Director, Louvre Abu Dhabi. “It contextualises the human history and creativity of this region, from pre-history to the current day. Through the artefacts and artworks on view in the collection and in exhibitions, stories of cultural connections are revealed as part of the culture and heritage of the UAE as a global hub of exchange.”

With this is mind, Louvre Abu Dhabi will mark the UAE’s golden jubilee with a special display highlighting the unity of the Emirates. Items and artworks from the UAE, from ancient times to the present day, will be showcased throughout the museum’s permanent galleries. “From artefacts on loan from neighbouring UAE institutions to Sharp Tools, a contemporary film by film-maker and poet Nujoom Al Ghanem, these works form a collective testament to the rich history and achievements of the nation, which have been realised through cultural sustainability and diversity,” says Rabaté.

The exhibition will be truly national with works on loan from nine partners in the UAE including the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Al Ain Museum, Dubai Municipality, Sharjah Archaeology Authority, Ajman Museum, Umm Al Quwain National Museum and National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is pulling out all the stops to get the public involved in sampling its cultural offerings. “In addition to ongoing exhibitions, tours, workshops, masterclasses, yoga and kayaking activities, the museum has added dragon boating, as well as a special selection of weekend family film screenings and kayak cinema shows to enhance the public programme for our latest exhibition Dragon and Phoenix – Centuries of Exchange between Chinese and Islamic Worlds that runs until February 12,” adds Rabaté.

Among the museum’s latest initiatives to support the local art community is the ongoing new annual exhibition Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here that runs until March 27 and the Richard Mille Art Prize that aims to increase the global exposure of UAE-based artists. The museum has also recently opened its Resource Centre, with the aim of supporting researchers in the UAE and promoting international academic collaboration. “To celebrate the UAE’s golden jubilee, the museum will also be offering a roller-skating experience accompanied by an audio-visual installation reflecting UAE history.”

The art of the matter

While the shiny new museums coming up in Abu Dhabi and Dubai may dictate the preservation of art and culture in the future, the fact is the UAE has been involved in cultural exchange for some time now.

The UAE was the first Gulf nation to have a permanent pavilion at the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event, La Biennale di Venezia, since its participation in 2009. The UAE’s exhibition at Venice in 2015, 1980-Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates is still talked about.

Curated by Shaikha Hoor Al Qasimi, it showcased the most thorough exhibit of Emirati art ever displayed, tracing the UAE’s art scene from its very beginnings in the 1970s until 2015.

The cultural capital

Speaking of biennales, Sharjah has had its own biennale since 1993. The Sharjah Biennale has put the emirate on the global art map in no uncertain terms. Since the formation of the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009, the emirate has been engaging the local community and supporting local artists through year-long programmes, projects and collaborations focused on local participation.

Sharjah’s cultural calendar has evolved to feature international book fairs, exhibitions at more than 16 museums and festivals that celebrate photography, theatre, poetry and calligraphy. It is not surprising that Unesco named Sharjah the cultural capital of the Arab world in 1998. Sharjah followed it up with Unesco’s World Book Capital title in 2019.

The emirate that boasts the only free zone in the world devoted to the publishing and creative industries – the Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone – also has the only government-run agency in the region that promotes Emirati and Arab writers, the Sharjah International Literary Agency. The intention is to support local artists and writers to ensure the UAE heritage is intact and correct the under-representation of Arab artists globally.

Ras Al Khaimah to the fore

The northernmost emirate has been known for its tourism attractions. However, with global tourism down due to the health crisis, Ras Al Khaimah is now moving beyond nature-driven adventure tourism to highlight the emirate’s

history. From restoration of heritage sites dating back to 7,000 years to creating experiences to tap into its history, the emirate is banking on culture to bring back visitors

These include the Al Jazirah Al Hamra, a ghost village abandoned in the 1960s. It is said to be the UAE’s last standing traditional village and has been restored to showcase the coral-stone architecture of the Gulf coastal regions, along with a fort and houses owned by the rich pearl merchants of those times.

It includes a pearl farm in a lagoon nestled below the Hajjar mountains, which offers history buffs an insight into UAE’s pearling industry that died out in the 1930s.

With so much going for UAE culturally, Abu Dhabi is ensuring its position at the top by investing $6 billion (Dh22 billion) in the cultural and creative industries. Launched in 2019, the emirate’s Culture and Creative Industries Strategy is a comprehensive five-year plan to accelerate business growth and job creation across several sectors.

That this multibillion-dollar sector is here to stay is evident from the fact that Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University offers a master’s degree in heritage, development and entrepreneurship. This not only reflects growing market demand, it is a precursor to the UAE’s domination of the culture and heritage sector. ■

Now, gain access to Dubai’s culture and heritage via Google

To share the emirate’s wealth of cultural and heritage-related treasures with the world, Dubai Culture last month launched the Dubai’s Culture and Heritage project on the Google Arts & Culture platform. It recounts the cultural and artistic episodes of the emirate through immersive storytelling aided by high-resolution images and videos of artworks and cultural artefacts.
As part of the project, Dubai Culture showcases more than 800 iconic images and over 70 stories in both Arabic and English that document the emirate’s history and present through the eyes of its residents, becoming the Middle East and North Africa’s largest bilingual content contributors. Through this collaboration, the emirate seeks to paint a comprehensive picture of its cultural richness, unique identity, and distinctive heritage. It reflects the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to strengthen the emirate’s position on the world stage and make it the global centre of the creative economy.
The Dubai’s Culture & Heritage project allows people from around the world to learn more about the emirate’s rich culture and heritage as well as its vibrant creative scene from the comfort of their homes.
It also serves as an online gallery that houses hundreds of eminent works, which not only broaden the reach and influence of local, regional and global creative talents but also facilitate accessibility for talents across industries and create an economic system that would stimulate Dubai’s creative individuals and industries.