Dubai bids to be creative hub for the Arab world

Move over, Cairo, Beirut and Casablanca. Dubai is launching a drive to become one of the Arab world’s top centres for art, design, film and fashion – areas that have traditionally been dominated by old Arab cities outside the Gulf. Success is not certain. The wealthy emirate is much better known as a trading and banking hub and luxury shopping destination than as a centre for the arts. It lacks the established cities’ centuries of history and culture.


A Russian worker stands in the Chill Out ice lounge, the first to be opened in the Middle East, in Dubai (file). Dubai is launching a drive to become one of the Arab world’s top centres for art, design, film and fashion, areas that have traditionally been dominated by old Arab cities outside the Gulf

But Dubai has advantages which the old cities can find it hard to provide: security, cosmopolitan lifestyles and comprehensive travel links to the rest of the Arab world. It is throwing hundreds of millions of dollars and the latest technology into its effort, using state-linked companies to develop the project in the same way that it’s successfully jump-started other industries. “We want to encourage local and emerging talent from within the region,” said Amina al-Rustamani, group chief executive of Tecom Investments, a business park operator owned by Dubai’s ruler.
Other cities have allowed neighbourhoods of artists and designers to emerge over decades. Dubai is not leaving that to chance; Tecom is creating a purpose-built 21mn square foot (2mn square metre) area called the Dubai Design District.
Tenants of the district are to include galleries, studios, workshops, boutique stores and museums, plus office and residential space. The first phase, to open this year, will cost 4bn dirhams ($1.1bn). Tecom says over 220 companies have agreed to take part.
The Dubai Design and Fashion Council, a state-funded body, plans to set up a design school with students from around the world. One of the school’s specialties will be Islamic design. The council intends to act as an incubator for new design businesses, providing technical support and advice. Eventually, Dubai state funds could be invested in some of the businesses, along with private sector money.
To some, Dubai’s top-down approach to culture may seem stifling or sterile. But executives see no contradiction; they argue that just as the emirate has attracted traders and bankers from the region by giving them an environment in which they can prosper, it can lure artists, designers and film makers.
Malek Sultan al-Malek, chief executive of Tecom Business Parks, said Dubai’s design drive followed naturally from its growth in other areas – for example, growth of its information technology and media sectors has spurred demand for designers. “The ingredients for success come from the grass roots,” said the council’s chief executive Nez Gebreel, who helped to manage the businesses of David and Victoria Beckham for six years before moving to Dubai.
“We’re just creating the conditions which will allow people to flourish, and which don’t necessarily exist elsewhere in the region.”
One early design start-up in Dubai is Bil Arabi, a jewellery business opened in the emirate nine years ago by Nadine Kanso, a Beirut-born graphic designer.
Bil Arabi sold 1,500 pieces of jewellery in the shape of Arab calligraphy for $820,000 last year. Kanso described the pieces as “bling bling with a Middle Eastern edge”, but with a serious purpose, to explore Arabs’ cultural roots. Political stability and security were key to her decision to start the business in Dubai, as war and social tensions can make it hard to operate in Beirut, Kanso said.
Three British-Iranian brothers in their 20s and 30s, Haman, Babak and Farhan Golkar, said they founded their high-end clothing brand in Dubai five years ago partly because the city was younger than the established fashion capitals, meaning there was room for newcomers.
Emperor 1688’s menswear sales, totalling $3.5mn in 2014, are growing at double-digit rates and a womenswear line was launched last year. Babak said Dubai was gradually developing its own fashion style, featuring opulent touches such as gold-plated suit buttons.
The brand is sold mostly in the Gulf and the Golkars plan to develop sales in Europe. Dubai’s tourism industry, which draws millions of visitors every year, may help the city develop global brands as the tourists spread recognition of them in their home countries, Babak said.
In film making, the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 pushed business toward Dubai; movies and television series that might previously have been made in Cairo or Damascus could more safely be shot on a Dubai sound stage, using computer graphics to generate backdrops.
Film makers in Dubai don’t always operate with quite the same artistic freedom as they would in their home countries. But such considerations aren’t an obstacle to most films. There were 777 applications to make short films, TV series or commercials in Dubai last year, up from 741 in 2013; 146 TV channels broadcast from the emirate – although Dubai faces stiff competition from neighbouring Abu Dhabi to host blockbusters.