Over the course of the pandemic some destinations came into their own. The Middle East was one, benefitting from a combination of being readily accessible to international travellers still facing restrictions elsewhere, and the ability to cater to demanding tastes. Regular visitors returned but there was also an influx of people visiting for the first time and experiencing a very different destination proposition.
Whilst the global restrictions have waned, interest in the Middle East has conversely continued to grow. Last year, the second most visited city in the world was Dubai. Consider international arrivals however, and the gulf city was number one with 12 million inbound trips, double that of 2021. One significant factor has been the considered attention paid to fostering a creative and artistic scene, exemplified by the growth of Art Dubai into one of the major features in the art market calendar.
Similar success stories abound across the Middle East and Gulf regions, with Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE all building a reputation for diverse art scenes, drawing “cultural tourists” alongside affluent residents.
However, new museums, galleries and infrastructure are not a sign that art is a recent arrival into the region. Far from it.
A Rich Cultural Heritage
The Middle East and Gulf regions were home to some of the oldest civilisations, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Babylonian and Persian Empires, and has been at a crossroads of cultures and religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Culturally this is evident in the rich history and artistic output that permeates the very fabric of the region. Islamic art and its diverse range of styles and forms, from calligraphy and manuscript illumination to ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and architecture is proudly front and centre. Other important artistic movements, including the Persian miniature tradition and the contemporary art scene, which has blossomed in cities such as Dubai, and Beirut, testify to a cultural heritage that celebrates artistic skill and expression.
None of this has happened by accident. The Middle East has been the nexus of global trade for centuries, benefitting from its advantageous geographic location as the natural crossing point between Africa, South Asia, China and across the Mediterranean to Europe. Dubai for instance was built on trade: the Port of Jebel Ali is the world's ninth busiest, has the largest man-made harbour, and is the largest port in the region.
Business attracts culture, and together both spheres now have global prominence.
“The Middle East and Gulf Region, which sits geographically at a major global crossroads, has a long and rich art tradition, going back many hundreds, even thousands, of years. However, in the 21st century, this tradition has become even more apparent, with many countries in the region focusing on local, regional and international cultural heritage."
– Jonathan Massey, Mintus Advisor & Art Investment Committee Member
Nurturing a Local Scene
This year, the biggest exhibition of Islamic art to have been staged since the World of Islam Festival in the UK in 1976 opened in Jeddah. Located within the Hajj Terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport and held in partnership with Sotheby’s, the Islamic Arts Biennial brought together galleries and exhibition spaces that deliver a rich selection of cultural and artistic highs. The breadth of curation from worldwide Islamic arts collections spans the centuries, from ancient artefacts to contemporary multimedia installations. In the words of Sumayya Vally, artistic director of the Biennial, “this is a historic moment not just for Saudi Arabia but for the entire Muslim world. At its essence, this Biennial is about giving contemporary objects a home by giving them a lineage and giving historic objects a home by giving them a future.”
Similar success stories, reflective of the focus bestowed upon cultivating regional alongside international cultural heritage, can be seen across the region. The Islamic Arts Biennial complements the Sharjah Arts Biennial, being held this year between February and June, which was first inaugurated in 1993 and has been commissioning local artists from the UAE as well as the MENA region for decades. The aforementioned Art Dubai held its 16th edition in March 2023, proving to be its biggest and most globally attended-to-date, all in the face of continued global economic uncertainty. Meanwhile, major institutions such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE, and the Museum of Islamic Art and Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar have growing collections that rival their Western counterparts.
A Market Hub to rival New York, London, and Hong Kong
The effect is two-fold. On an international level, the Middle East and Gulf states are developing into a major art market hub, carving out its own place in the calendar of auctions and fairs. Major collections from the region, founded upon local artists are appearing at auction globally – see the upcoming Al Zayani Collection sale at Sotheby’s, for instance, which will feature 73 artists from across the breadth of the Middle East. Whilst major international artists and museums are finding ways to collaborate in the region: Abu Dhabi will soon be joining New York, Venice, and Bilbao, with a Guggenheim Museum; meanwhile, the Andy Warhol Foundation will be holding a major exhibitiono titled ‘FAME’ at Maraya, in Saudia Arabia’s historic site of AlUla later this year.
On the other hand, more locally, there is a flourishing of creative talent inspired by the major public collections and infrastructure being built around the arts. Take Bayt Al Mamzar, a community gallery and artists’ space in Dubai, which has been oversubscribed since its November 2022 launch.
All of this activity is creating a dynamism, fostering and attracting local and international talent and, with the relocation of collectors, creating a sustainable arts sector that will make the Middle East an increasingly authoritative voice in the global art market.
In the words of Jonathan Massey, Mintus Advisor and Member of the Art Investment Committee;
“The Middle East and Gulf Region, which sits geographically at a major global crossroads, has a long and rich art tradition, going back many hundreds, even thousands, of years. However, in the 21st century, this tradition has become even more apparent, with many countries in the region focusing on local, regional and international cultural heritage.
This can be seen in the proliferation of new museums, art fairs and cultural hubs that have sprung up across the region, particularly in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Alongside this the art scene is growing organically too, with galleries and their artists establishing themselves everywhere. Across the Region more and more people visit not only for business reasons but increasingly as a tourist and cultural destination. The region has become more accessible and without question it can nowadays be considered as an important business and cultural hub, and an art market centre that is increasingly able to rival and compete with the likes of Hong Kong, London, New York and Paris.”