Art and Soft Power in the Gulf

Article published in Issue #47 of Afkar / Ideas published in October 2015 by the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona / French version / Spanish version

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

Art and Soft Power in the Gulf

Recently, there has been much news and debate about how the Gulf States are acquiring the icons of global culture, such as famous paintings, works by star artists, and even whole museums. This is seen as the exercise of ‘soft power’, defined by Joseph Nye as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction, rather than coercion or payments’. One may wonder then, which objectives direct the Gulf’s investments in art? And, are they being achieved?

Unknown to most, there is a small but vivid and promising art scene in the Gulf countries, reflecting the rapid evolution of local societies. What can local artistic production tell us about socio-cultural change? One may also wonder how the ‘bottom up’ artistic production meets the ‘top down’ policies.

Hereafter, I will briefly analyse both cultural policies and artistic development in the Gulf States, and conclude with some remarks about how they interact and the definition of soft power.


Soft Power as Policy in the Gulf

This summer the Gulf Labor Coalition and the Global Ultra Luxury Faction, two artists’ collectives, participated in the Biennale of Venice with strong statements against the exploitation of labourers building the museums in the Gulf. For years now, a global artist-led campaign has targeted the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, accusing the USA-based museum brand of not showing sufficient concern for labour rights in Abu Dhabi, and of bending its principles to access Gulf wealth.

If the purpose of the Gulf countries’ use of art as soft power is to create public sympathy or an enlightened public image, one may question whether they have succeeded. Investments in Europe’s blue-chip real estate, retail and sports markets had already generated suspicion, as had the successful bid of Qatar for the World Cup 2022, a classic example of soft power. It is not much better in the art world. The deals made with the Louvre and the Guggenheim, the acquisitions of iconic artworks such as Cezanne’s “Card Players” and sponsorships of artists such as Damian Hirst are commonly derided as proof of ‘nouveau riche’ behaviour and aspirations, and, in the public eye, they seem to corrupt the supposedly purer European art world.

So, what makes the use of soft power attractive? I distinguish three levels of engagement with art in the Gulf States: image rebranding, acquiring cultural capital, and investing in long-term cultural development. Despite the public-opinion debacles described above, the Gulf States have achieved considerable results in all three fields.


Marketing the State through Art

At the first and most basic level, art is being used to decorate the façade of power. Rather than feel scandalized by this, we should realize that, from Persepolis to the Sistine Chapel, art has always adorned power. More recently, the CIA secretly funded American modern-art exhibitions and projects throughout Western Europe as part of the Cold War effort, while the role of the arts as a propaganda tool in Marxist states was widespread in the 20th Century. It is true that the role of Court artists has now largely been taken over by public-relations companies, but art is still seen as a valuable way to market the State as an intellectually acceptable entity.

Despite some misgivings, people around the World may now associate Qatar with daring contemporary artists, the brackish waters of the Persian Gulf with the fantastical buildings of star architects, and Muscat with top-notch classical music performances. No longer can it be said that the Gulf rulers have no interest in culture, which appeared to be evident only ten years ago. The rebranding has been successful for the UAE and Qatar, and other GCC countries—with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia—are following suit.

Liane Al Ghusain: 3D-printed seal celebrating the opening of the Avenues Mall in Kuwait; produced for Crisis of History, 2015

Liane Al Ghusain: 3D-printed seal celebrating the opening of the Avenues Mall in Kuwait; produced for Crisis of History, 2015

Transforming Wealth into Culture

Investments in arts and culture—not only money, but also time, interest and education—have bought the Gulf’s political and business elites access to the global ruling class. Being a patron of the arts is one of the most effective ways to buy yourself respectability. Here we come to the second purpose of investing in art: transforming material into symbolic capital. A dimension is added to the branding: a narrative, reaching into the past and the future, linking disparate elements pre-existing in society.

The creation of a national myth became an acute problem as Gulf societies were rushed into modernity. There was an urgent need for a narrative that ensures national cohesion while legitimizing the ruling family. Part of the hydrocarbon revenues were channelled into developing this national myth, by funding archaeological excavations and academic research, by restoring or building symbols of national pride (forts, skyscrapers, mosques, old urban quarters, or heritage villages), and by celebrating the symbols of nationhood with national days and cultural heritage festivals, such as the Janadriyya in Riyadh or camel races in most Gulf States.

The novelty of the national narratives in the Gulf is striking; they are really a work in progress, and a fascinating object of study. History in the Gulf is mostly an exercise in genealogy of the ruling families, and the chronicling of oral histories that rarely go beyond the 18th Century. The culturally rich pre-Islamic period is commonly considered idolatrous (the Jahiliyya), while the history of Islamic civilization took place almost entirely outside the Arabian Peninsula. As a result, as many observers have pointed out while discussing the heritage ‘industry’ in the Gulf, the present is projected into the past (Dubai, for example, invents itself a past as a city that was always open to international trade and tolerant of other cultures), instead of the present being understood as the continuation of history.


Investing in Long-term Cultural Development

The rulers of the Gulf are concerned about the education of their citizenry, who will occupy high-level government jobs and help shape the future. To accomplish this, they have sought long-term partnerships with institutions abroad such as the Sorbonne, NYU and Georgetown, which do not only offer MBAs or Science & Technology degrees, but also many courses in the humanities. It is understood that, to compete in the global arena of the 21st Century, citizens need to be creative thinkers, and that an arts sector greatly enhances creativity. Gulf rulers expect their own citizens to be primary consumers of the cultural and artistic institutions currently being set up – witness the importantly endowed education departments of the new museums.

A cultured citizenry is also the foundation for the Gulf’s attempts to take on the leadership of the Arab World, a role that Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha all seem to be vying for. This may also be described as the ultimate objective of all cultural and artistic policies: provide legitimacy for the leadership claim.


Regional Variations

The implementation of the policies described above requires great resources, a small population and a heavy top-down executive State organization; which is the case of Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Other Gulf emirates or countries may have similar objectives, but lack the means to implement them in this manner.

For example, the rulers of Dubai let market forces structure the art world, and the annual Art Dubai fair is the flagship artistic event of the emirate, while a very lively gallery scene attracts artists and collectors from the whole world. In the less affluent neighbouring emirate of Sharjah, art is employed as a tool for social and urban regeneration, but the world-class Sharjah Biennale and year-long art programming also reflect the artistic inclination of the current ruler and his daughter Hoor, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. In Oman, overall investments in the arts have been modest, despite the inauguration of a spectacular Royal Opera House in 2011.

In the second half of the 20th Century, when the Southern Gulf states were little developed, Bahrain and Kuwait were the engines of cultural growth in the region. Kuwait developed institutions to support the arts and artists—such as the Marsam Al Hur, free ateliers—but the Gulf War, and the subsequent departure of almost all Palestinians, who played a vital part in the Emirate’s cultural life, dealt a serious blow to the country’s lively art scene. The deadlock between rulers and the parliament, which has paralysed Kuwait since many years, ensures few new institutional developments take place in the arts.

Bahrain has always been the most liberal and culture-minded of the Gulf States, and this also shows in its arts institutions. The country’s museums are the best (to date) in the Gulf and, unlike the other GCC countries, Bahrain accords much importance to its antiquity and history. But the 2011 uprising and its violent suppression have created a big dent in Bahrain’s image abroad, which art is not likely to repair.

Saudi Arabia is a case apart: it has invested absolutely nothing in its art world. All elements of what constitute a healthy arts infrastructure are lacking, such as art schools, museums and other cultural institutions, cinemas, a free press, art critics, production spaces, avenues for dissemination… The State seems to have no interest in rebranding itself, its religious cultural capital being sufficient, while critical thinking is less valued, so the youth is offered degrees in science, technology, economy and management instead of the arts and humanities.

Rashed Al Shashai: Bath Stopper (2012) as seen in Art Space Dubai

Rashed Al Shashai: Bath Stopper (2012) as seen in Art Space Dubai

Artistic Production in the Gulf

Surprisingly though, it is Saudi Arabia that has the most interesting art scene. The factors behind the explosion in artistic production in the Gulf are certainly strongest here: a youth connected to the Internet but living in a stiflingly closed society, with a lot of time and resources on hand, unable to express themselves freely in the public domain. Moreover, they are generally frustrated by the lack of perspective, not attracted by Islamic resistance movements, and unable to identify with the representations of who they are or should be, concocted by global news media, the Wahhabi clergy, or Hollywood.

Under such conditions, creative self-expression almost becomes a necessity. Visual arts allow practitioners to bypass many word-based censorship laws; the censors anyhow are not actively interested in contemporary art, seen as a plaything for the elites. The latter are patrons of the artists: many of them accompany the artists in their search for new expressions of identity, which may reflect their own hybrid identity, between East and West, or contribute in some subtle way to the national myth that is still being formed. One can infer that, though maybe not happy with the system, artists still rather throw in their lot with their country’s elites than with the much more intolerant masses. They will not play the same role as in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011; they advocate ‘evolution, not revolution’.

Each country’s art scene reflects its domestic tensions. Saudi artists seem highly politicized and engaged, but bring their messages playfully. In Kuwait a handful of prominent artists seems to become increasingly radical, attacking or rethinking social and religious gender-based morality. The artists of Bahrain seem a bit muted by the conflict between the rulers and the majority, as if they cannot decide on the right position and would rather cultivate their garden. Omani artists seem more comfortably rooted in their historic culture, from which they explore contemporary expressions, but without the urgency that makes art from the other GCC states so appealing. In Qatar and the UAE, the joke is that well-communicated and –funded State programs to foster creativity and innovation are having the opposite effect: being creative and innovative has become tantamount to toeing the government line. Joking aside, it is too early to assess how the vast opportunities given to artists and creative minds will affect the budding local art scenes, but the first signs are promising.


It thus appears that the soft power of art has been successfully employed to rebrand the Gulf States, shape national myths that ensure social cohesion and acceptance of the ruling families, strengthen the international standing of the Gulf States, and legitimize claims to leadership of the Arab World. Negative public opinion in the West and a few media scandals weigh little, especially for autocratic states, in comparison to the many benefits brought by these policies.

But, in a 21st Century where states no longer define the relations between peoples, we may ask whether the concept of soft power should not be extended to non-state actors. For example, the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 had a great impact on international public opinion: it created sympathy for the Arab World, as the Green Revolution had done for Iran two years earlier. Will the creative class in the Gulf not be a much better vector for good relations with the rest of the world? In any case, someone interested in the future of the Arabian Peninsula would be well advised to follow what’s happening in its artistic scenes.

Some of the research and analysis that went into this article was produced in the framework of an ongoing research project  I’m involved in, under the auspices of the Center for International and Regional Studies of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar


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