Background and Scope of the Project

What makes us human is our ability to communicate our perception of the world around us through verbal, visual and musical portrayals of our everyday experiences, creating a culture around such practices. Khaleeji culture has been inundated by demographic, economic and social changes that continue to challenge the more traditional customs and values in place. At present, rapid development in the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) has not only affected social and political institutions underpinning Gulf societies, but also artistic and cultural institutions and their undertakings. As a result, strong centers for art collection and cultural production have emerged over the past years, particularly in the wealthier states of Qatar and the UAE. These cities have focused on the opening of world-class museums such as the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, The Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, and through hosting international and regional annual art festivals such as ART Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial. Indicative of the emerging art market in the region this surge of art interest has prompted international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s to open offices and hold annual international auctions for the sale of foreign and Middle Eastern art to prospective buyers in the Gulf.

This research initiative explores the evolution of art and cultural production in various states across the Gulf. In an effort to understand the complexities the production of art and culture in the GCC, this initiative will first explore the process of art acquisition and certain GCC governments’ investment in museums and art pieces. It will also question how the revival of art and culture in the region has impacted people living in the Gulf, and the subsequent social and political movements that have arisen as a reaction to this movement. Furthermore, it investigates the effects of art importation and assimilation on citizens’ perceptions of identity and self.

Whilst the Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have primarily channeled their investments into acquiring foreign art, the remaining GCC states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman have instead focused on the curation of local and contemporary art.  Due to their limited investments and purchases in foreign pieces, the developmental process of art and cultural production in these states have had different trajectories, whereby local contemporary artistic movements showcase and reflect everyday lived experiences and perceptions of Khaleeji culture as seen by the local population. Whilst some Gulf states have devoted ample resources towards redefining the Gulf region as a prominent cultural hub in the art world, one should critically assess the sustainability of creating regional and national identities through state-sponsored cultural production. Much of the art in the Gulf today has been exposed to African, Indian and Persian influences, all of which act as reminders of slavery during the 1950-60s and Arab immigrants’ presence in the Gulf. More often than not, this has been rarely recognized as certain Gulf states’ continue their quest for international recognition in the art world. 

In the past ten years, acquiring art has come to be a form of soft power in the Gulf region. For example, in the case of Qatar, foreign art acquisitions have peaked to $1 billion in 2011, after the purchase of Cézanne’s the “Card Players” amongst other famous pieces. Qatar’s Museum Authority have explained these purchases as necessary for the development of culture and an integral part of the Qatari national identity. Such statements can, at times, be problematic considering the rapid pace of art acquisition in the Gulf states. Whilst art may be a vital part of the Gulf’s soft power strategy, projecting these small states as modern and cultured global players, what is often lacking from existing studies is the impact of art acquisitions and museums on indigenous art and the local population on the receiving end of such initiatives.  

In more recent years, small yet significant numbers of the citizenry have begun to engage in art both as a form of expression and repression. A number of local artists from across the Gulf have formed art collectives showcasing the region’s rapid transformation in various forms of video, photographic and sculptural installations. Through these installations, the artists have begun to examine notions of regional and national identity, albeit in exhibitions outside the Gulf. Issue around censorship, political and cultural sensitivities often restrict local artists from creating and showcasing their work in their home countries. The societal and political frameworks prevalent in Gulf nations often lead to a kind of depoliticization, a notion which leads to a sterilization of art and cultural production. More recently, the art scene in the Gulf has developed to the point where contentious topics surrounding social issues such as sexuality and slavery have begun to emerge in art exhibits and museums around the Gulf. 

It is imperative to socialize locals and residents in GCC societies around art and museum culture, as it builds a necessary framework for disseminating the art and cultural production movement taking place. Future studies should reflect the importance of socialization in the arts from a young age, as part of school curriculum, and the importance of accessing art not only in museums but in various forms and public spaces. Once art education and socialization takes place, Gulf states can then be equipped with sufficient tools to engage, understand and eventually, create art that is reflective of gulf societies today.


Some of the thematic topics and areas of inquiry we will address through this research endeavor include:

  • The development of the arts and cultural sector has largely been stimulated by hydrocarbon revenues. To what degree does developing the creative arts sector in the Gulf symbolize a gradual transitioning into post-oil economies?
  • The Gulf states have undertaken a range of art and cultural initiatives in the past decade. What are the implications of these initiatives on the citizenry? How is the population interacting with the art? Does patronage of the arts hinder or encourage citizens from interacting and contributing to local art and cultural production.
  • Acquiring art for some GCC states has become a lucrative form of asserting power on the international stage. With sales reaching in the tens of millions per annum for Arab art, the expectation is that this will generate interest and drive Arab art in the international arena. Whilst large purchases of foreign art have been made on behalf of host GCC states, to what degree has the presence of international arts auction houses propelled Gulf art in the international arena? How has this affected Gulf artists and the creative communities surrounding them?
  • The Gulf region traditionally has well-defined notions on matters such as state, society, and religion. However, the novelty of the art and culture sector in the Gulf has meant that many local artists are not bound by a specific discourse. To what degree is the contemporary art movement in the Gulf able to re-examine and perhaps, re-imagine such notions? 

Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS