Why Dubai Will Never Be Arty


There is no alternative to big and expensive here in the UAE, which includes Dubai and its even richer neighbor, Abu Dhabi. This means there is no place for artists, beatniks or bohemians.

There are plenty of half-finished buildings, and seemingly abandoned construction projects, but there is no funky side of town. No place is arty. If they want art, they establish a department of art with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and staff it with Emiratis who work four hours a day, four days a week, and earn six figures for their trouble.

In Abu Dhabi they are building a replica of France’s Louvre art museum, and buying as much impressionist and classical art as they can get their hands on. But if you lived in Abu Dhabi, you would be hard-pressed to find a working artist. Recently, the Nation, a newspaper based in that city, showcased a new development in town. It’s a small business run by two sisters who want to encourage creativity. You can go there, or send your child there after school to watercolor or make pottery. What a zany notion!

Compared to most economies, there are precious few small businesses run by individuals or families. There are

no used bookstores, no alternative places in a low rent district. In Dubai there is a mainly Indian and Pakistani low rent district, Bur Dubai, but it is low rent in every sense of the word. There are businesses in that neighborhood that call themselves coffee shops, but they are not filled with graduate students writing in their journals or pecking away at their laptops. They are filled with poor people drinking instant coffee, who can’t afford to be “arty” because they’re too busy trying to stay alive.

So for a city to have an arty or counter-culture part of town, you have to have people who are rich enough to be voluntarily poor. You have to allow for a warren of drop-outs, retired college professors, young poets, folk-singers – all the things you can’t have if you will be deported in thirty days if you lack a job or a residency permit.

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3 thoughts on “Why Dubai Will Never Be Arty

  1. I have this feeling will change within the next 20 years. There are movements afoot that are probably underground and kept more private. Perhaps one clue is to search blogosphere for artists who have their hang-out.

    Remember the same countries have their own rare feminists…who speak out. Then go and ask these folks what is REALLY happening underground. I say this as someone who is 2nd generation Chinese Canadian when the Chinese couldn’t have had time to express themselves artistically in first part of the 20 century: they were trying to survive, against odds of racist society at that time in history.

    whenever a country or group is struggling a “new” world, different culture that is so different from the past..it takes time for local artists to carve their niche safely. And more importantly find their identity in the new world and express it creatively.

    I noticed this in Canada’s far Arctic ..when I was there for a job interview. I wanted to find local literature by the Inuit in English. But this is rare…the locals are struggling just with ordinary living up there. The university educated few, are in different areas trying to help their communities. No time to write, create…

    But this will change in 15 years. I realize the oligarchy in the UAE suppresses some voices of true local expression.

    Wait and see…and we will see an enormous, artistic outpouring from the nascent next generation, in artistic and rebellion counter culture. The youth have some traditions to draw upon if they can see past excesses of Western materialism.

    Why don’t you encourage some youth..to blog? It’s the first step to meet the world globally.

  2. it’s a crime to use the Internet to criticize the UAE government, its officers or institutions. Locals can receive up to 3 years in prison, foreigners are deported.

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