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.