A contemporary cultural shift for the Middle East

The Gulf finds itself with a historic opportunity to prove its cosmopolitan credentials and step in where traditional cultural centers of the region once stood.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar addresses the UN General Assembly in New York. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar addresses the UN General Assembly in New York.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Largely devoid of domestic conflict and economically wealthy, the Gulf states find themselves in a historic moment with an opportunity to divert resources to boosting their cosmopolitan credentials around the world. Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut are falling into increasing turmoil, giving the relatively stable Gulf the chance to step in where the region’s traditional cultural centers once stood.
The United Arab Emirates especially is home to increasingly international cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, while still maintaining its local culture. Some refute this idea, claiming that Emirati identity is actually being sold out to the multitude of incoming foreign investors. This is a very Western idea.
To say that economic investments and the presence of foreigners refutes native culture or influences Emirati families to alter their values or traditions in their own homes is largely unfounded.
There are cultural changes afoot, though. The Gulf states are relatively new states, and the UAE is no exception.
Dubai is evolving as fast as it came to be built in the first place. The art world is only one example. In the heart of Dubai, there are art galleries promoting Arab artists and even Emirati artists.
Fifty years ago, Emirati artists didn’t really exist. Hassan Sharif originally put art from the Emirates on the global map in the 1970s. Today, there are several commercial galleries in Dubai promoting strictly Arab artists from the Gulf and the region at large. Sharjah has become known as the art hub of the Emirates as host to the Sharjah Art Foundation, which largely governs Sharjah’s cultural policy and gathers academics and art world professionals every year at a March Meeting to discuss hot-button issues in the global art world today. The Sharjah Biennial alone has attracted artists, curators, academics, and art enthusiasts from around the globe since its founding in 1993.
The influence is still growing. Five hundred meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island is set to debut next year its outposts of two of the most premiere art institutions in the world – the Guggenheim and the Louvre – alongside its NYU Abu Dhabi campus.
Where art enthusiasts once flocked to Damascus, Beirut, or Cairo, they are increasingly drawn to the United Arab Emirates. The Emirati authorities recognize the value in developing the arts alongside its economic ploys that bring more and more tourists, businesses, and investors to the Gulf each year: soft power.
Soft power is like subtle propaganda.
The UAE, whether intentional or not, executed its cultural investments conveniently at a time in the region where other states are simultaneously making headlines for war, refugees, and failed revolutions. While the UAE is still financially intertwined in the Middle East crisis, on the surface, the state appears to be a beacon of innovation.
Qatar is joining the game, too. Qatar is a world leader in education when it comes to percentage of GDP spent. The literacy rate is 93 percent and 88.6 percent of girls can read, marking the highest percentage of literacy among girls in the Arab world. A reputable higher education system is a highly effective form of soft power, as is clear with the United States’ scholarship programs for foreign students, one of which former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was a recipient.
Qatar’s founding of its education city concentrated noteworthy American universities, such as Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Texas A&M University, in one academic powerhouse. The universities attract a global student body that allows foreigners to intermingle with Qatari students, fostering a sharing of ideas, cultural exchange, and mutual understanding.
Through this soft power, Qatar can indirectly shape young Arab and Muslim minds that will likely return to their home countries thereafter and continue to spread Qatari values and political ideals. The region’s next leaders are being educated in the heart of Doha, a city that the majority of the Western world likely had not heard of until the rise of trusted media source Al Jazeera.
The Gulf is still young and growing at a rapid pace, but it has plenty of time to establish its national and global identity.
Despite the abundant turmoil and stalls in political, technological and economic progress facing the region today, the Gulf states remain poised to expedite soft power and influence the global perspective of the region, ultimately earning the rights to the region’s contemporary cultural centers.
The author is a student at University of California, Berkeley studying Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic Language and Literature.