Dubai itself, as a city and a society, is an artwork. One may love it for its unique energy and cosmopolitan ambiance, or hate it for its cut-and-paste identity and lack of history, but the city never fails to impress. It is contemporary and very visual, so it makes sense Dubai has become the backdrop of a strong visual arts scene. The headiest years of this art scene were 2005-2008. Large artworks making strong statements perfectly reflected the spirit of the city; subtle conceptual art in contrast seemed quite out of place. Self-criticism was also not in tune with the city. This has changed with the financial crisis, which introduced an element of self-reflection and doubt. Dubai is maturing from a place of celebration and excess to contemplation and self-awareness. See for example the online publication The State.

The development of the art scene in Dubai is market driven; it is not part of a top-down strategy to develop or acquire culture, as in most other countries in the Gulf, nor is it the result of a long-term local development: in 2005 there were few galleries in Dubai. What then made Dubai such an important node of the global art world, in such a short time?

To begin with, one can identify pull and push factors (supply and demand). The pull factor relates to Dubai’s general welcoming environment for business, its affluence and its cosmopolitan population. This would attract galleries, such as the multinational Opera gallery, and explains why the Dubai International Finance Center became a gallery hub. Some of the earlier galleries, such as Showcase and Green Art, were located on Jumeirah Road, an area then drawing rich foreigners and an international in-crowd; now that this crowd has moved to new areas of the city, these galleries have relocated following their clientele.

The push factor relates to regional politics: conflict and turmoil at home, the lack of artistic freedom or isolation from the international art world have pushed artists from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, etc., to relocate elsewhere in the world. Some of these found a new home in Dubai, which has relaxed visa policies for citizens from countries warded off by the West.

This is notably true of the Iranian art community. The Iranian presence in Dubai has deep roots: the UAE minister of foreign affairs, Anwar Muhammad Gargash, is of Iranian descent while Sunny Rahbar, one of the founders of pioneering gallery The Third Line, was born in Dubai to Iranian parents. Collectors such as Farhad Farjam and Ramin Salsali are successful Dubai-based Iranian businessmen. Their commitment to the city is proven by their efforts to provide public access to their collections. Tehran-based artists such as Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi exhibit and sell their work in Dubai, and some of them (like the brothers Haerizadeh) moved to Dubai when their political involvement or censorship made it difficult to stay in Iran. The Tehran-based gallery Etemad has set up a branch in Dubai.

The turmoil and stagnation in the rest of the Arab world have also helped Dubai attain its current position. As the old centers of Arab civilization (Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo) either were in the grip of stale dictators, or toppled into conflict, there was a need for a new focal point for Arab culture. It could have been Beirut, but Lebanon remains in the throes of political conflict, and the 2006 Israeli bombing campaign proved that Beirut would not easily regain its pre-war status as peaceful hub of the Arab arts world. What gave Dubai its lead over other Gulf cities, such as Kuwait and Manama, might have been its connections with the Iranian and Indian art scenes, which in the mid-2000s were booming. And of course, it is much easier for Western collectors and curators to travel to Dubai than to Tehran, Karachi, Baghdad or Damascus.

Dubai was also promoted by architects such as Rem Koolhaas, whose fascination with the delirious city led to the impressive publications of ‘Al Manakh’ (Vol 1: 2007; Vol 2: 2010). These compendia register the transformation of Dubai and the Gulf countries in terms of culture, urban planning, architecture and ‘social design’. In the wake of Koolhaas and consorts, art critics, curators and cultural philosophers explored the hybrid nature of this cosmopolitan center of the 21st Century, giving rise for example to the book ‘WITH/WITHOUT: Spatial Products, Practices and Politics in the Middle East (edited by art critic Shumon Basar, then Bidoun editor Antonia Carver, and architect Markus Miessen, 2007).

Another (related) important factor in the development of Dubai’s art world, is Bidoun Magazine. Set up in 2004 in New York and Dubai, with a handful of international art-world friends, the magazine offered a completely new take on the Middle East: as a place where cultural cross-fertilization, mixing strands of global pop culture and high art in the Middle Eastern context, creates a uniquely hybrid form of contemporary culture, seeking its own forms of artistic expression – one of them being the magazine itself.

Finally the success of Dubai is also due to the capable individuals who structured this art world. Art Dubai, the art fair first run by John Martin and now by Antonia Carver, is the most important single structuring element. It provides art professionals and art lovers from all over the world with a convenient reason to visit Dubai, and to return, because its scale of programs and activities expands each year. Christie’s move to Dubai was timely, and it has provided an enormous boost to the local art market, not least because it sets pricing standards. Galleries such as The Third Line, Green Art, Isabelle van den Eynde and Cuadro, to name but a few, have ably positioned their artists on the local and now increasingly global art scene; collectors such as Rami Farook, Farhad Farjam and Ramin Salsali have turned into patrons. One cannot omit the rulers of Dubai from this list, as they have not only tolerated, but also actively encouraged artistic development. Thus Princess Latifa Al Maktoum is behind Tashkeel.

Dubai’s art scene thus truly reflects the city as a whole: it is visual, prosperous, dynamic and future-oriented; according to one’s taste, it can appear to be tacky, filthily rich, self-indulgent and superficial. But it is there, it is unique, and it is developing rapidly.