To a casual observer it may seem as if the tiny Gulf states are engaged in fierce competition among themselves to become the main regional location for contemporary artistic activities. A brief history of this competition would read as follows:
First Kuwait seemed poised to become the Gulf’s most propitious place for art, with a liberal environment and lavish support to the arts by members of the ruling Al Sabah family and private patrons like the Sultans. That was in the 1960s and 70s.
In the following two decades, as Kuwait grappled with the Gulf wars and their aftermath, cosmopolitan Bahrain was the cool place to be for art lovers. It seemed to be the new Beirut (while ‘old’ Beirut was in the throngs of civil war).
The flame then passed to the tiny emirate of Sharjah, whose museum-building policies were crowned with an international biennial. This biennial became famous from 2003 onwards when its director Princess Hoor Al Qasimi appointed Jack Persekian as artistic director. Each subsequent biennial has attracted favorable reviews from the international art world.
From 2007 onwards, Dubai started to eclipse its smaller neighbor. In a few years, a bustling art market developed that is still going strong. Its main feature is Art Dubai, but the fifty or so galleries that the city currently has ensure a year-round interesting program.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi prepared a grandiose plan for a new cultural district with world-class museums on Saadiyat Island, including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, sparking a vivid international discussion among experts and laymen alike.
The 2008-10 financial crisis tempered Abu Dhabi’s ambitions, just in time for Qatar to impress the world with its cultural institutions, including the Museum of Islamic Art, already ranked among the world’s top museums. The Al Thani ruling family of Qatar has built up one of the world’s prime collections of Islamic and modern Arab art over the past decade, with forays into the high end of contemporary art.
Meanwhile the government of Oman has apparently decided to specialize in performing arts, with a magnificent new Royal Opera House.
Yemen is blocked in strife. But, having the richest cultural heritage and the largest native population of the peninsula, it could develop well artistically if social reform is implemented.
And Saudi Arabia has established itself, to the surprise of most observers, as the cradle of many talented artists, thus providing a vital local, bottom-up, creative impulse to the Gulf art world. While the Saudi government still oscillates between timid support and outright negligence of the local art scene, the artists are continuously stretching the boundaries of what is considered art in the country.