Taking a Lead

Why Has the UAE Excluded Artists From Its Abu Dhabi ‘Culture Summit’?

A ‘Culture Summit’ in Abu Dhabi focusing on the United Arab Emirates has chosen to marginalize some leaders of the UAE’s artistic community.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

For such a small and young nation, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) can claim the distinction of being the subject of a disproportionate number of misconceptions about what the country is and what it isn’t.

One common misreading paints the Emirates as a haven of free-fall hyper-capitalistic excess, a luxuriant petrodollar-funded wonderland built on a heady mix of steel and glass; rivers of concrete and the rush of speeding Lamborghinis.

Much of the debate around the Emirates focuses on human rights abuses. While those issues need to be addressed, highlighted and debated, there is also more to the country that doesn’t get a lot of airtime. The UAE, goes another narrative, is really a plastic society with little depth and even scarcer history and culture.

That’s one misconception that will not be altered by the “Culture Summit”, an international gathering of arts-industry professionals and government officials from around the world, who will descend on the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, this week.

The stated aim of this conference is to bring together leaders involved with artistic and cultural enterprise so that they can meet and effect cross-cultural communication in the context of a hyper-interconnected world; “to address the role that culture can play in addressing some of the great challenges of our time.”

That goal is severely undermined by the fact that the organizers of this conference, the Foreign Policy Group as sponsored by the UAE government-funded Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, chose to marginalize the leaders of the UAE’s own artistic community.

But the conference’s website shows there isn’t much Emirati representation on the whole.

While I applaud the inclusion of the hugely promising Zeinab Al Hashemi and the talented Jalal Luqman, those who are conspicuously absent from the conference lineup include some of the most formidable figures in the Gulf.

Those not on the lineup include the founder of the nation’s oldest performing arts presenting organization, Hoda Kanoo of the Abu Dhabi Festival, and the director of the UAE’s largest performing arts venue, Jasper Hope of the Dubai Opera. (According to the Summit’s organizers, Kanoo had to pull out of the event after initially RSVPing yes, but sent her deputy in her place. In an email, her husband Mohammed Kanoo said that “Mrs Kanoo was invited at a very late stage to ‘attend,’ but never to ‘participate.’” In all, five out of the 18 performances at the Summit featured local Emirati and regional artists, the organizers told The Daily Beast.)

For the record, I received a somewhat generic invitation for an “active, speaking role in the program” in November. But somehow, my numerous attempts to follow up with the organizers of the summit came to nothing for over six months. Finally, on April 6, I was asked in email from the event’s steering committee to focus on next year’s summit, instead. Among the local cultural organizations that are missing include major players like the Emirates Fine Arts Society, UAE Writers Union, Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Dubai Design Days, The Sharjah Biennale, and a good number of others. (A representative for the Summit’s organizers said that many of these groups were “all invited and are either in attendance, sent a representative, or declined due to prior engagements.”) Most troubling is the absence of the actual Emirati artists who are leading the scene of creative discourse in the Summit’s host nation.

Among the local cultural organizations that are missing include major players like the Emirates Fine Arts Society, UAE Writers Union, Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Dubai Design Days, The Sharjah Biennale, and a good number of others. Most troubling is the absence of the actual Emirati artists who are leading the scene of creative discourse in the Summit’s host nation.

Internationally renowned figures like Ebtisam Abdulaziz and Mohammed Kazem are projecting their voices across the globe but remain absent from the local conversation of the conference. (Emails reviewed by The Daily Beast show the two were invited.)

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Not a single one of these seven artists, described by The Wall Street Journal as “exciting” and “internationally recognized” are being featured.

The brightest emerging figures of a new generation are also nowhere to be found, like writer Mishaal Al Gergawi, spoken word poet Afra Atiq, independent film producer Butheina Hamid Kazim, and fashion designer and conceptual artist, Ahmed Alanzi. (Gergawi and Alanzi were both invited, according to the documents reviewed by The Daily Beast; however, Alanzi said he received the invitation only at the last minute and was attending as an “observer.” He attended the summit on Tuesday.)

Alongside their absence are the hipster-infused insurgent movements of artists that squat around settlements like the industrial-warehouse-spaces-turned-galleries lining Al Serkal Avenue, or the narrative-defying Cinema Akil: both could be a vital link to the bold cultural movements that are defining an enchantingly weird, excited and confident love affair with self-expression and experimentation that may be the most underreported trend of youthful artistic expression in the Middle East today. This conference misses that scene entirely.

Even the very young figures who are most in need of affirmation, like the talented pianist Sarah Al Kaabi for example, are seeing themselves barred from the table and might even think the exclusion normal.

That part is most painful for me as an Emirati artist.

When I was a child my musical time in the UAE had to be supplemented. I’d wait tirelessly to return to New York so that I could go see La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera or West Side Story on Broadway.

People would refer to the Emirates as a “cultural wasteland.” I found the moniker discouraging but I more or less agreed with it. Over time, I learned to see things differently.

Instead of looking eagerly for a name or a face that looked like mine in the heavily Western anthologies of musicology and music history, I started to realize that, while it may be harder to build an entirely new road rather than travel on the shoulders of giants down an established path already charted for us, it meant that I got to build my own road. How awesome is that?

There is nothing wrong with the fact that the FP Group has selected Tan Dun, the brilliant Chinese composer, as composer-in-residence; it adds to the richness to have him in the UAE, and a younger version of me would’ve been starved to meet a cultural icon like that.

But not only do the younger versions of me not have access to this invitation-only (even for observers) summit; in 50 years a young Emirati composer looking eagerly for a name or face that looked like his in the history books will see an image in the very first composer-in-residence at Abu Dhabi’s Global Culture Summit that will imply to him/her that Faisal Al Saari, myself, or countless other talented figures were not options for that particular position. (As of April 5—four days before the start of the event—Saari was not listed on its website at all; he was subsequently added as a “presenting artist.”)

But just because we are not included does not mean we are not here.

Out of the “cultural wasteland” of my childhood, I’ve seen major cultural institutions emerge with whom I work and take great joy in sharing my work with in our communities.

For all the criticisms of the UAE (and many of them are valid), I consider the fact that a young Emirati pianist like Sara Al-Kaabi and a composer with the melodic gift of Faisal Al Saari no longer has to wait to go to New York to see West Side Story because there are now institutions like Dubai Opera.

They don’t have to smuggle scores, like contraband, from London; now they can head over to the library at NYU Abu Dhabi and check out Mahler’s 5th Symphony, or Bloch’s Kol Nidrei on the spot.

I’ve worked hard for over a decade towards bringing this vision closer to reality. I’d take heart by reminding myself of this bigger picture whenever I was discouraged; it reminded me that I was part of something bigger than myself. That kept me going.

You can imagine my joy when, on my way to attend the premiere of my latest opera in Amsterdam, reviewed as “one of the most ambitious, high-profile statements by an Emirati artist,” I read the following words from a younger colleague who made her way from Dubai to Amsterdam in order to attend the premiere: “Fairouz, through this opera is quite literally blazing the trails that a new generation of Emirati artists will certainly appreciate…”

With their exclusions the message that the presenters of this Culture Summit are telegraphing to our aspiring generation of creative artists is destructive. These artists are already fighting an uphill battle in a rough part of the world, and they are fighting it in a world that has all sorts of preconceived notions about who they are as Arabs and as Muslims.

In a world where the reconciliation of voices from the Islamic world with the West is increasingly vital to conflict prevention, overlooking the aspirations of the people in the region is not conducive to realizing a positive image of the diverse world in which we live.

Partnerships abound in the Emirates. From the Louvre to the Guggenheim and NYU Abu Dhabi, the land that the UAE was built on has relished partnerships since the days of the Silk Road and before.

But those major partnerships are unique in their own ways. And the people at the FP group should know. I wrote the following in Foreign Policy Magazine, itself less than a year ago:

“The internationalism of the UAE (where people of more than 202 nationalities live) provides a veritable laboratory for exploring cultural interchange and learning. In such a diverse society, the task of intercultural connectivity is not just a fascinating question or a way to build understanding; it is also a catalyst for engendering community.

“At such cultural centers including the Abu Dhabi Festival, the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, and the neighboring Dubai Opera, artists representing more than 60 nationalities cumulatively have brought their voices to the UAE, while the Guggenheim has seen curators in both Abu Dhabi and New York City work together to develop a collection for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi that includes a significant representation (some 70 percent of the collection) of non-Euro/American artists and works.”

These gaping omissions represent a profound lack of representation. I speak for myself alone but I consider it a duty to raise my voice as an Emirati artist and say to the hired presenters and their financiers in the Cultural Authority: “We might not be at the table but we are here.”

If we fail to say this, then the misrepresentations of various stripes will continue; they will plague another generation and we will have no-one to blame but ourselves.

The UAE is expending considerable wealth on generating a global cultural conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that and, with a more open approach (one that embraces public attendance), they may well succeed.

But without following the cues of the leading artists at work in the country and keeping all ears and minds open to the currents of their creative visions, the Emirates is not guaranteeing its own valuable place at the table.

If you were to catch the next flight to Abu Dhabi you could get to witness a profound dialogue of cultures. The UAE is home to over 202 nationalities. You would enjoy the sharing of art and satisfy any curiosities about a region and a local Arab and Muslim culture that is too often the subject of dangerous distortion and demonization as it seeps from the mouths of Western politicians and pundits.

You could get a glimpse of what Emirati art really looks like. In an age in which we’re being pushed together by the acceleration of globalization, you could experience art that lives in daily contact with people from every corner of our planet.

While the United States was engaged in a debate on whether climate change was a Chinese hoax, the UAE was and is continuing its experiment with developing a low-carbon sustainable urban development called Masdar.

While funding to scientific programs are being brought to the cutting board in the States, the UAE Mars program is on schedule for its 2020 launch.

If you went to the UAE, you could experience the work of artists that are expressing this kind of aspiration. And if you’re more interested in the problems of UAE society and the broader Middle East, you could see how artists navigate them in a culture simultaneously divergent and concurrent with the culture of the United States.

And let’s face it, Emirati art (like any other artistic scene) really just has to be good in order to interest people interested in culture. It doesn’t need to ask for a political precondition to exist. And there has been lots of good art that has been coming out of the UAE since the 1970s.

You could see all that…in time but don’t book that flight just yet. And yet, whatever the organizers’ intentions, the inaugural UAE Culture Summit seems to my eye to be one that shuns Emirati artists, whose prowess and accomplishments should have been at the summit’s heart. The awful irony is that by not fully celebrating those artists, the case for the UAE as a global leader in the arts becomes a much harder one to make.

Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose operas and symphonies have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and internationally at venues such as the Dutch National Opera, Dubai Opera, and London’s Barbican.

UPDATE 4/12/17: This story has been updated throughout to include comment from the summit organizers, to explain when and how certain artists—including the author—were invited to the event.