Middle East’s creative economy to reap the rewards of heavy cultural spending

DUBAI: Given the financial pressures of the past 18 months, few would expect a significant investment in arts and culture to be high on a government’s agenda. And yet, as economies emerge from pandemic gloom, several Arab countries are investing billions of dollars in the creative economy – art galleries, heritage sites and museums – to attract visitors and jump-start long-term growth.

UNESCO says cultural and creative industries are among the fastest growing sectors in the world, generating annual revenues of $ 2,250 billion, generating 30 million jobs and contributing around 10% to gross domestic product (GDP) worldwide.

Recognizing the potential of the sector, the UN has designated 2021 as the International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are among the countries investing in cultural megaprojects with the aim of diversifying their future sources of income and benefiting from other positive impacts: celebrating the richness of natural beauty and heritage; educate young people; and attract brands and international visitors.

As in the rest of the world, sectors of the creative economy in the Middle East have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But here, too, the public response to the crisis has underscored the importance of creativity and culture in supporting the resilience of communities.

A statue of Gudea dating from 2150 BC at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

In Saudi Arabia, spending on cultural projects has been ongoing for several years. More recently, the Kingdom doubled its flagship project of Diriyah Gate – a cultural and leisure complex in the historic heart of Riyadh – which aims to rival the pyramids of Egypt and the Coliseum in Rome.

Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, told Arab News in June that its budget had increased from $ 20 billion to $ 40 billion. The decision to expand the budget and scope of the project was envisioned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Inzerillo said on the “Frankly” show.

Diriyah was the seat of the first Saudi kingdom in the 18th century and is seen as a centerpiece of Vision 2030, a set of development and diversification initiatives launched in 2016, which include major investments in culture, recreation and tourism. tourism.

One of Saudi Arabia’s most ambitious cultural projects is the Journey Through Time Master Plan – a 15-year project to develop the AlUla Valley, home to Hegra and a host of other historic sites, into one living museum designed to immerse visitors in 200,000 years of natural and human history.

Additionally, the Saudi Fund for Cultural Development was established as part of Vision 2030 to support individuals, businesses and civil society groups working in the sector. It has already disbursed RS 180 million ($ 47.9 million) for projects in 2021.

“Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a crucial cultural movement,” Reem Al-Sultan, CEO of Misk Art Institute, told Arab News. “The institute recently doubled its annual Misk Art grant to SR 1 million, making it the largest arts grant in the region, and launched the Art Library, a new heritage initiative dedicated to documenting work. Saudi and Arab artists.

Misk Art Institute was established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 to encourage local artistic production in Saudi Arabia, foster appreciation of Saudi and Arab art, and enable diplomacy and cultural exchange.

“Providing support, infrastructure and opportunities for Saudi art and artists helps raise awareness of the region’s rich cultural heritage, inviting greater international dialogue and strengthening our relationships with our cultural counterparts around the world.” , said Al-Sultan.

In neighboring United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi announced in June that it would invest $ 6 billion in cultural and creative industries in addition to the $ 2.3 billion already pledged as part of its post-pandemic recovery program.

“In terms of growth, we know that the creative industries are going to be a major contributor to Abu Dhabi’s GDP,” Mohammed Al-Mubarak, who chairs the emirate’s Department of Culture and Tourism, recently told the Financial Times. .

Launched in 2019, the Abu Dhabi Culture and Creative Industries (CCI) Strategy is a comprehensive five-year plan to accelerate business growth and job creation in film and television, the arts visuals and entertainment, games, electronic sports, heritage and crafts. and editing.

It includes a planned global investment of over AED 30 billion ($ 8.1 billion) in the public and private sectors, with AED 8.5 billion already pledged to advance monumental projects, including Yas Creative. Hub and the Saadiyat Cultural District.

The Yas Creative Hub, a new media area that includes a regional CNN newsroom, is expected to employ 8,000 workers by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Saadiyat Cultural District, slated for completion by 2025, will feature the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith dialogue facility that includes a mosque, church and synagogue.

Some 20,000 people already work in Abu Dhabi’s creative and cultural sector. Another 15,000 jobs are expected to be created over the next four years – an ambitious goal that may not be achievable without a flexible visa system to attract outside talent, which is why Abu Dhabi is rolling out a special, creative, open visa program. to professionals. approved by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.


$ 6 billion – Abu Dhabi’s latest investment in cultural and creative industries

$ 40 billion – Enlarged budget for Diriyah Gate project in Saudi Arabia

$ 1 billion – Egypt’s investment in the Grand Egyptian Museum

“It’s not a new trend. Abu Dhabi has made significant investments in culture for over a decade, ”Dyala Nusseibeh, director of Abu Dhabi Art, told Arab News.

“There is already this key investment happening. What has been announced is the continuation and expansion of this investment. Why? Because the government did its research and found out that it is a multibillion dollar industry. The strategy is to find ways to harness this growth locally.

Already home to Louvre Abu Dhabi, the emirate will soon also host the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. A further 22 billion AED will be released over the next five years to support new museums and creative activities.

“The ICC is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world,” Saood Al-Hosani, undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, told Arab News. “In Abu Dhabi, we have seen significant growth in the ICC, and today it is a key driver of social and economic growth, as well as diversification.

“More than 20,000 people already work in the sector, and we expect significant growth in the years to come. In addition, the ICC has always demonstrated considerable resilience and adaptability in the face of changing economic dynamics.

“So as the world emerges from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can expect its high-value products and services to help fuel the economic recovery. “

Egypt has also jumped on the cultural spending bandwagon to help revitalize its lagging tourism sector. The Grand Egyptian Museum, a brand new 5.2 million square foot edifice on the edge of the Giza Plateau due to open later this year, is part of a state’s $ 1 billion investment in the heritage and culture.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said it aims to raise the level of services provided to visitors at 30 of its main attractions, museums and archaeological sites, including Al-Moez Street in Old Cairo, the citadel of the capital. and the museums of Alexandria, Fayum, Sohag and Luxor.

Egypt is also building a new administrative capital east of Cairo, which is expected to have several theaters, exhibition halls, libraries, museums and galleries. The first phase of the city is expected to be completed in 2030 at a cost of $ 58 billion.

It is not just the state that is injecting large sums of money into the cultural awakening of Egypt. Orascom Investments, led by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, signed a $ 12.7 million contract to develop and manage the sound and light shows at the Giza Pyramids.

Tourism is a huge source of income for the Egyptian economy, reaching $ 13 billion in 2019. However, only 3.5 million tourists visited the country in 2020, up from 13.1 million a year earlier. Authorities expect visitor numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022.

The hope is that once the pandemic is gradually brought under control and the global economy begins to recover, the return on investment and other positive impacts will fully justify the decision of Arab governments to continue spending on culture.


Twitter: @rebeccaaprocteur

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