Investing in art and culture is becoming big business in the GCC as the region’s governments broaden their quest to reinvest their oil windfalls. According to projects tracker MEED Projects, some $2.6bn-worth of capital investment is currently planned or under way in cultural facilities in the GCC, including some of the region’s most eye-catching projects such as Abu Dhabi’s $653m Louvre art gallery.

But increasingly, GCC investors are spending on the artworks themselves, either as a high-value asset or as a piece of public art aimed at establishing recognisable, iconic and often controversial landmarks.

Doha’s new Hamad International Airport, which opened in April, features a $6.8m, 23-foot-high, bronze sculpture of a child’s teddy bear bisected by a lamp, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer. The sculpture is both immediately recognisable and challenging.

There are also more familiar pieces at the airport: a series of oryx sculptures by Dutch artist Tom Claassen and, coming soon according to Qatar Museums (QM), “an iconic desert horse sculpture” by the local Ali Hassan.

Qatar leads

Doha is establishing itself as the GCC’s leading investor in contemporary art, although, true to art tradition, its investments are not universally popular with locals. Outside Qatar’s yet-to-open Sidra Medical & Research Centre are 14 bronze sculptures showing the stages of human gestation, from conception to birth. Damian Hirst’s The Miraculous Journey weighs a total of 216 tonnes, and sparked intense criticism from religious conservatives.

In 2011, Qatar acquired Cezanne’s The Card Players for a reported $250m, the most ever paid for a piece of art at auction

The estimated $20m work was commissioned by Sheikha Mayasa bint Hamad al-Khalifa al-Thani, head of QM and sister of the current emir, in 2005, when she was only 22. The Art Review today ranks Sheikha Mayasa as the most important person in art because of her unrivalled spending power.

QM is one of the biggest art spenders in the world. As the Qatar Museums Authority, it had a reported budget of $1bn a year; 30 times the amount New York’s Museum of Modern Art spends, and 175 times the budget of London’s Tate. When the institution rebranded a few months ago, its budget was reportedly cut by 40 per cent. But details are hard to come by. The Qatari body is reluctant to discuss its spending. A request for an interview by MEED was met with the reply: “QM does not discuss the particulars of its acquisition process”. The ruling Al-Thani family routinely refuses to confirm or deny rumours about its acquisitions.

International and contemporary art top lots sold in Dubai, 2006-14
Date Artist Title Purchase price ($’000)
May-06 Rameshwar Broota Sourya 912
Apr-08 Parviz Tanavoli The Wall (Oh Persepolis) 2,841
Apr-08 Charles Hossein Zenderoudi Tchaar-Bagh 1,609
Apr-08 Mhammed Ehsai He is the Merciful 1,161
Apr-08 Robert Indiana Love 1,161
Apr-09 Parviz Tanavoli Poet and Cage 1,022.5
Apr-09 Mahmoud Said Sunset on the Nile at Luxor 902.5
Apr-10 Mahmoud Said Les Chadoufs 2,434.5
Oct-10 Mahmoud Said The Whirling Dervishes 2,546.5
Oct-13 Fahr el-Nissa Zeid Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life 2,741
Source: Christie’s

Doha conducts its buying through Giraud Pissarro Segalot, a secretive collective of buyers based in Paris and New York. In 2011, it acquired Cezanne’s The Card Players for a reported $250m, the most ever paid for a piece of art at auction and more than double the previous record of $106m.

In November 2013, Doha was assumed to be the buyer of a $142.2m triptych by Francis Bacon. The 1969 set of three studies of Bacon’s fellow British painter Lucian Freud set an auction record price for the artist.

Nearby Abu Dhabi is also investing heavily in art and culture assets, although its approach is different to that taken by Doha. The UAE capital is tying up with the big brands of art to develop expensive museum franchises. Abu Dhabi will pay the Louvre in Paris about $520m over 30 years to use its name, and has set aside e40m ($53.8m) a year for purchases.

Abu Dhabi Louvre

The total cost of developing Saadiyat Island, where the Louvre Abu Dhabi will open in 2015, is in the region of $27bn. It will also house a branch of the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Zayed National Museum, developed with consultants from the British Museum.

The New York-based Guggenheim already has franchises in Bilbao and Berlin, but the deal with the Louvre is unprecedented. It comes amid bigger deals between the UAE and France, but has not been without its critics at home, who accuse the Louvre of selling out part of France’s heritage.

The Zayed National Museum, meanwhile, will tell the story of the history of the UAE and of the life of its founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. 

The museums were announced in 2007, and two years later the Abu Dhabi Art fair was launched to help attract galleries to the emirate. “We have ongoing cultural events happening in Abu Dhabi, but we will also have the three museums opening in the future,” says Alanood al-Hammadi, exhibition relations coordinator at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). “The fact that Abu Dhabi Art also happens in the Saadiyat Cultural District… we like to say it is preparation for what is going to happen.”

Dubai’s approach is different again. It has more than 40 private galleries, of which about seven frequent international fairs to showcase the artists they represent. Dubai’s own fair, Art Dubai, has been running since 2007 and was the first major fair outside Europe and America.

The emirate is becoming something of a regional hub for buying and selling art, as a result of a young, wealthy population, its large numbers of galleries, and its geocentric location between Europe, Asia and Africa, says Antonia Carver, Art Dubai’s director.

Neighbouring Sharjah also has plentiful galleries and a biennial that showcases work by regional and international artists. The fair has been running since 1993 and is “one of the major biennials in the world”, says Carver.

Even traditionally conservative Saudi Arabia is an emerging player in the art market. Jeddah Art Week is now in its second year, and private museums are opening across the kingdom. Next year, state oil company Saudi Aramco will open its King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture. The British Museum and the Natural History Museum from London, and Paris’s Centre Pompidou are consulting on the project.

In addition, auction houses are enjoying success in the GCC as international collectors look to the region and local collectors branch out into international art. London’s Christie’s has held two sales a year in the region since 2006, and has sold more than $250m of art, watches and jewellery, says Michael Jeha, the auction house’s Middle East managing director. “Our two most recent sales have totalled more than $10m and the introduction of our first online-only Middle Eastern art sale in October 2013 proved very popular with existing clients and introduced us to a significant number of new clients.”

Jeha says that over the past five years Christie’s has seen an “internationalisation” of regional clients. “For every $1 they spend with us in Dubai, these clients go on to spend $15 in our international sales,” he says.

The London-based Fine Art Fund Group is cashing in on this interest. It manages closed-end funds and individual art portfolios. Of the 50 or so accounts the group handles, about 11 are from the GCC. While most of the works the group’s funds and private investors own are warehoused in the Geneva Freeport, about 15-20 works are in Dubai’s Jebel Ali freezone, in climate-controlled storage.

“Annually, the art market is valued at about $65bn,” says Salma Shaheem, head of Middle East markets for the Fine Art Fund Group. “That is the entire art market: all the little galleries around the world and all the paintings hung on their walls. Of that $65bn, we value the investable art market at about $15bn.” The group has a new fund launching in the next few months.

Regional art is emerging again, showcased at fairs, local galleries and public spaces, but a lot of art is still being bought in at great expense as governments look to fit out new museums in a bid to develop a market for cultural tourism.

Religious sensitivities

Local customs and religious sensitivities can make this a challenge, however. Al-Hammadi says preparing the local community for what to expect from the new museums is a vital part of Abu Dhabi Art’s remit. Last year, a preview exhibition of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s acquisitions included a statue of Jesus (considered a prophet in Islam), as well as naked statues – The Pugilists by 18th century Italian artist Antonio Canova – albeit kept modest with fig leaves.

There were few objections to these works, but others in the region have sparked controversy. In October 2013, a statue on the Doha Corniche of French footballer Zinedine Zidane headbutting Italian Marco Materazzi during the 2006 Fifa World Cup final was removed amid worries it might encourage idolatry. A Hirst statue of a skinless saint was exhibited with a fig leaf in 2013 in the same Doha exhibition space that had earlier removed two ancient Greek statues for their nudity.

For artists who strive to create controversy it will drive a change in mindset; some of their richest clients live in conservative societies. When Hirst’s Miraculous Journey was uncovered, the artist told Al-Jazeera television channel: “To me, putting a large, naked baby somewhere isn’t shocking, but I have to understand that [the sheikha] is under huge pressure.”