The Rise and Growth of Art Markets and Scenes in the GCC

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This article explores the recent growth of the art market and the art scenes in the GCC, with a focus on the growth perceived in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Through reaching out to experts and artists, this article also touches upon the reasons for this growth and where the GCC could be heading with such growth.

Louvre Abu Dhabiís plaza © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography: Mohamed Somji

In 2018, around one million visitor entered the UAE’s borders to witness the growth of its art scene upon the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Less than a decade ago, this same country did not have art education classes with a nationally set curriculum implemented in K-12 classrooms.

The United Arab Emirates is not the only Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) country gaining momentum in the art industry. Saudi Arabia is another example of a country whose art markets and art scenes have been gaining more traction in recent years.

“Today, you have private galleries, commercial galleries, auction houses,” lists Metha AlSaeedi, a visual art and art history student at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), “you also have art residencies, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, of course; the first international museum in the region.” AlSaeedi is a practicing artist. She was a Student Ambassador during the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening in 2017 and will join the UAE’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale this coming September (2019). She, like other Emirati youth, was inspired to “recognize the power of arts” upon the industry’s recent growth.

When it comes to the visual arts market, those two countries are witnessing a growth in the value of their markets. Saudi Arabia’s visual art market was at a value of 2.9 million US Dollars in 2012 – the lowest it has been this decade. In 2013, it rose to $5.7 million, and has been growing since then. The UAE witnessed the same drop and growth with numbers higher than Saudi’s. The UAE’s visual art market value grew to $13.4 million in 2013. The same study predicted that in 2019, Saudi’s market value would be at $8.4 million and the Emirates’ at $19.4 million.

Two reasons for this market growth are international auction houses and commercial galleries. Examples of these are Dubai’s Christie’s, and such auction houses complement commercial galleries. Maya Allison, the founding director and chief curator of NYUAD’s Art Gallery, emphasizes that Dubai is leading the effort in incorporating commercial galleries in the region. Dubai’s Third Line used to be the only commercial gallery with a strong international presence.  “Now, the main commercial galleries that participate in international art fairs have their headquarters in Dubai,” reiterates Allison. Some of those galleries include Carbon.12 and Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai and Athr in Jeddah.

Allison believes that with Dubai’s efforts, the sales of art is “growing in influence, if not in relation to the actual collector base”. “General rule of thumb: where there is money, there is going to be an art market,” says Shaikha AlKetbi, referring to the collector base in the region. AlKetbi is an Emirati visual and installation artist. She works a full-time job on art educational programming in the cultural sector.

The Barjeel collection, founded by Middle Eastern art historian, professor and collector Sultan Sooud AlQassimi, is a collection appreciated by art enthusiasts like Metha AlSaeedi. Another famous collection belongs to the UAE Minister of State, His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh. HE Nusseibeh owns art from prominent Arab artists like the German-Syrian Marwan Kassab-Bachi and the Jordanian Mona Saudi. Selected works from his collection were exhibited last year in the exhibition Within/Without in Abu Dhabi.

Allison mentions that this growth in the market is leading to the expansion of the international market for Arab art and Arab Diaspora scenes. Artists like the Emirati Abdul Kadir Al-Raes and Iranian Farhad Moshiri, due to the success of the region’s art market, sold their art in auctions for prices three and four times higher than the upper estimates. Prices for their art reached six figures, as mentioned in a report. In March of 2008, one auction for Moshiri surpassed 1 Million US dollars.

Shamma Al Bastaki, an Emirati artist, writer and co-curator says that while entities in the region are focusing on the local arts community and the powerful Middle Eastern art scene, some art collectors in the GCC also purchase well-known Western artists like Rembrandt and da Vinci. “Working those two, hand in hand, is really a power move,” says Al Bastaki.

Another method for the growth of the art scene in the region is fellowships and scholarships, as Al Bastaki, AlKetbi and AlSaeedi mention. “There are more opportunities than there are emerging artists,” jokes AlKetbi. In 2012, AlKetbi received a scholarship from the cultural and educational departments in Abu Dhabi to study visual arts and pursue it as a prospective career.

Al Bastaki is a fellow in the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (SEAF). Al Bastaki was intrigued by this fellowship because it builds a community of artists known as ‘SEAFers’ in the UAE and the GCC. “SEAF is cultivating better artists,” says Al Bastaki, “smarter artists who are more aware of the world around them, who are more responsive to critique, and who can give better critique.”

When explaining reasons behind this growth in the scene and the market, Allison mentions the increasing number of universities teaching the arts in the region. Some examples are NYUAD and Sharjah’s Fine Arts and Design College in the UAE. AlSaeedi, for example, was firstly exposed to art as a career option upon joining NYUAD. Another reason behind this growth is the region’s leadership and their recognition of the importance of harnessing the arts as a form of soft power. “The most important change and event that happened in the GCC, which resulted in a spike in the art scene, is the realization that oil is not going to last forever,” speculates Al Bastaki.

Allison echoes the importance of governments’ commitment to the cultural ecosystem. “During the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017,” recalls AlSaeedi, “His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, approached my peers and I along with his grandson and congratulated us on the opening of the museum. He said something along those lines: ‘this museum is for you. Just like I’m visiting it today with my grandson, it is for you and the upcoming generations, and you’ll grow to visit it with your children.’”

In their experiences as Student Ambassadors for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, AlSaeedi and Al Bastaki recall many encounters with the regions’ leadership and their support for the progression of the arts and the youth’s involvement. “The idea of the museum,” adds Al Bastaki, “is to bring humanity together to rethink what it means to be a universal human being. It’s a political and sociocultural statement about peace, unity and harmony.”

The art scene in the UAE has catalyzed the growth in sociocultural tolerance and harmony, and it keeps contributing to that growth every day. With art becoming a strong soft power, and with recognizing that there is always a space for growth and improvement in this scene, the future of it all lies behind the answer to the question, “how do we move upwards from here?”


“UAE: Visual Arts Market Value 2019.” Statista, 2015,

“Saudi Arabia: Visual Arts Market Value 2019.” Statista, 2015,

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