The heat is on: A growing design and cultural scene thrives in Dubai
While we have been working on projects in the Middle East for decades, our involvement and number of mandates in the area have increased exponentially since we opened up a permanent office in Dubai in 2016. For insights and observations on this bustling desert metropolis, we sat down with Creative Director Eve-Lyne Cayouette Ashby who just moved back to Montreal after two years in the United Arab Emirates.
What first brought you to live and work in Dubai?
My first project with GSM was the new Bank of Canada Museum in Ottawa, which opened last year. We then won a mandate for a large cultural project in Dubai, and I volunteered to move from Montreal to work on it. While we can’t get into the details just yet until it opens to the public, it was an all-encompassing, challenging, and ultimately very rewarding project to work on.
We also had the added challenge of establishing our first permanent Dubai office in 2016, to cover the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region. So we were working on an amazing big project and at the same establishing a permanent team. At first, we brought on staff from Montreal, but we wanted to hire locally as well. What started as a team of four working out of hotel lobbies, in just two years, is now an office of over forty employees, eight of whom are on the content team as content curators, copywriters and researchers.
In your role at the time as Head of Content, what were some content development considerations that are unique to working on projects in Dubai, vs. a project in North America or Europe?
The Emirates are not traditionally a text-based society. They come from a nomadic Bedouin tradition with a rich culture and history, yet without significant built environment or much written documentation. Oral poetry was their most popular art form as a means of creative expression and sharing information. Although they have been in the region for hundreds of years, they haven’t been writing down their history for centuries like in the West. It’s also important to note that only 10% of the population in the Emirates is Emirati, most are foreign expats and workers who tend to only live there for a limited amount of ti
“You don’t have a wide pool of academics who have been writing and researching and debating their findings for decades, so you have a limited number of documents and publications, scholarly articles that are valid that you can refer to.”
Faced with this challenge of very few written records and artifacts, we began to carry out our own primary research in order to develop museum content, often carried out under tight deadlines. Informal committees of individuals with academic, cultural and historical knowledge were established and served as our experts when we needed to gather information and validate our own findings. In the end, we succeeded in crafting a detailed and accurate narrative, but it was a completely different process than working with Western museums.
In the West, Dubai is most well known for its oil money and rapid development in recent decades. What other aspects of Dubai culture should we know more about?
There has been a boom in cultural development in the Emirates lately, such as the Dubai Opera, the Etihad Museum about the union of the Emirates in 1971, the soon-to-open Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, or the Museum of the Future, to name a few. In one sense, this is a natural progression for a developing country which didn’t have much infrastructure prior to the oil boom of the 70s. They started with essential services such as establishing electricity, running water, roads, hospitals, and schools. Now they are focusing on cultural infrastructure and institutions. There are also two main motivations behind all of this cultural development. The first are foremost is to showcase Emirati culture, counteracting the cliche that Dubai only has oil, money, and no culture. It was often explicitly stated in meeting with our Emirati clients that they wanted the public to know about their history and culture prior to the oil boom.
“Emirati culture and history is beautiful, diverse and fascinating, yet most visitors are unaware of it. The Emirates really want to fight this cliché, they want to prove that they have a culture, they have traditions, they have been around for hundreds of years.”
The second major motivation is to increase tourism. Studies were carried out by the government and they discovered that tourists knew about Dubai’s nice beaches, malls and dining experiences, but culturally speaking they didn’t think there was much to see. So a big part of all this development is to address this misconception and offer more cultural destinations.
With so much rapid development, this must have an impact on the pace of our work. What was it like to work in this kind of environment?
There is a sense of optimism and innovation in Dubai, that anything is possible. Young people occupy important positions in government and industry. They’re extremely well-trained and well-travelled, having visited countless museums around the world. They’re aware of the latest innovations and technologies, and they want the best.
“It’s extremely inspiring to work with Emirati clients because they have crazy ideas and they just go for them.”
The influence of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is also an inspiration and driving force for innovation. What would seem like “crazy” projects in the West, such as super tall buildings, a hyperloop between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, or flying drone taxis are actually happening! There is a notion that everything is possible.
“For GSM this is a magical match because this is how we think. We like being creative and having crazy ideas and making it happen.”
A day in the office in Dubai feels like a month elsewhere. If you miss a day or a week, forget it, you come back and you’re lost, everything’s changed. Everything's happening so fast — that’s just the pace of Dubai.
What’s the art and design scene like — where did you look for inspiration beyond our own projects?
Although little known internationally or to people from outside the Middle-East, there’s a busy art and design scene in the Emirates, with a big focus leading up to 2020 Dubai Expo. There’s actually a running gag in Dubai where everyone says that “everything is due for 2020”; including unrelated commercial and cultural development, because it will be such a draw for international travel and media coverage. Beyond this, however, for expats and locals, there is a wealth of established art and design events and centres.
“The first time I went to Dubai, I got the feeling that this is the centre of another part of the world, the way we might think of New York or London in the West.”
How do you see the next five to ten years for GSM in Dubai?
There is still significant potential for GSM to continue growing in the MENA region, both on the cultural and commercial sides. I can see us participating more in local design events such as Dubai Design Week, further contributing to the already thriving cultural and design scene.
Ultimately, as our team becomes more established in Dubai, I look forward to continuing to dispel the myth that the Emirates are only a wealthy oil-producing region, in showcasing their diverse social and cultural history.