A deeper look at the Middle East’s creative industries, by Instinctif Partners MENA

Palestinian artist Khulud al-Desouki paints during lockdown at home in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, amid strict restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on October 12, 2020. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Fuelled by digital transformation, rapid urbanisation and a dominant younger demographic, the Middle East has seen accelerated growth of creative industries. With the growing contribution of creative industries to the global economy, it is no surprise that the United Nations has named 2021 the Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. But how quickly are countries and organisations recognising the relationship between creativity and sustainability?

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If cultivated in the right way, the creative economy can contribute to positive social change. In tandem with the Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has voiced the benefits that it believes the creative economy offers beyond monetary value, particularly for fostering entrepreneurship and cultural diversity in developing countries. Organisations around the world have tackled gender inequality as a priority to ensure economic sustainability. With local artisans having been a driving force for change in communities, our non-profit client Alwaleed Philanthropies promotes their work with a host of entrepreneurship and educational programs, while preserving local heritage. Working with international partners, the Foundation provides hundreds of female artisans access to new markets and commercial opportunities, whilst preserving handicrafts and traditions. The organisation empowers female artisans, arming them with the skills they need to be successful, while contributing to closing the gender gap, creating job opportunities and, as a result, boosting Saudi Arabia’s creative economy.

Recently, Alwaleed Philanthropies launched Mizwada, a fair-trade brand created by and for female artisans in Saudi Arabia. Using art to create goods and gifts crafted for home and life, Mizwada is led by Saudi artisans and skilled, multi-generational craftspeople who produce authentically local-handcrafted goods. A bridge that connects the past with the future, Mizwada represents a powerful dimension for cross-cultural creativity and communication. As well as providing an opportunity for employment and sustainable development, Mizwada respects the origins of the craft, reflecting Saudi Arabia’s heritage. With 100 per cent of Mizwada’s proceeds invested back into artisan communities, organisations like Alwaleed Philanthropies contribute to tackling gender inequality while paving the way towards economic independence for previously disenfranchised sections of society.

For some time, governments and organisations across the Middle East have recognised the vital role that creative industries play in contributing to a more inclusive, sustainable and diverse economy. With Vision 2030 well underway, Saudi Arabia has meaningfully shifted towards stronger economic, social and cultural diversity, and the creative industries are playing their part. Through projects like NEOM and Qiddiya Entertainment City, the Kingdom is diversifying its economy while establishing itself as a creative hub. These projects hold incredible potential when it comes to taking advantage of the creative economy’s contribution to economic growth.

NEOM has been designed to house an array of hubs for technology and creativity. Of the sectors that NEOM will accommodate, media is one that will receive considerable attention, as the project will host Saudi Arabia’s first fully integrated hub for TV and film, broadcasting, gaming and digital publishing. NEOM’s media realm will feature a collaborative network that focuses on talent development and building an infrastructure that offers support to the creative economy. Likewise, the Qiddiya project – near Riyadh –  will serve as another centre for creative communities and careers. Such projects are designed to support relief from the Kingdom’s longstanding reliance on oil-based revenues while taking advantage of the innovation that creative industries will bring to target sectors such as finance and healthcare.

The neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also making strong progress towards building a platform for a creative economy to flourish. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared Dubai a Creative City of Design on the back of the emirate’s creative economy, which has positively impacted its infrastructure as well as its transport and education sectors. In March, it was announced that Dubai Expo 2020 would host the upcoming World Conference on Creative Economy, set to focus on developing a more inclusive sector and enhanced media diversity, as well as insights on the future of creative education. Meanwhile, the growth of creative clusters such as Dubai Media City and the launch of the UAE Cultural Development Fund are a testament to the country’s commitment to the future of creativity.

In 2020, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the Dubai Creative Economy strategy, which aims to double the contribution of creative industries to the emirate’s GDP by 2025. The strategy intends to boost the number of creative incubators and technology hubs within Dubai’s creative spaces while creating a new method of measuring the creative economy’s impact through the ‘creative economy classification and measurement framework’. Through these initiatives, the strategy aims to double the number of creative companies and individual creators and, in turn, achieve the vision of making Dubai “a global capital for the creative economy”, unlocking a new set of possibilities in the fields of architecture and transport, among others.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, with people turning to digital entertainment such as concerts for recreation. In April 2020, a Dubai-based music festival was staged on Instagram live, featuring a medley of artists from the Middle East. Garnering global attention, the virtual event led to a follow-up virtual concert that showcased female Saudi performers. Against the backdrop of a global crisis, these virtual shows illuminated commercial opportunities that lie within the region’s creative economy, while so many others have ground to a halt.

At Instinctif Partners, we specialise in purpose-driven strategies and develop compelling narratives that align with corporate values and wider social issues. In doing so, we play a part in ushering in the new and exciting opportunities that creative industries bring, building competitive advantages and boosting the performances of businesses with the will and ambition to change. The Middle East’s creative economy is getting stronger by the day. Governments, businesses and organisations can and should continue to work collaboratively to support the creative economy, particularly where social challenges can also be overcome.