How art can help diffuse Middle East tensions

Editor’s Note: Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a columnist on Arab affairs. He is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, which researches how technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design are converging. You can follow him on Twitter @SultanAlQassemi. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Tensions between Iran and some of the Gulf states have deteriorated in recent months

But cultural relations have persisted in some Gulf Arab cities through art

Dubai has led the way with exhibitions that have showcased Iranian art

CNN  — 

Over the past few months relations between Iran and the Arab Gulf States have gone from bad to worse. In January Iranian protesters torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Saudi’s execution of an influential Shia cleric. Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf capitals then either cut or downgraded diplomatic ties.

This coincided with the lifting of sanctions against Iran, which were in place for over three decades. Ironically, these very Gulf cities, with their developed infrastructure and logistics hubs, were in a prime position to benefit from the sanctions relief. Instead, a period of uncertainty, not only diplomatically but also economically and socially, looms.

One area where the pan Gulf relations have not only persisted but flourished is the cultural sphere. Some Gulf Arab cities led by Dubai have defied the regional swing into sectarianism and suspicion by publicly displaying art from across the Middle East. With its vibrant 90,000-strong Iranian community active in cultural and commercial sectors, Dubai is today an essential link between communities on both sides. Dubai’s role, however, goes back even further than the past few months. 

Exhibition firsts

In 2006, one of the first modern exhibitions and publications ever to include both Arab and Iranian artists was presented in Dubai. The exhibition by London auction house Christie’s brought together some of the finest sculptors from Egypt and Iran, the greatest painters from Turkey and Syria as well as from Morocco and Iraq. It included Iranian masters such as minimalist landscape artist Sohrab Sephiri, calligraphers Hossein Zenderoudi and Mohammad Ehsai and glass mosaic artist Mounir Farmanfamian. Pieces were shown alongside Lebanon’s Saloua Raouda Chocair and Chafic Abboud, Iraq’s Shakir Hassan Al Said and Dia Azzawi, Syrian icons Louay Kayyali and Fateh Moudarres as well as Morocco’s Farid Belkahia among many others.

The exhibition and its accompanying publication were a milestone event in the modern history of the region. Alexandre Kazerouni, a researcher at École Normale Supérieure in Paris told me “those catalogues and exhibitions are not the first publications bringing together the two art scenes (Arab and Iranian), but the first ones to do it systematically and at a large scale embracing the modern and the contemporary productions.”

Other Arab Gulf cities have also hosted major exhibitions featuring Iranian art, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, which along with Meem Gallery in 2010, showcased for the very first time an exhibition of the two leading living sculptors of the Middle East. Not only did Iran’s Parviz Tanavoli and Egypt’s Adam Henein never exhibit together, they had never even come cross each other’s names in publications according to Kazrouni. And in 2014, Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, organized a major exhibition of Iranian portraits by photographer Shirin Neshat.

Interaction with Iranian culture

Dubai also offers other opportunities to interact with Iranian culture. Since 1990 it has hosted an Iranian club with a library containing thousands of books. Iranian feature films are regularly shown at the Dubai International Film Festival not to mention the Iranian restaurants dotted across the city. “This cultural role played by Dubai is politically important,” says Kazerouni, “because it helps Iranians to distance themselves with radical nationalist ideas that have made out of the Arab the epitome of otherness since the first half of the 19th century, when Iran started thinking of its political decline in front of Europe and Russia.”

In fact the element of human interaction that cities offer should not be discounted. “In Dubai Iranians befriend with Arabs. They do business with them but also, thanks to the art market, look at their artistic expression all along the 20th century,” says the Paris based researcher. “And they can realize how many common features existed between the two worlds, like the huruffiyya (letterism) trend in Iraq and the naqqashi-Khatt (painting – calligraphy) in Iran.” 


So far however, this has been a one-sided effort from Arab Gulf cities. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is taking a welcome step by showcasing its collection of Western masterpieces along with works by Iranian artists in Berlin this year. The dialogue that is more important today, however, is an intra-regional dialogue. More Iranians need to be exposed to Arab culture and vice versa.

It is therefore essential that institutions in Tehran and other Iranian cities also open up to showcasing art by Arab artists to an Iranian audience so that the relationship isn’t viewed strictly through a political prism. Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors are bound by geographic proximity as well as cultural and familial links.

The current dark clouds of suspicion and distrust that have broken into proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria is bound to end sooner or later. It is essential that the coming generation of Arabs and Iranians continue to be exposed to each other’s culture and art in order to fortify themselves against prejudices that they may develop as adults as a result of the toxic political atmosphere.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a columnist on Arab affairs. He is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, which researches how technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design are converging. You can follow him on Twitter @SultanAlQassemi. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.