Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UAE is ranked 26 in the world on the UN’s Human Development Index, ahead of Spain and France. Photo: iStock

Culture is the heart of a city, and tells its story.

Such is the importance for modern cities to be seen as cultural hubs that vast sums are invested and innovative ideas implemented in the hope of being crowned the latest “capital of culture.”

For the former industrial powerhouse of Glasgow in Scotland, for example, being named the European City of Culture in 1990 helped lift the metropolis’ image from violent and poverty-stricken to a vibrant center for the arts. Other cities in Europe followed, using the “capital of culture” label to help turn around their post-industrial fortunes. 

None of this was lost on the leaders of modern Middle Eastern and Asian cities that realized drawing in visitors for an experience rather than just a holiday was key to their success. But unlike some cities in Europe, which have allowed the benefits from being in the global cultural spotlight to fade, they realized that to maintain momentum they would have to reinvent. 

Singapore and Hong Kong have both gone through cycles of cultural investment to remain relevant and attractive to visitors. Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020 is perhaps the clearest example of a city that understands the need for reinvention. After the knocks of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Expo to push the city into a new era could not have been better timed.

While they have their detractors, “cultural capital” initiatives help us discover cities we may know nothing about and therefore develop a new appreciation for their cultural heritage. 

The Arab Capital of Culture has been crowned annually since 1996, with Irbid in Jordan the chosen city for 2021, Kuwait City for 2022 and Tripoli in Lebanon for 2023. The initiative was set up by the Arab League under the UNESCO Cultural Capitals Program to promote and celebrate Arab culture, encourage cooperation and build understanding among cultures.

But what are the qualification criteria to become such a capital? And what is culture exactly? Is it rituals? Costumes? Arts and crafts? Is it defined by its people, history, buildings and architecture?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines culture as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group that encompasses, not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. Perhaps we can add “timelessness” to this definition.

Cities may fall but their cultural contributions can outlive the people and the powers that built them. Babylon’s Hanging Gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and while no visual evidence of them exists, the gardens’ cultural importance remains.

The ruins of Babylon itself – the ancient Mesopotamian city – now lie within the borders of Iraq and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between 626 and 539 BC it was the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and represented the expression of the creativity of the empire at its height.

Fast-forward 2,600 years and the importance of investing in cultural initiatives that bring people together is on full display in Dubai.

For 170 years, World Expos have provided a platform to showcase the greatest innovations from across the globe.

In 1851, the first World Expo was held at The Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of London’s Great Exhibition, where it celebrated the industrial wonders of a rapidly changing world. Dubai Expo, the first to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, recently held its grand opening ceremony beneath the world’s largest unsupported dome in Al Wasl Plaza.

The design was inspired by the shape of a 4,000-year-old gold ring discovered at the Iron Age Sarouq al-Hadeed archeological site in Dubai. The Dubai Expo theme and logo are great examples of reviving ancient cultural roots, creatively bringing back history for a present-day audience.

Places like Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong constantly revitalize their cultural identities in a bid to remain relevant in a fast-changing world that exists largely online and in which grand projects have increasingly limited shelf-lives.

But is it worth it? Is building – and sometimes rebuilding – culture into our urban environments important? According to recent studies, the answer is a resounding “yes,” and it is closely linked to prosperity.

A UNESCO study in 2016 found culture has the power to make cities richer, safer, and sustainable. “Culture lies at the heart of urban renewal and innovation,” Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director general at that time, wrote in the foreword of the global report “Culture: Urban Future.”

The report, she added, provided “concrete evidence showing the power of culture as a strategic asset for creating cities that are more inclusive, creative and sustainable.”

A series of three reports focused on culture is scheduled for release this month by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Saudi Arabia. The reports aim to promote a greater understanding of how the cultural and creative industry is evolving in Saudi Arabia and the region.

One of the highlights is that cultural participation is on the rise across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, with growth prospects highest in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The report will show that Gulf states have adopted a top-down approach to cultural development. They are heavily investing public funds to establish institutions, frameworks, infrastructure, and spaces to enable the creative industry not only to exist, but to thrive. In contrast, the Levant and North African Arab countries have pursued a bottom-up approach, driven by private and grassroots initiatives and a vibrant cultural scene. 

Both approaches seem to be working.

This widening desire for people to be involved in cultural experiences validates the approach to give cultural booster shots to metropolitan areas or risk an overall demise.

Royal courts in the past would parade their opulence and cultural significance through their art pieces and prominent cultural figures of the time. However, today, the court of public opinion exists on a grander, global scale.

There is an intrinsic link between culture and economic prosperity, where there is a co-dependent requirement for extravagance, to keep a cultural city relevant and to hold the attention of the traveling masses.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Rym Tina Ghazal

Rym Tina Ghazal is editor of an arts and culture magazine, and a former war correspondent.