Modernity and Identity in the Gulf: The Role of Design Education
The twenty-first century is a golden age for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); in many ways its member states are, as Arab affairs commentator Sultan AlQassemi has termed them, “new centers of the Arabian world.”1 His statement refers to a modernizing impulse in countries such as Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, manifested in the construction of grandiose architectural projects as well as attempts to improve educational standards, including design education. In the rush for modernization, and the enthusiasm for global assimilation, local cultural values are being left out of the equation. In institutions that offer design majors, such as the American University of Kuwait, the American University of Sharjah, and Virginia Commonwealth in Qatar, a combination of factors is resulting in the erosion of students’ and instructors’ knowledge of the local culture. Design students in the Gulf region should be empowered to learn about their region’s history, its distinctive design aesthetic, its use of patterns, Arabic typography and craft skills, for example. This research focuses on the role of design education in re-energizing Khaleeji cultural identity, in a region where design is witnessing an influx of imported identities.
The Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) States are competing to set the tone for modern Arabia and multifaceted social transformations in its urban landscape, architecture, and education. As a result design in this region is either purely Western-influenced, or the product of superficial attempts by local as well as international designers to engage with Gulf culture and heritage. Examples of the latter are found in the growing numbers of designs which arbitrarily incorporate Arabic calligraphy or traditional motifs such as Sadu weaving. These include the Duraibah brand in Saudi Arabia and logo designs in the UAE and Qatar defined by attributes like the color gold or the silhouette of a horse. This research argues that this paradox is exacerbated by the design education system in these Gulf States.
With the rise of design education, specifically in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which started in the late 1990s and in Kuwait in 2006, the price of Western domination within the education system at large is revealed, both in approach and content. My research examines design education’s obvious lack of emphasis on the region’s rich history and distinctive culture, resulting in Gulf-native design students’ deficient knowledge of their own cultural environment. As such, the region’s authentic identity essentially remains obsolete amidst the hegemony of foreign influence.
As a result of my analysis of curricula and syllabi used in the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar’s MFA Design department, as well as the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at the American University of Sharjah and the American University of Kuwait, it became clear that the principles of Arabic type are not taught as core requirements to design students, and that the visual language studied in history classes is not one that originates from the region or the Middle East.
The disregard for the unique culture and heritage of the GCC States is not confined to educational settings. Design is used as an expression of Gulf countries’ identities, and is therefore inextricably linked to self-definition, not only on the regional scene, but ultimately on the international one as well. The role of local design is colossally misunderstood by the region’s decision-makers, however, a fact which is reflected in designers’ shallow engagement with cultural identity, such as their constant use of the Arabesque in interior spaces as well as product designs as a representation of Arabia. Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about the ways in which cultural expressions are depicted using elements that are not related to the culture are evident in Gulf States. 2
It is time for design institutions to start reevaluating their curricula. VCUQ MFA Design faculty member Thomas Modeen asserts that in some instances it is hard to apply change since operations in some institutions require an overwhelming amount of bureaucracy.3 Nevertheless, it is vital for the quality of education that institutions realize the importance of such an overhaul. Design schools should involve local design professionals in the educational realm, to interact with students and address issues in the profession from local designers’ perspectives. There must also be a conscious effort to invite local, Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Emirati designers to panel discussions alongside foreign speakers at public events.
While some institutions are interested in introducing a more Gulf-centric cultural approach to design education, most lack determination. Introducing Arabic type classes to the program is a good example of this. Charles Osgood, the American psychologist who developed a technique for measuring the connotative meaning of concepts, asserts in his semantic differential theory that type is more than aesthetic—it communicates values, and measures attitudes and opinions.4 VCUQ alumina Aisha Al Suwaidi argues that unless the instructor speaks the dialect of the Gulf—by either being a native or expert on the region—the process is rendered counterproductive. She further explained, “we [in the Gulf] have a lot of poetry and sayings that originated from within our culture.”5 A faculty member from the Levant or North Africa would not necessarily relate to that and understand it because “it’s a different accent,” she added. Despite it being a central component of local signage and advertising design, for example, Arabic typography remains, if it is present at all, merely an elective on the curricula in design schools of the region.
- Sultan AlQassemi, “Gulf Cities Emerge As New Centers of Arab World,” Al-Monitor, October 8, 2013, www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/abu-dhabi-dubai-doha-arab-centers.html. ↩
- Jean Baudrillard and Mark Poster, Selected Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 6-9. ↩
- Thomas Modeen, personal interview by Nawar N. Al-Kazemi, November 5, 2013. ↩
- Charles Egerton Osgood, George J. Suci, and Percy H. Tannenbaum, The Measurement of Meaning (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 195. ↩
- Aisha AlSuwaidi, personal interview by Nawar N. Al-Kazemi, November 2, 2013. ↩