Middle East design scene: are we there yet?

Middle East design scene: are we there yet?

Aidan Imanova explores how different initiatives have influenced the development of design across the region and what is the next step.

Over the past decade, the Middle East has been demonstrating a heartier appetite for design, and in the last couple of years, it has become hungrier than ever.

Observing the launch of Beirut and Saudi Design Weeks in 2012 and 2014, exhibitions such as 20+ Egypt Design Fair which began in 2010, Dubai Design Week’s last year debut as well as the new kids on the block, Amman Design Week, it is apparent that design has become more accessible and present than ever before.

Cyril Zammit, director of design at Art Dubai Group

However, with as many differences as similarities, it is clear that each city has its particular area of focus.

With Dubai Design Week having recently concluded its second edition in October, Cyril Zammit, director of design at Art Dubai Group, weighed in on what sets this event apart from its peers and predecessors.

He explained that with Dubai it was difficult to follow the mainstream design week model that celebrates and focuses on a native design scene. With 88% of the population hailing from across the globe, the country’s DNA goes beyond itself. This led to the three pillars of Dubai Design Week: the local, the regional and the international.

Various initiatives such as Abwab, where six identical pavilions are designed by a UAE-based designer or firm, hosting five other countries, all united under a single theme, involves creatives from all over the region.

Abwab pavilions by a hypothetical office

Other initiatives include Destinations, which welcomes design weeks from all over the world, and Global Grad Show, which showcases young talent from prestigious design schools worldwide. This year we saw a better integration of both non-regional and regional design, with students in the Middle East participating alongside international students.

In 2015, Swarovski began working with Dubai-based designer Anjali Srinivasan, who went on to win the 2016 Swarovski Designers of the Future for her work on an undulating wave of interactive tiles that were showcased at Design Miami/Basel. This year Emirati designer Zeinab Hashem created an art installation called ‘Hexalight’ for the crystal brand. The two designers were introduced to the brand through their works at Dubai Design Week.

Mass Imperfections by Palestinian pavilion for Abwab.

Zammit explained that this is the reward they seek from pushing a three-pillar design week model; an opportunity to make Dubai a point of discovery, where an international audience can meet great talent from the country and the overall region.

“For us it is about developing an identity that makes Dubai at ease with its DNA. It is about welcoming people, exchanging content and creativity with people and being a point of convergence from all over the world,” said Zammit.

Iconic Cities is another initiative that sheds light on regional design. This year’s exhibition, Cairo Now! City Incomplete, was curated by Egyptian architect, researcher and writer, Mohamed Elshahed. He is also curator for the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project.

“The exhibition offered a comprehensive view of what is happening in Cairo today in terms of design in its widest sense. The concept of the exhibition was entirely based on the idea of recording the present, through what the city offers in design,” said Elshahed, explaining how it is nearly impossible to find records of what designers in Egypt had achieved in the past as none of this information has been documented. This is lost history,” he said.

“With an awareness of this continuous condition of amnesia, I wanted to use the opportunity presented by Dubai Design Week to create a record of the now in Cairo’s design culture. The “City Incomplete” part of the title gives us a point of departure for the exhibition to speak about the city and where its designers fit in. The city is dominated by a sense of incompleteness, things are never fully done, and something is always missing or left behind.

Vryouyr Joubanian, co-founder and programme manager at Beirut Design Week

“I think in one way or another these gaps and missing links are the spaces where Cairo’s designers can thrive to fill the gaps and do something interesting and responsive to on-the-ground realities,” he added.

Cairo is very different from Dubai, where the design market is flourishing and progressive steps are being taken by the community and the government to push it forward. Elshashed said the design market in Egypt is nearly non-existent due to the country “drowning in a deluge of imported, standardised goods” that give very little space for small design workshops to make an impact on the market.

“There is absolutely no government support for design in Egypt, no annual design event, no design publication and no economic incentives to help young designers to develop and thrive [in the country].”

Bahrain pavilion for Abwab.

Vryouyr Joubanian, co-founder and programme manager at Beirut Design Week, said that there is also little government support and infrastructure to sustain the design market in Beirut.

“The local design scene in Beirut has tremendous talent but exports quite a lot of it, mostly because Beirut has far fewer financial opportunities, and this is due to a lack of sufficient government support,” he said.

Algerian pavilion for Abwab.

He added that in 2013, local designers saw a step forward when the Central Bank issued Circular 331, which guarantees 75% of the bank’s investment in the knowledge economy through start-up equity investment or indirect start-up support entities, injecting $4m into the Lebanese enterprise market.

“The objective is to move Lebanon towards a knowledge-based economy and support creative intellectual skills, as well as to have an enriching impact on the economic and social growth and on job creation in the Lebanese market,” he explained, adding that the majority of support comes from non-governmental initiatives and international organisations.


Unlike its neighbours, Amman’s first design week, which launched this year, was well supported – by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah no less. The organisers also worked closely with the Greater Amman Municipality.

“They were very helpful in fulfilling our vision of building a local design week that is embedded within the heart of the city and leverages its underutilised venues and public spaces, as well as its transportation veins,” said Abeer Seikaly, co-founder of Amman Design Week.

Similarly, Zammit explained that design fits well with the vision of the Dubai government.

He said: “We are very blessed that the authorities have endorsed and supported us and we are very appreciative of this because we know that we can voice our wishes and concerns at ease. But now we need to extend this and hope that universities will develop their curricula. This should be the next big push.”

He added that just like a house starts with the foundation, design in Dubai should also focus on strengthening its education, starting from primary stages to universities. Many universities across the UAE have interior design, graphic design and architecture programmes; however not a single degree in product design is currently available.

Design education across other cities in the region appears to be even less well developed. Elshahed said that it is near impossible to find design education in Egypt. Although the country has a number of architecture departments which has produced countless modernist architects who have contributed to the urban fabric of countries such as Kuwait and Algiers, design education hasn’t evolved since the 60s, and neither has it incorporated other aspects of design. Only recently has graphic design been introduced at private universities in Cairo.

“On the other hand, there is an overwhelming number of self-taught designers who learn from the internet and experiment in their homes or shared workplaces. This is the real potential that is untapped regarding design in Egypt,” he shared.

However, Elshahed feels that there aren’t enough platforms for these designers to showcase their talents. He explained that, for a long time, mainstream events in Egypt that are “loosely” tied in with design have had a highly exclusive or opaque vision and planning. There is little room for experimentation. Products generally fall into two categories: copying design that is already out there in the market or purely focusing on the traditional, with little innovation.

Iconic Cities exhibiton: Cairo Now! A City Incomplete.

He concludes that design fairs in the country such as the +20 Egypt Design fair are a “missed opportunity” for designers in the country where projects focusing on subjects like vernacular design would be dismissed as “vulgar”.

“My advice for designers in Egypt and elsewhere is to stick to the essence of why we design things: to solve problems in the best way possible,” he said.

“Egypt is full of problems, which make it potentially a thriving landscape for design innovation if designers focused on problem solving and economic as well as aesthetic values. Few designers who have made a name for themselves in and out of Egypt tend to cater to very high-end clients and buyers. That’s interesting but what about designing for the majority of Egypt’s 90 million population? Great design schools that left an imprint in the modern era, such as the Bauhaus, were led by socialist inclinations and a belief that good design should be accessible to all. A dose of that in Egypt today would be a breath of fresh air.”

Zammit also commented on the presence of copyright issues in the market, explaining how it is one of the primary concerns for the international audience. But copying is exclusive neither to Dubai nor to the region. This is a worldwide issue.

Even so, Zammit stressed that it is important to be specific about such laws and rules if the city is serious about establishing itself as a centre for design. “Some may argue that if such laws are firmly set then a large number of enterprises will lose their jobs and close down. I say not necessarily. If they adapt and are ready to work on original concepts, then they will continue doing the same job.”

Zammit added that the community must come together and discuss the various elements that could help improve and push design forward in the UAE.

Mohamed Elshahed, curator of Cairo Now!


Local design is something that has helped bring together both design communities and the general public during Amman and Beirut design weeks. Amman Design Week was also able to revive old parts of the city that had been out of use for numbers of years.

“For our first design week, we addressed urban issues by working closely with the municipality as well as an urban design task team who helped us construct the narrative of reviving the old downtown area in order to create a lively and user friendly centre that gathered people from all walks of life. One of the highlights was activating an underused city shuttle bus that runs through downtown and is one of few public transportation initiatives in Amman. Throughout Amman Design Week, the newly re-branded buses ran within a specific itinerary that toured our various exhibitions. The public were ecstatic to experience mobility within the downtown area,” said Rana Beiruti, co-founder of Amman Design Week.

Rana Beiruti and Abeer Seikaly, founders of Amman Design Week.

“We also identified public spaces and buildings that have been underutilised and abandoned and introduced renovations, installations, exhibitions and cultural programming in an effort to demonstrate the potential of these liminal spaces. One example is the Raghadan Tourist Terminal, which is a bus terminal that has been abandoned since 2008, and was the venue of the Crafts District exhibition, a social space for crafts.”

Joubanian also stated that it is the community itself that ensured the organic growth of Beirut Design Week.

“I think what is special and what has been ensuring the growth of Beirut Design Week is the fact that it was created by a community of designers for designers. It created a sense of community that designers want to be a part of and want to shape together.”

Zammit stated that his wish is for design communities and organisations to develop and keep the design scene active in the city.

“It is not up to us as a commercial entity to develop this, it is up to the entire community,” he said. Zammit hopes that in the future, the city will see a stronger year-long visibility of design.

“We really need to bring about a space for the exhibition of design or to use the city as a platform. And I think it is important that we develop this because the more you surround yourself with design, the more you integrate it into your life, and I think this is the next step that we need to focus on,” he said.

Beirut Design Week was also part of this year’s Destinations programme at Dubai Design Week, with an exhibition tailored from its Sustainable Design Program, created in collaboration with the Design Department at Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut. It showcased eco-friendly product designs in an effort to raise awareness around the role of sustainability in design.

Joubanian said that he hoped these artefacts would demonstrate to the local and regional design community that exceptional, high-end products can be born from sustainable materials and processes.

He also added that this collaboration with Dubai Design Week was something both events needed and benefited from.

“Dubai has the necessary resources and it’s globally connected because of its resident international designers. And that’s something the Lebanese design community needs. So this is a wonderful partnership, one that promises a new chapter in design in the region.”

Elshahed said that Dubai Design Week is doing “a great service to the region by putting design on the agenda and inviting the world to participate in a fruitful conversation that, finally, includes local makers and designers from the Arab world”. However, he added, there is a lot of work to do.

“When will we see Middle East-designed household items and everyday products in showrooms and shops around the world? We need to move beyond the simple gesture of trying to ‘improve our image’ to the rest of the world and actually start shaping the image of the world itself and be active agents in designing the future.”

Zammit agreed that the regional design scene is still a work in progress.

“The industry needs to have a stronger voice and it is now time to export our talents,” he said. “It is time for us to not only be strong where we are, but to be strong outside and push our voice outside. But I think we are still shy and think we still haven’t made it far enough, where in fact we have accomplished enough to push further.”

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