If you are giv­en the task to lec­ture on design some­where in the Middle East, do you think you’ll need to tai­lor your approach? Maybe think about your ref­er­ences, the lan­guage, the vast­ly dif­fer­ent back­ground? The answer most prob­a­bly is yes.” But the real­i­ty of design edu­ca­tion in the Middle East, and more specif­i­cal­ly the Gulf Region, prove oth­er­wise. Design edu­ca­tion in the Gulf is con­sti­tut­ed of import­ed cur­ric­u­la from the West, with­out actu­al appro­pri­a­tion to the place where design is taught.

Good after­noon. My name is Nawar Nouri Al-Kazemi, and I’m here to talk about design, and specif­i­cal­ly design edu­ca­tion in the Gulf region, also known as al Khaleej.”

Since the late 1990s, design pro­grams have appeared in more than twen­ty schools in the six Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Though most­ly in English language-based pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, design pro­grams are on the rise. Qatar alone, the second-smallest Gulf state, now has four design programs. 


These design pro­grams have dif­fer­ent approach­es and philoso­phies, but they all have one thing in com­mon: their cur­ric­u­la are not tai­lored for this region. Graphic design, fash­ion design, visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even in some cas­es archi­tec­ture, are taught from a Western per­spec­tive with very lit­tle regard to the cul­ture and his­to­ry of the region.

While there are attempts at local­iz­ing design class­es through objects that engage with local issues, such as design­ing bilin­gual­ly or recre­at­ing con­tem­po­rary designs of old objects as these images show, projects of such nature are lim­it­ed to the instruc­tor’s knowl­edge. That is not due to lack of qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the instruc­tors, but rather their lack of famil­iar­i­ty with the region’s cul­ture and his­to­ry. Since the major­i­ty of instruc­tors are not from the region, it is hard for them to ful­ly grasp let alone explore Khaleeji cul­tur­al heritage.

Khaleeji Cultural Heritage

To that end, I’d like to show some exam­ples of the cus­toms and tra­di­tions I’m refer­ring to in the Gulf. These indi­cate a dai­ly lifestyle, or some of the visu­al cul­tur­al references. 

Map of northern Africa and the Gulf region showing where various dialects of Arabic are spoken

Image: Wikipedia, Varieties of Arabic

Most promi­nent­ly, lan­guage. Arabic is the pri­ma­ry lan­guage used in the Gulf, but each Gulf state has more than one dis­tinc­tive dialect, as this map shows.

Another attribute to the tra­di­tion­al lifestyle in the Gulf today is the role of the dewaniya, a com­mon place for men where recep­tions are held by local fam­i­lies to social­ize and net­work. It is also a place where busi­ness deals are some­times dis­cussed and even final­ized. Dewaniya is a key facet in the con­struct of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in this region.

A visu­al ref­er­ence from this region’s his­to­ry, for instance, is sadu, an essen­tial ele­ment of tra­di­tion­al mate­r­i­al cul­ture for Bedouin women. Sadu is a woven tex­tile that con­veys women weavers’ ideas of their rich her­itage and instinc­tive aware­ness of nat­ur­al beau­ty. With pat­terns and design mes­sag­ing the old nomadic lifestyle, the desert envi­ron­ment, and the empha­sis of aes­thet­ic sym­me­try and bal­ance due to the mak­ing process. This is more rel­e­vant to to Bedouins only, though. They are peo­ple who have trans­formed to mod­ern lifestyle, but are still close­ly tied to their her­itage, so you are more like­ly to see a sadu motif in the Bedouin household.

The prob­lem is that all these cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, and oth­ers, are repeat­ed­ly used in designs in the Gulf with­out fur­ther research. In the exam­ple of sadu, for instance, when did it orig­i­nate? What are the var­i­ous types of pat­terns? What do the col­ors sug­gest? Sadu is a pat­tern bla­tant­ly added with­out fur­ther explo­ration, which could inspire oth­er designs. But this is not the case.

Visual ele­ments like Arabic cal­lig­ra­phy; a sil­hou­ette of a horse or a camel; and black, red, and white sadu motif have become expect­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics of design in the Gulf and con­tin­ue to be.

More prob­lem­at­ic still is the use, or rather mis­use, of Arabic type. Take these images, for exam­ple. The image on the left reads It would be nice if you decid­ed to design in Arabic because it’s a beau­ti­ful lan­guage!” This in fact Arabic type is used to con­vey English words. On the right is the ban­ner of an event. Again, the text is writ­ten with Arabic type, but the words are English. This reads Pretty Little Things.” Not only does this under­mine the Arabic lan­guage, the text is not leg­i­ble. So if I had no idea what the even­t’s name was, I most prob­a­bly would­n’t be able to read this. And there are numer­ous oth­er examples.

The Approach in Education

The per­pet­u­a­tion of these visu­al clichés and mis­us­es stem, I believe, from the way design is taught in the region. Here are the cur­ric­u­la of the graph­ic design pro­grams at the American University of Kuwait and at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.

Let’s take a clos­er look. Typography class­es are pre­dom­i­nant­ly English-based, with no focus on Arabic. The art his­to­ry class I stud­ied at the American University of Kuwait, which enriched my knowl­edge, was a sur­vey of Western art only. Business of Design is a course that teach­es a Western busi­ness mod­el and dis­re­gards the cul­tur­al par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of trans­act­ing busi­ness in the Gulf, a region where an impor­tant phase of a busi­ness dis­cus­sion occa­sion­al­ly takes place at a Dewaniya, as men­tioned ear­li­er in this pre­sen­ta­tion is a men’s-only territory.

Design Education is the Platform

I believe it’s time to explore Khaleeji aes­thet­ics in order to move on from the clichéd rep­e­ti­tions of our cul­tur­al icons, and I think design edu­ca­tion should be at the fore­front of such pio­neer­ing work. As long as the knowl­edge of the Gulf’s his­to­ry is absent from school cur­ric­u­la in the region, the progress of design here will remain idle and tied to occa­sion­al work­shops with ref­er­ence to a remote and vague sense of the past.

However, there is a sign of hope. A dis­tinc­tive pro­gram is offered at Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, the Masters of Science in Urban Design and Architecture in Islamic Societies. It is locally-centered, and looks at Islamic cul­ture from a con­tem­po­rary per­spec­tive rather than only his­toric. It is note­wor­thy to also look at some oth­er majors this local insti­tute offers: Islamic Finance, Public Policy is Islam. These are con­sid­ered more con­ven­tion­al dis­ci­plines, espe­cial­ly in the Gulf, where the under­stand­ing of the impor­tance of design in is still in its ear­ly stages. By includ­ing a design pro­gram, this school acknowl­edges the equal impor­tance of design as a discipline.

It is also where the 21st Century Mosque is housed. Completion is expect­ed the sum­mer of 2014. A win­ning design by Mangera Yvars Architects based in London and Barcelona, the main aim of this project is to doc­u­ment Qatar’s advance­ment in Islamic archi­tec­ture while intro­duc­ing inno­v­a­tive design con­cepts for a mod­ern mosque. Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies sets the tone with a syn­the­sis of con­tem­po­rary Western and tra­di­tion­al Gulf aesthetics.

I’ll ask you to take a moment to take a moment to look at the cours­es offered and real­ize how they are par­tic­u­lar­ly tweaked to edu­cat­ed design from an Islamic aspect. While it is a post-graduate archi­tec­ture pro­gram, design stu­dents from var­i­ous dis­ci­plines could ben­e­fit from tak­ing a num­ber of class­es offered here like the History and Theory of Architecture, Islamic Civilizations, for instance.

While this is a promis­ing start, there is still much more work to be done. Issues like the unavail­abil­i­ty of man­u­fac­tur­ing in the Gulf, the lack of resources, the absence of crit­i­cism, all hin­der the progress of design in the Gulf. These are com­plex and inter­con­nect­ed issues that need to be addressed. 

This pre­sen­ta­tion has a time lim­it, but the con­ver­sa­tion must con­tin­ue. Thank you.

Further Reference

Presentation list­ing at the Lingua Franca con­fer­ence site, and Nawar’s bio with link to an extract from her thesis.