A cultural free zone for Al Quoz

Dubai Culture has announced the implementation of the first phase of a large redevelopment plan for Al Quoz that formalises the Alserkal Avenue area as the centre of a new creative free zone “to attract both regional and international audiences to the area and encourage designers, artists and creative persons to live, work and exhibit there”.

This is the first visible step towards the ‘new vision for Dubai’s culture’ announced at the start of October. At the time Sheikh Mohammed declared: “Cultural initiatives and projects must involve the participation of the entire community. The cultural vibrancy of a place is a key indicator of its development. We must highlight and showcase our rich culture and heritage to the world”.

The commercial value of this is evident. He went on to say “over the next few years, I can clearly see the UAE becoming the region’s biggest cultural hub and one of the world’s most preferred destinations”.

Free zone: coming soon

The planned projects and initiatives – listed below – are short on detail; and though the press release for the new Al Quoz Creative Free Zone runs to a several hundred words, it too leaves many questions unanswered.

The basic news is that part of Al Quoz will be transformed into a free zone for creative talent in the culture sector, providing “comprehensive facilities and services from the conception stage through to design and production … The free zone will create an end-to-end system for creatives to produce, display and sell their works “.

Dubai Culture is the project leader, with other key strategic partners including Brand Dubai, the creative arm of the Government of Dubai Media Office; Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing; Dubai Municipality; and RTA.

The first phase of the project involves a physical upgrade. RTA’s DG Mattar Al Tayer noted the biggest challenge of the project was to change the industrial profile of the area. “The RTA will collaborate with Dubai Culture to support the project by enhancing the right-of-way of the locality with artistic touches, easing the mobility of people and vehicles, and maintaining traffic safety.”

Brand Dubai will do its bit with a range of public art projects and “a digital campaign to highlight the artists, creative persons and entrepreneurs who have shaped the unique cultural character of Al Quoz”. The new creative zone will also get into Brand Dubai’s ‘Proudly from Dubai’ programme to support homegrown businesses in Al Quoz.

What’s missing of course is anything that smacks of an actual free zone – like light-touch regulation and special taxation and incorporation arrangements. The other essential is an easy-to-get freelance-style visa, and plans for a ‘Cultural Residence Visa’ are indeed included in the ‘vision for Dubai’s culture’ announced in October. It doesn’t sound like it would necessarily be tied to operation within the Al Quoz free zone, which is a good thing if it is to attract artists and creatives to the city.

The Cultural Residence Visa, which would be the world’s first long-term cultural visa, shouldn’t be too difficult to implement. The cost and what you have to do to qualify for one could impact the view of Dubai as a global incubator for talent, though.

Dubai’s new cultural vision

At the launch of the ‘new vision for Dubai’s culture’, Sheikh Mohammed expressed his confidence in the ability of the Dubai Culture team to transform the emirate’s cultural landscape. The new vision includes several initiatives for them to get stuck into; the Al Quoz development is probably the largest and most complex, but there are some other quick wins that will raise the emirate’s cultural profile quite easily.


  • Hatta Cultural Carnival: This sounds like fun, though maybe it’s borrowing from the kind of out-of-town heritage-oriented festivals that Abu Dhabi does so well. It’s a cultural bash to be held in the winter with “poetry evenings, cultural events, art exhibitions and other events”.
  • Dubai Festival of National Cultures: A showcase for the traditions, food and “special products” of the various nationalities living in Dubai. We don’t know whether it will be a single big-deal event (30 nationalities in the DWTC?) or a series of smaller single-nationality events – the press release talks about “an annual calendar of events”, which will inevitably be less spectacular.
  • Al Marmoum CineMania: An open-air international film festival in the Al Marmoum area “to be organised in co-operation with local cinemas”. There’s not much in Al Marmoum at the moment, except for camel racing and the cycle track, but it does appear to be earmarked for development.
  • Dubai Global Grad Show: Another fairly easy win – an addition to Dubai Design Week that “aims to inspire university graduates to find innovative solutions to community problems”. We’re not clear whether this is a replacement for or a supplement to the existing Global Grad Show; it could just be a renaming job.
  • Dubai Private Collections Season: Now this is an interesting one – the Private Collections Season will enable private individuals to display their personal art collections in public institutions such as Etihad Museum. That should provide interesting insights into the personal tastes of the lenders and their relative power in the art market … The season will kick off with an exhibition of works from Sheikh Mohammed’s own collection
  • Art for Good: A new annual art week with philanthropic intentions. Apparently it will include charity auctions, art performances and “plastic arts exhibitions”.
  • Dubai Global Literary Season: A programme that aims to establish the city as “the capital of knowledge development”. There will be “more than 1,000 literary events hosting the top 100 Arab and international authors and publishers”. Could be a book fair, could be an extended programme built around the existing LitFest.

Built environment

  • A Destination for Land Art: This one is also short on detail, not least concerning exactly where it will be sited, though we’re told that it will include “new landmarks to document Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020” and “many different nationalities will contribute to its construction”. It sounds like a kind of sculpture park for 2D work.
  • Dubai’s Iconic Architecture: This could be a much needed aesthetic control on development in the city – it’s described as “a specialised committee to oversee the adoption of architectural designs that has the objective of making Dubai a destination for architectural innovation’. Again, that shouldn’t be too difficult to set up.
  • Dubai’s Architectural Identity: This one sounds like it goes hand in hand with the previous project. It’s “an initiative aimed at conceptualising, designing and implementing a distinctive architectural identity for Dubai that distinguishes it from other major cities of the world”. Good luck with that …
  • Zabeel High School: A rehabilitation of the old Zabeel Secondary School for Girls that preserves its architecture and repurposes the building as a multi-functional arts centre for young people.

Other intiatives

  • Dubai Gold Line: We have no idea what exactly this is. The press release talks about “a competition to design the Dubai Gold Line, a special gold production line that establishes Dubai as a destination for gold”.
  • Discovering Hidden Cultural Gems with Uber: A new initiative created in partnership with Uber to help tourists easily find and visit Dubai’s cultural treasures. That shouldn’t be difficult to implement – basically it means giving Uber drivers a map with cultural sites highlighted, though presumably there will be a routing app for customers too.
  • Dubai Art Collection: “The first integrated system created to help art enthusiasts buy, display and exchange artwork”. Again, there are no details; but we think it might have something to do with the ArtBank initiative floated by Dubai Culture at Art Dubai 2018. ArtBank is a blockchain-powered digital ‘bank’ for art that uses a digital currency (probably its own) for trading in artworks. Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are already being used alongside real world money to buy and sell art, but ArtBank would the first end-to-end platform of its kind in the world.
  • School of Life: Dubai’s public libraries will be expanded into “integrated cultural centres”. The School of Life theme suggests experiences and information that add to the existing knowledge and skills of the population, but we might be reading too much into that. Anything that gets more people into more libraries is A Good Thing, of course.

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