DR. HAMED BIN MOHAMMED AL-SUWAIDI The Businessman Who is Cultivating the Cultural Identity of Abu Dhabi.
INTERVIEWED BY HANIA AFIFI
As I sipped my second cup of tea for that afternoon, Al-Suwaidi turned up for our meeting. Dressed in the traditional men’s white ‘dishdasha’ andaccompanied by his personal assistant, he apologised profusely for the delay. An hour before our due time, he notified me that he was called intoan emergency meeting in Abu Dhabi. Yet rather than rescheduling ourappointment for an alternative date as I suggested, he insisted on driving back to Dubai to hold our meeting as we had planned. Indeed, he appears to be a man who commits to his objectives even when obstacles arise. And when it comes to the Arts and Culture Industry, he is as dedicated to it as to his finance and business affairs.
You are a member of the eminent Al-Suwaidi family who arguably maybe regarded as the institutional founders of the UAE’sart and cultural identity. Yet, your entire education and career were in finance and commerce. In fact,you were the CEO of the UAE’s biggest bank for 14 years andyou currently sit on the board of directors for several investment firms. How do you reconcile this discrepancy?
DR. HAMED BIN MOHAMMED AL-SUWAIDI:
I come from a family that is deeply embedded in both industries – business and art. While I have always been active in the arts and culture industryout of pure passion, my educationalbackground and career was within finance and accounting. This gave me the best of both worlds, as creative industries have a valuable place in economy and have been a strategic sector to boost the economic growth in the past few years.
His regard for the creative industries echoes that of the UAE government who continues to view this sector as an integral area of development for their planned economic growth. Indeed, when we review the staggering expenditure levels on Abu Dhabi’s cultural institutions over the past decade which exceeded GBP 1 billion, we are left in no doubt over their commitment to the Arts and Culture industry.
Your PhD which you completed at the University of Portsmouth, UK in 2014 presented a case study for future managerial developments in tourism and the hospitality sector of Abu Dhabi. Would you kindly share your thoughts?
I think cultural tourism is extremely important as it has a direct economic & social impact. It establishes & reinforcesidentity, helps build our image as a nation,while preserving historical heritage. UAE in general, and Abu Dhabi in specific haveidentified itself as main destination fortravellers in the past few years. Tourists get the chance to immerse themselves in local rituals & routines, experience the traditional heritage while still experiencing the futuristic vision of the country. This includes the high-profile events run yearly such as Formula 1, and through the modern destinations such as Louvre, Guggenheim, Qaser Al Hosn & other monuments/ sculptors that have been built for different purposes.
As western countries continue to cut public expenditure on the Arts and Culture sector, it is refreshing to hear the opposing arguments from a top UAEofficial. In fact when I asked Al-Suwaidito justify the exuberant expenditure levels of Abu Dhabi on Arts and Culture, he proposed to conduct a comprehensive study in which we identify the necessary criteria that will unequivocally measure the impact of cultural projects on tourismand the economy in general.
Since completing the PhD, you began to actively participate in the development of cultural institutions incl. the set-up of the Abu Dhabi Arts Society, the Al-SuwaidiCultural Foundation among others … whatare you aiming for with these cultural institutions?
The Abu Dhabi Art Society was set up as anon-profit organisation that aims to:
a) Highlight the beauty of our Emirati cultures through certain initiatives &special projects
b) Promote Emirati artist who might not necessarily find the right platform to purse their creative careers
c) Compose history projects that shed thelight on prominent figures that representthe past and the future of the UAE through fine arts, poetry & other mediums.
How about art patronage?
Does it play any role in cultural tourism?
I’m quite selective in the initiatives I patron. I do believe that patronage provides support,spotlight and also plays a significant rolein cultural tourism as it creates dialogues between different countries & allows art exchange initiatives. A big example is the UAE/UK year of Cultural dialogue in which we worked with multiple institutes in the UK and invited them alongside their families for different events happening in the UAE during the year.
Perhaps one of the most significant examples of cultural dialogue that took place in July 2019 is the gifting of the 1856 oil painting Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy by Dutch artist Aery Scheffer. It was presented by the British Ambassador to the UAE, Patrick Moody on behalf of the British Government, the Lubin Family and Five Islands Capital Limited of London asa loan in perpetuity to the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The presentation of an arguablycontroversial religious figure during the UAE’s declared Year of Tolerance attests to the genuine spirit of the declared year and the significance of cultural exchangesbetween nations. This seemingly smalltoken of friendship speaks volumes aboutthe city’s national policies and global position.
Arguably, Dubai is renown as the city of trade and commerce and Sharjah positioned itself as the city of art and culture. What identity is Abu Dhabi cultivating?
Every city in the UAE has its own unique vision. Dubai has always made its headlines worldwide as one the best tourist destinations in the world. However, Abu Dhabi has its own line up of attractions & activations that identifies itself differently. Through an extensive cultural program, which includes museum developments, temporary exhibitions and educational initiatives, it hasplaced its legacy on the map as oneof the biggest tourist destinations for a rich & unique cultural experience. In the past few yearsonly, it has become a centre thatengages residents and tourists by preserving and presenting the UAE’s rich cultural heritage and bringing the best of museums expertise, visual and performing arts programmed to the region. This ranges from the beautiful architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque, its entertaining theme parks (Ferrari world, Warner brothers, Yas water world) & all the cultural destinations and worldwide museums on Saadiyat island.
An hour and a half into the interview, I shift into lower gear as I try to learn more about thisyoung ambitious man who has committed to follow through his family and ancestor’s support for Art and Culture.
Away from the office … Who is Hamed Al Suwaidi?
An art enthusiast, who enjoys spending time with family,collecting antiques, readingbooks, meeting new people from diverse cultures, gardening & spending time within nature.
Are you an art collector? Do you favour an art form over another? (painting/sculpture/installation/ video/murals/street art/cinema/ literature/poetry)?
Yes, I am. And I collect anythingfrom rare books, paintings,historical clippings to antiques & unique authentic furniture.
You would think that a man of his social standingwould be a regular at Christie’s and Sotheby’s annual auctions. However, he amassed his collection from personal findings at France and Germany’s flea markets, the streets of London and ebay! He is particularly proud of the unassuming Breguet wristwatch he was wearing with the gold rim and leather strap. He explains, “in comparison to other watches, it is relatively cheap. But I love this brand and I like thesimplicity of this watch”.As we talk more abouthis likes and dislikes, I ask him a hypothetical question that may reveal more about how he ticks and what motivates him.
If you can have dinner with any person in the world dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
Winston Churchill. His Persistence & refusal to give up during the worst times has always been an inspiration to me. The way he successfully led Britain through World War Two has made history, and his speeches still echo at the present day.
Indeed, Churchill’s patriotism, resilience and resolve are some of Al-Suwaidi’s palpable qualities. He argued that the UAE government has supported its citizens on many fronts and provided them with the financial, educational and moral support to pursue their creative dreams. And it’s time that its citizens give back. Indeed, he is determined to develop a range of creative projects in Abu Dhabi that will live long after him and add to the enduring family legacy. Only time will tell if this young stallion will prove to be the modern-day Lorenzo de Medici of AbuDhabi.