Taking design to the Gulf

Working as a designer in the Middle East can be a culture shock, but there are plenty of opportunities. Liam Farrell considers the pros and cons

A gulf of opportunities is opening up in Arabia, and UK designers are very much in demand. Is working in the Gulf all fun in the sun, or are the benefits simply a mirage?

Working in the Middle East is not for everyone. It is a different way of life out here, that some love and others hate. Dubai is slightly vacuous – a construction site on steroids with horrendous traffic. Bahrain, on the other hand, is a sleepy little island. It lacks in big city extravagance, drama and entertainment, but makes up for it in Arabian authenticity.

Your high level of skill and experience will afford you a degree of differentiation here that you would find hard to leverage in Soho or Hoxton. You will be in demand, if you’re good – the hard part is finding a consultancy where you will be treated well. Once you do find one, it can be hard to leave because of permit restrictions.

In Bahrain, good designers are expected to apply their creativity to all aspects of design. It is not unheard of for advertising agencies to be asked to brand buildings, devise signage systems or manage a launch event. While there are above-the-line and below-the-line agencies, the distinction is more of a blur than in the UK. In the Gulf, business is often passed because of ‘wasta’ – inside knowledge or favours. Who you know is paramount to winning work.

Clients (and people in general) can be very trusting, offering you various jobs because they like you and think you are probably capable. Reputation is a passport here. Deliver a good job on time and word travels – and when it does, expect to be asked for by name. Once you have built up your name, you need to work hard to protect it – which can be a delicate matter if you are asked to work on a project you think is unsound.

Working practices are more ‘relaxed’ than you will be used to. ‘Inshallah’ (meaning ‘God willing’) is used in almost every sentence and could be translated as, ‘I might get around to it – but don’t count on it’. In Bahrain, there appears to be an air of confusion cloaking every project. This may be because of the confusion over language, or maybe it’s just cultural difference. Perhaps it is because of the lack of exposure to more efficient working practices. A fellow creative once said, ‘This place is designed to reduce everything to a grain of sand’. It can often feel that way.

You will find two extremes in Gulf design. In Saudi, the traditional motifs (the falcon, the date palm, the pearl, the dagger and the coffee pot) rule, and you will work purely in Arabic. In Dubai, you will be designing mostly in English in an international style. The design in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman fits somewhere between these extremes.

The Islamic design tradition stalled during the classical period and hasn’t developed beyond the accepted norms. The rich textiles tradition that spawned Arabian design hasn’t been updated for either the Gutenberg universe or the digital domain (Modernism is fine, as long as it is garishly ornate and decorated in gold foil). The fantastic calligraphy adorning religious sites is a great lesson from history, but it hasn’t been applied – yet.

Working in Arabic takes time to adjust to and you might find your brain turns off, as you can’t input to the layout to the same degree, as you have no idea how legible your Arabic layouts are. You can’t communicate with the cultural references you are used to, as almost everything is sensitive, especially in Saudi. Referencing human or animal forms is out, as is religion, flesh, lasciviousness, bodily functions, sex, drugs, fast living and alcohol. You may have to completely revise your lexicon, creating one that is acceptable to your new audience.

Production qualities are improving, but the standards that designers enjoy in the UK are hard to find outside Dubai. Fine papers are also rare in most parts of the Gulf, and it is hard to get the required lead-time (of over a month) to order in interesting stocks. Despite this, printing is relatively inexpensive and clients are keen to try new things.

The Gulf is literally rising from the sand and opportunities here are many and varied. It isn’t for everyone, but then where is? Working in the Gulf will feel much like home – a studio is a studio the world over. Whether you like it or not depends on who you are, rather than where you are.

Liam Farrell is head of design, Gulf Saatchi & Saatchi


The design business in Bahrain and Dubai:

• Get everything in writing, keep a good paper trail and insist on a thorough review within your three-month trial period

• Understand and articulate your ‘deal breakers’ (and be prepared to walk)

• Never shake hands with the left hand or show your feet

• Develop your diplomacy skills and improve your patience (vital assets)

• Buy an Arabic language book, as speaking even a little will impress every Arab you ever meet

Latest articles