Desert bloom

Designers who have pre-empted UK trade missions to win Middle East work have found that understanding the culture is vital to success, reports Clare Dowdy

SBHD: Designers who have pre-empted UK trade missions to win Middle East work have found that understanding the culture is vital to success, reports Clare Dowdy

Once you’re in, you’re in – or so it seems to onlookers of those lucky consultancies lavishly patronised by wealthy Middle-Eastern clients.

With a total of 15 trade missions to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Dubai planned by the Department of Trade and Industry this year, the Middle East market is a prime target for UK business. But getting in is the hard part, so knowledge of the geography and cultural ramifications of such a sensitive area can pay off substantially.

A comparison of the current climate in three such countries shows Dubai to be the most receptive market, actively encouraging foreign investment and promoting itself as a tourist destination – and while Kuwait is catching up, Saudi Arabia remains less accessible.

“[Saudi Arabia] is a difficult market to break into – word of mouth is very important,” says Minale Tattersfield designer Dimitri Karavias. Minale Tattersfield got started by designing a new logo for the Riyadh Bank in Europe. This led to recommendations and further graphics work in Saudi.

The experiences of other consultancies working in the Middle East echo this view. Fitch had worked for Kuwaiti bank The International Investor in London before being appointed to design the interiors of the bank’s new headquarters in Kuwait City. And Raymond Loewy International became involved through referrals which resulted in graphic design work for the lubricant oil brand Qbrex in Saudi Arabia.

Areen, parent of hotel specialist Richmond International, initiated the group’s contact in Dubai which has led to design work for the Hyatt Regency in Mecca and three hotels in the pilgrim destination of Medina, Saudi Arabia.

“Making contact is very laborious as companies tend to be owned by families. The sheik calls the shots,” says The Jenkins Group chairman Nick Jenkins of working in Dubai.

Once designers get their feet in the door, all they have to do is be aware of the differences in culture, religion, taste, standards and business practices to complete the project.

Saudi, Dubai and Kuwaiti clients all appreciate interior and graphic design from the UK. “British designers are respected,” says Karavias. “Big Arab business people travel all over the world and are aware of British designers.”

However, it is often not enough to transplant Western concepts into the Arabic surroundings. Local clients are sensitive to cultural and religious implications of design to varying degrees in each country. Saudi has its own list of do’s and don’ts for packaging design.

“You can’t simply translate Western design into Kuwait – you have to take the culture into account,” says Fitch associate director Nick Butcher. “We researched traditional Kuwaiti buildings and why they developed as they have.”

Karavias agrees. “It was taken for granted that we would take their cultural tradition into account and that we understood the Arab culture.” His research for the Riyadh bank logo and literature included examining the Koran.

Architectural practice Terry Farrell & Co. had the advantage of employing Arezoo Sadain, an Iranian, who researched the religious issues for Farrell’s UNESCO competition entry to build the Jum Al Majid library and cultural centre in Dubai. “We were conscious of not simply paying lip service to Islam,” says Tim Thompson, associate director of the practice. Farrell won the ú19m project with a concept spanning 33 000m2, and construction is due to start at the end of the year.

Research is essential in creating culturally appropriate concepts. For example, the presence of water within buildings has a spiritual and symbolic meaning in the Middle East. For the bank interiors in Kuwait, Fitch designed “a central water feature with constant trickling, as water is sacred and symbolises wealth”, says Butcher. Farrell employs the same concept in the Jum Al Majid centre. “In the cultural centre we have constructed a water feature to represent spirituality,” explains Thompson.

The practicalities of Islamic life must also be taken into account. Richmond International had to design separate bedrooms in its hotel apartments in Mecca and Medina, to accommodate the husband and wife of each family, as well as a second restaurant for mothers and children.

In Dubai, it is not uncommon for clients to take on British designers specifically to promote a more international style. Richmond International studio director Fiona Thompson suggests that Dubai’s interest in Western-style design also relates back to the country having very little architectural heritage: “Dubai is a modern city, so there are no old buildings for foreign designers to work from.”

“Dubai is more vibrant than Saudi, and very international,” says Janet Turner of Concord Lighting, who has visited both countries.

The attitude to design style in Dubai is seen as a consequence of the country’s historical role as a trading port, making it traditionally more open. This can work to the British designer’s advantage, particularly for women. Consultancies agree that women are totally accepted in Dubai, less so in Kuwait, and not at all in Saudi.

“I was not considered as an important person at all,” says Michael Peters Limited account manager Phillipa Stoddart of her time in Kuwait. Patrick Farrell of Raymond Loewy International agrees that it is “very difficult for women to work in Saudi – and if they are working with men it’s impossible”.

Designers must be aware not only of the cultural differences in the Middle East, but of the varying standards in design.

Dubai is currently upgrading its building regulations, which were based on British regulations and put together in the mid-Eighties, according to Tim Thompson. “We use the same standards as here,” he says, as does Richmond International.

Designers have had varying experiences on the difficulties of maintaining contact with clients and projects. If you can’t be there in person, you must be prepared for phone calls over the weekend at home, as the Islamic working week spans from Saturday to midday Thursday.

Minale Tattersfield has an agent in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, while Loewy is considering getting an agent. “In Dubai you need to be there,” warns Richmond’s Fiona Thompson. “It’s very hard to work from a distance.”

This need for close contact can be more difficult in strictly Islamic areas. None of Richmond’s London team have been able to visit the apartment hotels in pilgrim destinations.

No-one doubts the potential of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for both interior and graphic designers. “It’s a very big market altogether,” says Karavias. But the biggest design opportunities are in Dubai, with its international business aspirations and promotion of high-class tourism.

Karavias cites corporate identity work as a strong new market in the Middle East: “Companies want to position themselves in the international market.” Minale Tattersfield is designing a new logo for a Saudi architectural practice.

However, the local packaging market is not as hungry. “It’s too early for packaging,” says Karavias, “the market is not yet design-aware.”

Minale Tattersfield is continuing its relationship with Kuwaiti dairy KDD and has just completed packaging for the country’s first fresh bottled milk. To be able to drink chilled fresh milk is a luxury, and for the first time cows are depicted on the pack, “with lots of green grass”, says Karavias.

MPL hints at a general unsophistication in Kuwaiti design. Phillipa Stoddart says of the clients: “They come to us for big projects but they have lots of little agencies at home and printers would do design jobs as well.”

Loewy’s Patrick Farrell predicts a blossoming graphics market: “There is a greater opportunity now for local companies in the Middle East to market their own product, which results in packaging work.” According to Farrell, Loewy has “a couple of logo projects in the pipeline”.

Nick Jenkins says that the potential for interiors work in Dubai is huge: “There is a lot of work for large-scale interiors for apartment blocks and hotels.” Tim Thomp-son agrees: “There is a market for interiors as there’s so much new building.”

The general feeling on the Middle East market is one of optimism. But there is no doubt that consultancies wanting a chunk of the market will have to put in a lot of work and time to secure projects and maintain contacts.


* Both new and established clients need a lot of personal contact.

* It is useful to have a local agent to find new work and maintain relationships with current clients.

* The different working week – from Saturday to Thursday – means you must be prepared to be on the phone over the weekends.

* Thorough research is needed into the Islamic culture and religion.

* Consultancies must take into account the varying attitudes towards women staff in different countries.

* It can sometimes be difficult to get interiors work photographed.

Latest articles

Design Week Awards 2021 opens for entries

This year winning work will be given a bigger platform than ever before, we are assembling our biggest ever judging panel and categories have been tweaked for maximum relevance.