From the First-Ever Design Doha to Desert X AlUla, Here Are 6 Must-See Art Events Across the Middle East

Here’s a carefully selected round-up of what you can look forward to in the Middle East over the next two months.

Claudia Comte, Dark Suns, Bright Waves, Desert X AlUla 2022, photo by Lance Gerber, Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla

In February and early March, art lovers and art world insiders are heading to the Arabian Gulf where a jam-packed line-up of exhibitions, biennials, and the 17th edition of Art Dubai are set to take place before the holy month of Ramadan begins.

While the Middle East is caught in a period of upheaval, these art events affirm the Gulf States’ rapidly expanding cultural scenes, which are replete with a growing offering of new museums, galleries, and art events. The expanding cultural landscape is part of a push by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to diversify their economies from a reliance on hydrocarbons and build parallel economies based in the creative industries.

From the third edition of Desert X AlUla—where monumental land art will once again grace the magical desert landscape of Saudi Arabia’s ancient region—to the inaugural Design Doha featuring a meeting of the design world in the Qatari capital, here is a line-up of the most riveting art events to keep a close eye on in the coming weeks and months.


Desert X AlUla

Dana Awartani, Where The Dwellers Lay, Desert X AlUla 2022, photo by Lance Gerber, Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla

The third edition of Desert X AlUla, a site-responsive, open-air art exhibition taking place in Saudi Arabia’s ancient desert landscape of AlUla, is returning from February 9—March 23. Staged under the theme of “In the Presence of Absence,” the event will explore ideas of the unseen and often dismissed spaces of emptiness, particularly pertaining to desert landscapes often labeled as vast and void. As this edition aims to show, these places often offer more than meets the eye.

Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield will return as this year’s artistic directors and the exhibition will be curated by Marcello Dantas and Maya El Khalil. Dantas said this year’s edition “encapsulates and elevates a notion that art, when confronted with the vastness and harshness of the desert, transcends conventional boundaries and becomes a testament to human creativity and endurance.” The event is a collaboration between Desert X, located in California, and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) established to advance new cultural dialogue through art; it will feature specially commissioned site-specific artworks by both Saudi, Middle Eastern, and international artists.

“We challenged the artists to adjust their perspective to encounter the unseen aspects of the place with reverence, attuning to the forces, rhythms and processes that shape the landscape in imperceptible ways,” El Khalil continued. “This edition has staged encounters with what is under appreciated—with works that diagram and engage ephemeral phenomena like the movement of light or the erosion of wind, and which attempt to step out of human-centric perspectives.”


17th Edition of Art Dubai

Art Dubai 2023, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Spark Media for Art Dubai)

Art Dubai, the Middle East’s leading fair for contemporary and modern art, returns for from March 1–3, with VIP previews on February 28 and 29 at its iconic home at the Madinat Jumeirah. This year’s fair will present more than 100 contemporary, modern, and digital presentations drawn from more than 60 cities and over 40 countries, placing the emphasis once again on art from the Global South.

Of note to this year’s fair will be a series of newly commissioned performances on the themes of healing, hope, and the power of art in challenging times. The fair includes four curated sections: contemporary, Art Dubai Modern, Bawwaba, and Art Dubai Digital.

“Our program this year fully reflects the expansion and maturing of Dubai, as well as the diverse communities who call it home,” Pablo del Val, artistic director of the fair said in a comment. “It also reflects the continued maturing of the art market in the wider Middle East, and the artists that we champion.” Del Val emphasized the fair’s role in championing the crucial link between “commercial platforms for digital and new media art, and an ongoing commitment to scholarship and under-explored art histories.”


Diriyah Contemporary Biennale

Portrait Ute Meta Bauer, photo by Christine Fenzl

Situated in the outskirts of Riyadh in repurposed former warehouses in the JAX district of Diriyah,—the capital’s historic area that was once the site of the founding of the first Saudi state—the second edition of the Diriyah Contemporary Biennale will come to life from February 20 to May 24. Titled “After Rain,” and marking the event’s second edition after its acclaimed inaugural showing in December 2021, the biennale will feature work by 92 artists from 43 countries, thirty of whom are from the Gulf region.

The theme reflects ideas surrounding the natural environment, its impact on human life, and its ability to garner hope and renewal. “This second edition of the biennale is intended to be a hopeful endeavour and provide a nourishing environment, evoking processes of revitalization and new beginnings,” Ute Meta Bauer, artistic director of the upcoming biennale said in a comment. “The title ‘After Rain’ draws inspiration from Arabic literature and poetry, indicating a moment of relief and renewal as experienced after a thunderstorm.” The natural environment is also being used as metaphor for the new period of intense and rapid change presently taking place in the Kingdom and the role the arts are playing to foster that change.


Design Doha Biennale

Hayeri Turquise Mountain Mazar Sharif

At the end of the month, the Qatari capital of Doha will stage its first ever design biennale across the existing Doha Design District in the Msheireb neighborhood. Taking place from February 24–August 5, the inaugural biennial event will feature over 100 designers from the Middle East and North African region. Staged by Qatar Museums, one of Qatar’s organizations heading Qatar’s National Vision 2030 program for comprehensive development, prosperity, and progress for Qatar, the event will feature works by over 122 Arab designers at the inaugural edition of Design Doha.

The works, Fahad Al Obaidly, deputy Director of programming and partnerships of Design Doha, said in a comment, will celebrate the region’s “rich cultural and creative expressions.” Furthermore, he added how “through design, we aim to elevate the conversation about inclusivity and the impact of good design on our lives.” The mission of the event, said Obaidly, is not only to encourage designers from the Arab world but to connect them with the global market. “Design Doha is not only a platform for Arab creatives but also a vital contributor to the global conversation on creating a better world through design,” he said.


Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting 2024

Henok Melkamzer working in his studio, 2023. Photo: Michael Tsegaye

In the UAE emirate of Sharjah, a host of exhibitions and discussions surrounding contemporary art are opening from March 1 through 3 alongside the Sharjah Art Foundation’s (SAF) annual March Meeting; this year the themes of “collective practices of artistry and community-building” will be explored through talks, performances, workshops, and more, all led by curators, artists, and art practitioners from around the world.

The Sharjah Art Foundation is staging three exhibitions that are not to miss, which open on February 24: “Lala Rukh: In the Round,” the first major survey of the late Pakistani artist and women’s rights activist; “Henok Melkamzer: Telsem Symbols and Imagery,” the largest solo presentation of artworks by the Ethiopian telsem artist; and “Casablanca Art School: Platforms and Patterns for a Postcolonial Avant-Garde 1962–1987,” the first major museum exhibition of the Casablanca Art School that brings together works by over 20 artists and a selection of rarely seen archival materials that showcase the movement’s impact on Moroccan modernism.

“We are making space for critical encounters through the works of artists, scholars, and cultural producers who are concerned with the intersections of community and art,” said Hoor al Qasimi. “The theme, ‘Tawashujat’, is the Arabic word referring to intertwining or the meeting of thoughts. It represents the program’s focus on co-imagining more inclusive, equitable, sustainable and livable futures through relational and cooperative approaches.”


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