What can we learn from the museum and heritage sector in the Middle East?

Travellers who have visited the Middle East will know that when it comes to the region’s tourist sector, investors want to showcase only ‘the biggest and best’. From the forthcoming ‘Museum of the Future’ in Dubai to Abu Dhabi’s ‘Saadiyat Island’ – the possibilities are seemingly infinite. 

Here at Leach, we’re well-versed when it comes to projects in this part of the world, having completed assignments in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, to name just a few. Recently, we spoke to Conservation & Heritage Journal, to discuss what it takes to deliver on such a challenging scale. In case you missed it, you can catch up below…

20 years ago, the Middle East was perhaps most commonly associated with war and oil. And, while those connotations may remain – at least in part – the Gulf States have witnessed an explosion in museums and galleries over the past two decades.

While Cairo, Damascus and Tehran were once the cultural capitals of the Middle East, a shift in immigration policies, coupled with an economic boom, has served to draw attention to the wider UAE in particular – with collectors and museum professionals flocking to the province.

And since the turn of the millennium, the area has been investing in a colossal museum-building campaign, with prize-winning architects drafted in to design elaborate structures, and UK firms appointed to help turn that vision into a reality.

Now, an extensive range of attractions across the countries of the Middle East pay homage to thousands of years of Arab history. Highly prized artefacts housed inside architectural masterpieces offer some of the best-curated collections in the world. But how do they do it so well?

Go big – or go home 

As the popular culture saying goes, as the Middle East continues to experience economic prosperity and an uplift in tourism, the opportunity to showcase a country’s rich heritage becomes apparent. And the region is not one to do things by halves.

The Emirates in particular have a diverse story to tell – both culturally and economically – and, with most generations having seen a complete transformation their ‘normal’, the investment into buildings, museums, cultural fairs and expos are making the most of this incredible upturn in opportunity.


It’s evident that when planning a museum or gallery in the Middle East, it is the case to start with ‘the ambition’ and work backwards. Rather than compromising on the final product, there is significant investment in research and development with a view to bring the initial vision to life, with innovative solutions taking precedence over cost or time-saving alternatives. 

It’s safe to say that for those who work alongside Middle Eastern firms on a regular basis, they will never cease to be amazed by the contents of a design brief. Each concept strives to challenge everything that has gone before, usurping the competition and pushing the envelope in order to make the seemingly impossible – possible.

How to find the right supplier for my project

The same sentiment applies when it comes to appointing suppliers to deliver these ambitions. You only need to look at some of the architects involved in standout developments across the Gulf to see that in action; Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art was designed by I. M. Pei – the architect of the pyramid at the Louvre – while Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was the brainchild of world-renowned Frank Gehry.

In the Middle East, projects are led by vision and ambition, with collaborators appointed for their credentials, history of success and cultural sensitivity capabilities – seemingly, geography doesn’t factor into the equation.

Technology serves to foster collaboration and empower partners to hold open discussions while disregarding territorial borders and time zones.

What are the cultural differences between the UK and Middle East?

One of the standout things with Middle Eastern projects is a fierce commitment to their respective cultures. Each element is carefully considered in order to respect social, cultural and religious traditions – from the design and decoration, to the exhibits and associated literature.

As such, while developers will look to appoint leaders in their field, they also source suppliers with a proven ability marry up the all-important cultural sensitivity with forward-thinking innovation – something which is a skill in itself.

There is, of course, the long-standing discussion around the use of migrant labour. While UK working restrictions protect workers on our home soil, the Middle East has been under the microscope in recent years when it comes to construction.

Our own experience during a museum scheme in Oman, saw investment in ‘Omaninisation’, whereby the developer encouraged locals to work on the structure, in order to support the local economy and upskill Oman’s own population. 

With many more projects in the pipeline across the region, and each development getting bigger and better with every passing announcement, we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next – and bringing plenty more insight into our UK, US and European projects. 

While the world prepares for ‘the new normal’ in terms of museums, exhibitions and attractions, we’re already working hard behind the scenes to help our clients and partners to reopen their doors. Why not take a look at some of our previous project deliveries, to see how we might be able to help?