Plunging into creative entrepreneurship in the Middle East

Fearlosophies | Plunging into creative entrepreneurship in the Middle East

In 2014, when I suddenly found myself going through a break up, cast out, devastated, and staying in a cheap hotel, I decided that this low point was the time to fearlessly pursue a creative endeavour that could perhaps change my life and put me back on a path to happiness.

I had recently quit my job as Head of Design at Saatchi & Saatchi, Dubai, confident that I was done with agency life. As much as I had enjoyed my 15 years in branding and advertising and was passionate about the creative process, I always felt that I wasn’t exploring my own true creative potential – every day I was channelling my creativity to meet the business objectives of someone else’s enterprise. I dreamt of having my own creative business but I wasn’t sure in what, for a long time. In 2008 I attempted my first venture – building the first music streaming social network in the Middle East, working 16 hour days around the day job. After 2 years it had failed due to lack of funds and poor development and I had run out of steam. I was determined that the next thing I tried would be much less ambitious and would be something that I myself could create, without the need for suppliers, funding and developers to get it off the ground.

Whilst at Saatchi, I was part of the team that launched the Metro in 2009, and it was then that I fell in love with the idea of creating vintage-style posters for tourist areas around Dubai like the London Underground had done in their early days. My notion didn't evolve but I was keen to personally explore this idea in a more social context for fun. I thought the 1920’s-40’s tourism ads of the golden age of travel really encapsulated an excitement that is tangible in today’s fast growing Dubai and was also a great way of highlighting every-day situations by re-presenting them as foreign and idealised as was the case in these old ads. I also liked the idea of using a dated simplicity to tell stories of a very modern city, which has none of these commercial ads in existence. The creative space was empty for the taking.

This idea led me to see a niche in the market – there weren’t any ‘souvenirs’ as such for transient expats with a deeper insight into life out here. I decided to create a series of posters that would portray life in Dubai that we could all relate to that could be shared as fond memories, after all, many of us won’t be here forever. I was also keen to make these posters ‘tongue in cheek’ to give them a more humorous, slightly edgy appeal– I could see the popularity of things like ‘Pan Arabian Enquirer’ (anonymous satirical news site who were later to sponsor my first exhibition) and even ‘’, however I knew it was a risky creative area to play in. Few people push satire in fear of horror stories of being arrested, such as the students imprisoned for a year in 2012 with their music video parody of Dubai street culture.

As I drafted my ideas, this was a major concern – how far could I go with my line of social commentary – how much could I get away with, without landing myself in hot water. I hoped that I had formed a good gauge of cultural boundaries from my 9 years living in the region. 84% of the UAE population are expats from all over the world so it's a melting pot of many different cultures over here. I wanted to reflect the broad middle classes (those who might possibly buy my pics) rather than any particular culture or race and so started to look for insights and themes that could be enjoyed by all. 

Over the next 12 months, fitting around freelance work, I embarked on my first ‘Highlife Dubai’ series – a collection of 18 satirical posters that document the ‘good life’ we lead out here in Dubai. As this was to be my first solo exhibition, and never having done anything like this before, I decided the best way to go about getting this thing ‘done’ – was to book in an exhibition space, send a press release to every publication in the Emirates and tell everyone I knew about it. Then I had no choice but to finish the works before the impending day of the launch later that year. My exhibition opened on the 24th November 2014, followed shortly by my online store and pop up stall at various markets around the city.  When people started buying them every day (mostly as leaving presents, or to hang in the downstairs toilet) I realized I was onto something and quickly followed up with a second collection last October. I am currently working on ‘Highlife Abu Dhabi’ for release this Summer.

To date I have sold over 6000 prints and garnered quite a lot of press attention, including the honour of being nominated for ‘Emirates Woman of the Year’– a celebration of women changing perception of women’s roles in the Middle East. I did not anticipate that a leap of faith into the unknown could so quickly enable me to do my dream job and hopefully carve a new path for my future –perhaps I would have taken the plunge sooner. In the end I felt I trod quite a ‘safe’ creative path with my posters, however the collection has been received out here as ‘cheeky’ and ‘brave’. I am often asked if I have faced any backlash. To date not one person has said anything negative, including the many local Emiratis I meet that pass by my stall. I’m glad my little bit of ‘fearlessness’ paid off, and hope in some small way it can inspire others to push cultural boundaries even further to connect people as the region develops.