As the winter of 2008 melted into 2009 and the extent of the global recession became apparent, art lovers were puzzling over the future direction of their market. History suggested art markets would tumble in a recession - but also that cautious investors might favour hard assets. The signs, too, were mixed: at Sotheby's in London, the number of lots in early 2009 tumbled to a fraction of the previous year's - while revenues at Christie's in the first half of the year were higher than they had been three years before, when the long art boom began.
A puzzle for sure, but only because the rest of the economy was puzzling about when and if the recovery would come. Far from remaining outside the workings of the economy, the arts are integral to its functioning. Like good artists, the arts are insiders masquerading as outsiders. The effect of art and culture on an economy is often little understood, perhaps because of the opaque way in which those products are created (and, in the case of some pieces of art, consumed). There is a sense from policymakers and the general public that culture operates outside of the "hard" economy, not only because it is staffed by beautifully-attired, badly-paid creatives, but because those creatives disdain the market mechanism, preferring to talk about the "work" than its dollar-and-cents price. Those outside of that world struggle to understand it, because the creative economy is not like most sectors: you can't build a factory, staff it with art school graduates and wait for the profits to roll in. It takes time, angst and messy personal relationships for the good stuff to flow. Only children can make art by the numbers.
Scale that up and the planners of cities and countries can struggle to see the value of culture, except in so much as it provides a creative gloss. Yet faced with global competition, the arts have become a battleground through which cities, especially the big cities of Europe, plus New York, attempt to entice tourists, branding themselves in the garb of their artists. Some, like Berlin, have done this explicitly, seeking to reinterpret their modern image. Others, like Rome, try to burnish their past credentials.
That process has occurred in the Emirates as well, with Sharjah seeking the mantle of the UAE's cultural capital, hosting the country's first national art gallery and the Sharjah Art Biennial. The capital, Abu Dhabi, has also thrown its considerable financial heft into art, seeking to develop Saadiyat Island into a main international cultural destination. And the city of skyscrapers is fighting back: next week, Art Dubai, the city's contemporary art fair, comes to town for six days, with galleries from 30 countries in tow. The idea is to bring together artists, collectors and art professionals from across the Arab world, South Asia and the West. Looking at the range of events, forums and parties planned - the city will host professionals from as far apart as Texas, Cairo and Delhi - it becomes clear that the planners have understood that the arts cannot be separated from a city's economy - or from a country's regional relations.
Here's why. Despite appearances, culture is not just for show. In many western cities, the arts economy makes up a significant number of those employed: chunks of Paris, Barcelona and London would be empty without it. In the Gulf, too, the value of the arts is significant. The numbers tell the story: according to statistics from the United Nations, in 2005 Gulf Co-operation Council members (excluding Kuwait and the UAE, for which no figures were available) exported creative goods worth US$523 million (Dh1,920m). (The numbers also show the demand: in the same period, those countries imported $2.8 billion of creative goods, across design, media and arts.)
Yet beyond the numbers lies a vast added effect. A thriving cultural scene draws bright students and workers to the city, who then stay; it brings tourists; it revitalises urban areas, with the cultural draw pushing up rents to the point where they are inhospitable to the original artists. Galleries and theatres encourage restaurants and coffee chains, which push public transport and parking facilities and hotels and apartments. Far more interestingly, a strong cultural base has an effect on pioneering technology across sectors like film and computer entertainment. The bottom line of art is not just the price on the tag.
And as much as the arts power economic growth, they also power politics. The arts are a language and, as Art Dubai is demonstrating, that language can strengthen links between countries. This can be most powerfully seen in Contemparabia, a programme of special events running alongside Art Dubai, which takes place in the Levant and moves on to the UAE and Qatar. Art professionals from the region and from Europe and North America will take in several cities across Lebanon, before moving on to Damascus and Amman and then the Gulf. In each city, there is a line-up of local exhibitions, performances and tours.
There is symbolism in the art they will see. Tonight, in Beirut, they will gather in a reclaimed building in Martyr's Square to view work by established Lebanese artists, most of whom will not have exhibited together before. The power of that experience, in the heart of the square where the Lebanese have struggled with their past and future, should not be underestimated. What the audience takes away with it to Jordan and Syria - and on to the Gulf and back to their home countries - will be more than an appreciation of a country's art. It will be an understanding of the ties that bind the region, of how the different histories of these countries are entwined.
Such a message is not in the art, but of the art, so to speak. It is not the purpose of the artwork, but it is the background to it. And while such an understanding of the region is important for visitors from Europe and North America, some of whom will be experiencing Arab arts for the first time, the real value of this shared language of art across Arab countries lies in its benefits to the inhabitants of those cities. On the website of Contemparabia is a small graphic showing the distances between the cities; while the numbers are so small, the gulf can be vast, and it is in events such as these that neighbours, who may have become estranged through politics, rediscover each other. More than colours and light, more even than economic growth, the real value of the arts is in explaining people to themselves.
Faisal al Yafai is an award-winning journalist. He is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010.