AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice


The tangible benefits of arts education in the Gulf, soft-skill development for the 21st century

Holly Cook


Arts education does not just benefit creative students. Studies show that arts education improves students’ learning outcomes, and has positive influences on their civic and community participation.[1] 

Yet the arts are often seen as additional, rather than integral, parts of an academic curriculum, especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where the arts are not included in government secondary school curricula.[2] More than that, there is little data available about arts initiatives and their impact in the Gulf region, which limits policymaker and public buy-in of what is becoming recognized in the West as a catalyst for students’ soft-skill development, and ultimately their future success.

There are numerous ways that arts programming, education, and engagement initiatives could significantly contribute to learning outcomes and community development in the Gulf region. These outcomes include academic and personal gains for students in the areas of leadership, social skills, and identity development, as well as improved academic performance, career and study opportunities, and college admission rates. More specifically, studies have shown engagement with the arts improved students’ reading proficiency and language skills (58 point difference in SAT college admission test scores in the United States[3]), math skills (especially in computation and estimation, with a 38 point difference in SAT test scores), critical thinking skills, as well as increased their motivation to learn (41% of participants in one study sited the arts as playing a role in keeping them from dropping out of school[4]) and strongly contributed to a positive school environment.

The UAE’s Vision 2021 sets goals and indicators for transitioning the country to a knowledge-based economy focused on innovation and the agenda “strives to instill an entrepreneurial culture in schools and universities to foster generations endowed with leadership, creativity, responsibility and ambition.[5] While Vision 2021 positions these soft-skills, which the agenda specifically states that students should be exposed to in school, as key to the country’s future success, these skills are not represented in the agenda’s other key priority area of developing a first-rate education system.[6]

So how will students learn these essential soft-skills? It will not be through test-preparation for international assessments, nor will it be through access to smart systems and devices. Organizations and policymakers should consider arts education and programming as one arm of a range of supplemental initiatives that will strengthen students’ soft-skills while having tangible positive academic outcomes. If thoughtfully integrated into curricula and teaching methods, arts education will complement current education reform efforts and ultimately increase students’ future employability in the coming knowledge-based economy.  

In the past couple of years, many Gulf-based arts organizations have begun to offer programming as well as establishing platforms for emerging artists, which has helped to increase local engagement with the arts as well as the inclusion and visibility of the innovations and perspectives of the region on an international scale. These initiatives have included artists-in-residencies, exhibition and publication opportunities, workshops, creating relevant localized and translated materials, the cataloging of an Emirati art history with canonical artists, etc. In addition to increased local engagement and international representation, it is hoped that these efforts will increase the potential employment opportunities in the creative sectors.

The current moment is therefore ripe with possibility for organizations, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to better understand, utilize, and support the arts as a vehicle for the academic, personal, and professional development of students in the region.

To learn more about the research on arts education, its potential impact in the region, the major art developments and resources in the UAE, as well as to review recommendations for organizations and policymakers, check out the Al Qasimi Foundation’s open access policy paper “Arts Education: Resources and Options for the UAE and Ras Al Khaimah” by Al Qasimi Foundation visiting scholar Elizabeth Derderian on our website.