Art Crowdfunding in the MENA region, Friend or Foe?

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Overview of Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon to take off in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which extends from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, and it is as yet difficult to ascertain its full impact [Fig.1.]. The impact of crowdfunding in other parts of the world such as the USA and UK, where it is somewhat more established, can be used as a model from which to study the potential pros and cons and to work out whether crowdfunding can be seen as friend or foe in the MENA region itself. This research aims to illustrate how art crowdfunding differs in the MENA region when compared to the USA and UK.

The economical and political implications behind the struggle of developing crowdfunding in the MENA region, particularly in the context of the art world of that region, will also be considered, alongside other factors that affect the development and rise of this phenomenon. Crowdfunding itself can be defined as is the practice of funding projects by eliciting capital investments from a considerable number of investors, typically through online forums.

This means that as a model, crowdfunding has three significant elements: the instigator of the project itself who puts forward a project or idea as a means of seeking capital to invest in the project; a number of individuals who agree to support the project through small financial contributions; and an online hosting platform which acts to connect the two and ultimately results in the realization of the project. While it has a number of associations, since its inception, the idea of crowdfunding has clearly been linked to supporting the arts.

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Fig. 1 Map of the MENA region

Outline of Trade in the MENA Region

Alongside Morocco and Iran, the MENA region also includes Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen within its boundaries. Within this group is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC states) which includes all the Arab States of the Persian Gulf excluding Iraq, namely, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. This group are also identified as the richest countries in the MENA region. A brief outline of the history of the trade in the Middle East includes the historically significant Incense, Silk and Spice Routes, as well as the Trans Saharan Route, which linked the region with the rest of the world overland, while the Middle East has also historically been involved in international maritime trade [Fig.2.].


Fig. 2. Map of Trade in the Mena Region. From Regional Views, ‘MENA Trade.’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

In terms of contemporary trade agreements, the US-Middle East Free Trade Area ( US MEFTA) was established between 2003 and 2013. The inflow of foreign investment trade and outflow of foreign direct investment (FDI), have been affected by the social and political turbulence following the Arab Spring of 2011, the recollection of which continues to dominate economic activity and prospects in the MENA region [Fig.3.]. In addition, the inflow of FDI is controlled by the GCC countries for political reasons which include opening more trade channels for foreign investors and may changing the regulations in order to facilitate business processes. As an example, between 2000 and 2014, a number of countries belonging to the MENA region, including Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar Syria, and Yemen, were on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list for Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories in the global battle against money laundering. These countries were asked to cooperate with international efforts to prevent money laundry, in order to avoid being black listed, which would damage their international relations and trade investments.

Figure 3.jpg

Fig. 3. Economic Growth in the Mena Region. From IMF. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

As a new kind of equity financing, crowdfunding allows an artist to raise funding through small contributions from a large number of individual investors through an online platform. The artist creates an online pitch to potential investors, who are able to support the project by contributing money to it. While crowdfunding is seen to offer a more independent economic means of funding the arts and not being aligned with certain organizations, in 2012 it was brought into the arena of political dependence when President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act). The act was intended to encourage economic expansion by relaxing a number of laws allowing small businesses and start-ups to raise funds and establish companies more easily. Such legislation is yet to be developed in the MENA region where crowdfunding is still a much newer phenomenon. As a result of the global financial crisis, crowdfunding developed in the larger global context as a way for startups to source funding, and has been particularly successful in the creative field and in the art world.

Advantages and disadvantages of the system

A brief outline of the advantages and disadvantages of Crowdfunding are significant to answering the question posed in this paper. These touch on ideas of the public involvement to support the arts and investing in ideas they believe in, as well as considering the advantages of supporting the arts through crowdfunding for the artist. In addition the contribution of crowdfunding to a level of awareness in the arts will be considered. Crowdfunding is best for smaller, startup projects requiring small amounts of funding. Larger projects may find crowdfunding challenging. As it exists to date therefore, crowdfunding is likely to be unsuitable for established artists. Crowdfunding as a model for financing a project has novelty value which makes it appeal to artists as a way to raise funds in an up-to-date and technology-driven way. By the same token, such projects appeal to younger contributors searching for shared ideologies in which to invest. It is not clear how the perception of crowdfunding would impact on perhaps more serious projects in which the artist may wish to remain anonymous, or would not want people to know they had posted their project online in order to get funding.

The process of crowdfunding means that the artist issues shares to large numbers of inexperienced shareholders, who each own a small portion of the project. This could potentially discourage future investors. In addition, limits are placed on the amount of funding an artist can raise per year. This could be problematic if the project rapidly expands and the artist needs more capital. Crowdfunding in other parts of the world—namely the USA—has proved to be very popular among creative investors who want to fund art projects of various types and has helped to raise public awareness of the arts among certain groups. Crowdfunding has the potential to be very successful fast. However it is unreliable if the artist needs a large amount of capital in a set period of time. In this case waiting for an idea to catch people’s attention may not be viable. Despite some of the less appealing aspects of crowdfunding, evidence suggests that it clearly benefits many startups searching for alternative means of financing, particularly in the field of the arts where the association with the phenomenon is seen as on trend. The instrument of online crowdfunding means that instead of having a single, centralised institute to develop capital, new, emerging frontiers are created and a highly elastic economy is developed. As a result, art crowdfunding contributes to developing and forming democratic visual cultures, and forming new ideas and community mentalities globally (Art Radar Journal, 2014).

Crowdfunding in the West

Crowdfunding began to gain in popularity in October 2003 when Brian Camelio launched the US based online platform, ArtistShare, in order to ‘connect creative artists with fans in order to share the creative process and fund the creation of new artistic works’ (artistShare, 2015). Since this initial platform launched, a number of US and UK based crowdfunding websites began to spring up. The Huffington Post reports that crowdfunding platforms enabled individuals to raise $89 million from investors worldwide in 2010, which increased to $1.47 billion in 2011, and to $2.66 billion in 2012, showing the rapid expansion of the market for this service (Huffington Post, 2013). The report also highlighted the rapid global expansion of crowdfunding platforms. Kickstarter is among the best known of crowdfunding websites associated with creative projects. It was founded in the USA in 2009. As the New York Times reported in 2011, in an article on Kickstarter, ‘the selling point of “crowd-funding,” as this phenomenon has come to be called, is that it is an alternative to the wealthy patron or the grant-giving foundation. Kickstarter has become the most talked-about example of this democratizing technology: an arts organization for the post-gatekeeper era’ (New York Times, 2011). This raises one of the issues that will be discussed in this essay in relation to the launching of similar platforms in the MENA region.

Crowdfunding in the MENA Region:


Aflamnah, which translates as ‘our films’ in Arabic, was started in Dubai in July 2012, by a husband and wife team, Vida Rizq and Lotfi Bencheikh. In terms of how it functions, Aflamnah is a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter, which is aimed at filmmakers from the Arab world. Although film projects from the MENA region have been financed via Kickstarter, such as most recently Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013), which deals with the revolution in Egypt, the filmmakers are usually not based in the MENA region, and indeed Kickstarter accounts must be based in the USA or the UK (The Square, 2013) [Fig.4.]. Aflamnah therefore fills a gap in the market in the United Arab Emirates. Although not a country associated with artists and filmmakers in need of funds, filmmakers from the area complain about the difficult situation around raising funds in the UAE, and throughout the Arab world (Huffington Post, 2013). This resistance to funding local film projects stems from the fact that affluent Arabs prefer to finance blockbuster Hollywood or Bollywood movies.

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Fig. 4. The Square, 2013, publicity for the film. From IMDB, ‘The Square.’

Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

To watch a full version of 'The Square' please view the video below (video1.). Retrieved from Youtube, 6th of May 2015.

In terms of how it works, Aflamnah takes elements of the Kickstarter platform model, by creating a US$110 upload fee in order to post a project to the site. In addition to this, they take a 6% commission on funds raised, but do not impose extra fees on those who are unable to achieve their goal. The site also sets out a structure for donating funds to a project (Huffington Post, 2013). Aflamnah is having successes in the film industry. One of their most recent projects, a short sci-fi thriller, 51, directed by Michelle Nickelson, is receiving press attention due to the choice of actors in the film, the Emirati model, Omar Borkan Al Gala, and Navid Negahban who starred in the American TV series Homeland (Aflamnah, 2015) [Fig.5.]. The funding requested by Nickelson for 51, US$170,000, is also the highest amount so far requested on Aflamnah.

Figure 5.jpg

Fig.5. 51, 2015, slide posted on Aflamnah to attract funding for the project. From Aflamnah ‘51’. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from


A year after Aflamnah was established in Dubai, Abdallah Absi launched Zoomaal in Beirut in July 2013. The site is open to artists and entrepreneurs across a number of different categories to crowdfund their projects. In terms of how the platform works, Zoomaal is based on the Kickstarter model with regards to its funding criteria, however its layout differs somewhat in focusing on a project’s current funding level (Wamda, 2013). The individual project pages also include a larger number of social sharing features allowing users to comment on projects, view whether their friends have donated to it, and see statistics on the number of people who have viewed or shared specific projects. These sharing features also link to Facebook.

Critics argue that the biggest challenge for crowdfunding platforms, particularly in the MENA region, is the question of payment gateways. Kickstarter has itself provided limited payment options for potential investors in the MENA region. Zoomaal seeks to address this issue by offering twelve payment options which include local and international e-commerce businesses including CashU, Cashi, Cashna, Dixipay, Filspay, and Ukash, through partnering with Gate2Play, as well as accepting PayPal and credit card transfers (Wamda, 2013). Zoomaal hopes to attract funding from abroad by making it easier to finance projects on the platform. As part of this effort, the website launched in English, although a bilingual English Arabic approach is being proposed.

Historical Timeline

In order to consider the significance of this claim for the global art market, it is worth briefly outlining the models for funding for art as they have evolved over time. In the early modern period, private patronage was the key way in which art commissions were both obtained and funded. A group of wealthy private individuals had the sole power to select artists, set the parameters of the commission itself, determine timelines for completion as well as to dictate costs and funding. A prime example of this can be seen in the context of renaissance Florence, when the Medici, an Italian family of merchants, bankers, rulers, patrons and collectors who dominated the political and cultural life of Florence from the fifteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, involved themselves in commissioning works of art for the city and their private palaces [Fig.6.].

Figure 6.jpg

Fig. 6. Benozzo Gozzoli, The Three Magi, 1459, La Capella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici, Florence.

(Members of the Medici family are included in the entourage). From Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi ‘The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli: ‘The Procession of the Magi’. ’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

By the eighteenth century, the state had become a major player in the funding of art projects in various regions throughout the world. State patronage controlled the individual and directed the role of art towards supporting its civic ideals and ideologies (Cummings and Katz, 1987, 225). This will be discussed in the context of the state and its techniques of “biopower” below. With the rise of industry in the nineteenth century, the private patron again took control of artistic patronage as wealthy industrialists began to commission new forms of art and new artists to cater to their tastes. By the 1960s, the rise of the art collective and of self-funding allowed a greater degree of freedom for the artist. This freedom was soon modified by the increasing pressure of the global art market which followed the venture capital model where groups of investors speculate on the market, and art is a market like any other commodity.

The Caliphates to post colonialism and the Arab Spring

In terms of the MENA region, models of art funding have followed broadly speaking similar models. The system of Caliphate rule emerged with the succession of Muhammad and became the dominant form of Islamic governance spreading both east and west throughout the region from Mecca, from the seventh century onwards. The Caliphates reached as far west as the Iberian Peninsula and eastwards into the Levant. The construction of palaces and mosques were the main impetus for the commission of architects and artists to produce works of art. According to this, as productions of the Islamic state, art was tightly bound by the statutes of Islamic civic life, and directly had to fulfill the mandate of the state. This meant that art itself was funded in order to be a vehicle of state ideology. With the infiltration of European colonialism into north Africa by the mid-nineteenth century, the system of art patronage began to be dominated by “Orientalism” and the idea of European artists traveling to what is now the MENA region to create series of images funded by subscription, what could be considered an early form of crowdfunding in the sense that a group of subscribers would, upon presentation of a portfolio of work, agree to finance the project and receive a copy of the work upon that artist’s return.

A completely new situation emerged with postcolonial nationalism with the fall of the European colonial empires and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt became independent in 1942; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was unified in 1932; Syria emerged as a sovereign state in 1936; Tunisia gained independence by 1956; and Algeria in 1962. These and other changes in the region led to the creation of new nation states who, in the mid-twentieth century, faced the task of assembling new national cultural traditions prominently including the funding of art and architecture. In nations that developed into one-party states or dictatorships the production of art was closely controlled activity in which the state dominated patronage to the exclusion of unofficial means. Examples include Al-Faw (water palace), Saddam Hussein’s palace complex in Baghdad to commemorate his victory over Iran in the 1980s [Fig.7.].


Fig.7. Al-Faw Palace, 1990, Al-Faw, Baghdad. From Bill Dawes. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

In another direction new national institutions were constructed such as the National Library of Iran in Tehran, whose branches began to be built in the 1930s and symbolized a new relationship between the state and citizens through education. Still another example is Tahrir Square (Liberation Square), which celebrated the Egyptian revolution of 1952. However with the descent of the state into dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak, it was precisely this site which protestors invaded during the Arab Spring to criticize the lack of franchise between the state and its subjects. As widely reported, social media were instrumental in effecting the removal of Mubarak from power. This latest statement is particularly significant because it is the same social technologies which form the logistical basis of online crowdfunding in the MENA region, and this compounds the association between forms of technology and the rise and fall of political powers.

Crowdfunding as a symptom of the Arab Spring

In 2013, Zoomal, was founded by a young Lebanese young entrepreneur, with investors in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Its founding ties in with the date of the Arab Spring revolution. Interestingly, however, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE seem to be absent on the website, in terms of artists seeking crowd funds. This raises issues about the continued government control of the art scene or whether the absence of these countries simply depends on the success of alternative systems of funding artists within the countries. However, in 2013, the crowd funded MMKN was unable to secure start up finance from banks in the UAE and sought ecommerce services from banks in Egypt in the USA (Arabian Business, 2015). One of the obstacles of crowdfunding is the receipt and distribution of cash. The circulation of cash throughout and beyond the MENA region has over the political history described in the timeline been the subject of embargo and sanctions and speculations of embezzlement by Western critics, and especially the fear of money laundering and links to terrorist networks. This has meant that Western ecommerce systems have not established themselves quickly in the MENA region (Wamda, 2013). The opening of the PayPal office in Dubai is a major step forward in increasing the flow of capital. It could also be speculated that restriction on western capitalist modes of finance have been placed by regional political powers who may be concerned to protect the integrity of, for example the Sharia financial system.

The theorization of political power and art: Foucault, Roy, Agamben

Surveying crowdfunding from the broadest possible historical context it can be regarded in the light of a general change in human society beginning with the emergence of the social sciences in the early seventeenth century in Europe. In the thought of the French philosopher and historian of ideas Michel Foucault(1926–1984), this moment was crucial for the development of modern society in the West because it changed the nature of the power which sovereign entities—and most of all the nation state—wielded over their subjects, and Foucault termed this power “biopower.” Biopower made it possible for modern nation states to control their citizens and for the economic system of capitalism to develop. “With the support of new human sciences and statistical studies,” writes Pickett, “a new range of techniques and sites of intervention into the citizenry are opened up” (Pickett, 2005, 18).

This included the state’s control over the family through the census, control over subjects via the prison system, and control of citizens via the “medicalization” of health (meaning that citizens became subjects of health monitoring and remedial institutions including hospitals). As Foucault himself explained, “with government it is a question not of imposing law on men, but of disposing things”—That is to say, [it is a question of] employing tactics rather than laws, and even of using laws themselves as tactics—to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such and such ends may be achieved. (Foucault et al., 1991, 95).

Another technique of political biopower was “sexualisation,” meaning the intervention of the state on the way citizens relate to each other sexually by making sex itself a subject of official knowledge—most often through psychiatric study and surveillance (a subject explored in his History of Sexuality [see Foucault, 1978]). A further example—extending Foucault’s thought out of its location in the West and into the politics of the MENA region—would be aid money and social funds dispensed by the West to the states of the Middle East. Scholar of international development Ananya Roy makes precisely this connection, describing Social Funds as “creatures of neoliberalism [which] nevertheless embody mandates of state intervention in the economy to generate employment and deliver services” (Roy, 2010, 139).

“Biopower” and art

But where Foucault’s thought comes closest to the investigation on crowdfunding in art—and the larger context of neoliberalism and the services of the state outlined by Roy—is how he applies these theories of biopower to the production of art itself, with special regard to how art is funded and commissioned. Indeed his classic study of power, The Order of Things, opens with a reading of the masterpiece Las Meninas by the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velasquez (Foucault, 1973) [Fig.8.]. Showing the painter at work upon a large canvas among a group of courtiers, and a reflection of the subjects of that painting—the Spanish king and queen—in a small mirror, Las Meninas shows that “the discipline of the eye and control of visual representation is central to the technology of sovereignty” (Mitchell, 1994, 61).


Fig. 8. Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid. From Museo Nacional del Prado, online gallery. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Foucault was writing in the 1970s before the internet revolution and the development of social media and in the case of Velasquez sovereignty was invested in the king and queen. However, if we look at the painting again in light of the new ways in which art comes into being, the new ways that the eye is disciplined, and visual representation controlled, can we not see in the reflected image of the king and queen the reflected image of the distant investor, controlling from afar the biopower of art? Or is it rather the case that the enfranchisement of the internet-literate population by the social media has effected the removal of the sovereign with whom art is not longer aligned? These are the major questions Foucault’s thought poses for the issue of politics and the control of art through funding.

Understanding how political power relates to the funding structures which stand behind the creation of art reaches even further levels of explicitness in the thought of Foucault’s follower, Giorgio Agamben. Agamben interrogates the relation “between power as government and effective management, and power as ceremonial and liturgical reality” (Agamben, 2011, xii). He argues that the analysis of ceremonial culture—mostly comprised of what we would call art—in the history of the West reveals the fundamental structures of its political power far more openly than the analysis of law and politics directly. Agamben takes the ceremonial culture of the early Christian church as his object of study—but this study proposes that his concepts can be equally well applied to the most contemporary forms of art production, including the technology of crowdfunding.

Conclusion: crowdfunding, friend or foe?

As new cultural institutions and projects funded or facilitated by governments in the MENA region begin to emerge—such as the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Dubai opera, the Guggenheim Dubai, and the commissioning of internationally renowned architects such as Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid for projects in the region—the question of the relation between art and what Foucault called “biopower” and art becomes all the more pressing. The translation of crowdfunding initiatives from their startup in the US and the UK to the MENA region highlights the politics of art and finance, especially when seen in the historical timeline. As this situation stands to date the positive impacts of crowdfunding seem to outweigh the potential negatives. Part of the proof of this is that obstacles which early crowdfunding entrepreneurs encountered—such as funding for e-commerce, and cashflow around the region—have begun to be solved. Perhaps it was the rise of pan-Arabic affiliations and online communities who developed connections beyond the political borders of the postcolonial nation state to begin to realize what cultural theorist Hamid Dabashi has hailed as “cosmopolitan worldliness” which paved the way for crowdfunding in the MENA region. What is left to be seen now is, as the system grows, how states in the region will attempt to govern, control, and survey their subjects through these online platforms—or whether they will provide a means for subjects to escape the state. As seen in the case of Aflamnah and Zoomaal, crowdfunding is offering a new platform through which the MENA region can explore other forms of equity. These platforms are opening a new economic cluster, which has both advantages and disadvantages which is connected with the discussion here of whether art crowdfunding in the MENA region can be considered friend or foe. Within the MENA region, political roadblocks have historically hindered trade in general. By opening a crowdfunding platform, the MENA region would need to create a number of policies to facilitate such projects, as with the 2012 Obama legislation in the USA. Connected with this is the fear that crowdfunding for the arts would not be controlled, meaning that the arts would become more liberalized and uncensored, which in the case of highly political or sexual issues, would provoke the more conservative forces within the MENA region. In this case, the governments may wish to maintain stricter controls on the projects and their funding. In a more positive light, crowdfunding offers artists, as well as investors, from the MENA region an increased independence, as well as an increased awareness of what is going on in the art world. As seen above, a number of GCC countries are investing heavily in the arts with the view to becoming global art hubs. By facilitating public participation in the art world through crowdfunding, these countries may demonstrate their support and understanding of the concept of modern and contemporary art – itself a relatively new concept in the region. Connected with this, a number of GCC countries have forged an agreement to create a certain number of museums and methods of supporting the arts by 2030. This means that the success of crowdfunding may depend on the agreement of a united group of countries in the MENA region, rather than individual countries, which could cause problems unless all the members wish to accept the changes to political policy which crowdfunding may entail. Crowdfunding also bears a connection to the idea of international recognition that the MENA region is becoming increasingly modernized and liberalized, and potentially more democratic.

Author : Mie Al-Missned


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Images & Videos

Fig. 1. Map of the Mena Region. From The Economist, ‘Mapping the Arab World.’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 2. Map of Trade in the Mena Region. From Regional Views, ‘MENA Trade.’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 3. Economic Growth in the Mena Region. From IMF. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 4. The Square, 2013, publicity for the film. From IMDB, ‘The Square.’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig.5. 51, 2015, slide posted on Aflamnah to attract funding for the project. From Aflamnah ‘51’. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 6. Benozzo Gozzoli, The Three Magi, 1459, La Capella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici, Florence. (Members of the Medici family are included in the entourage). From Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi ‘The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli: ‘The Procession of the Magi’.’ Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 7. Al-Faw Palace, 1990, Al-Faw, Baghdad. From Bill Dawes. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Fig. 8. Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid. From Museo Nacional del Prado, online gallery. Retrieved 27 April 2015 from

Video 1. The Square (2013) documentary - director Jehane Noujaim Retrieved 6th Of May 2015 from