Edinburgh International Culture Summit

Speech - HE Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo

HE Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, Founder, Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation

Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2012
The Chamber, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, Edinburgh EH99 1SP
Tuesday 14th August 2012

‘Hoda’s Way - Sustaining Private and Public Support for Culture’

Salaam aleikum, Your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I am very honoured to be at the Scottish Parliament in the presence of so many distinguished people.

I take this opportunity to commend the DCMS, the British Council, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government in joining forces for the Edinburgh International Culture Summit. It means a lot to us.
I firmly believe that this inaugural edition shall open a new and promising chapter of global cultural dialogue.

In fact yesterday, - I would like to share this with you – a historic occasion took place between ADMAF (the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation) and the iconic Edinburgh International Festival – their first MoU with the Arab world signed in the presence of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. It is our sincere wish that both organisations work together to create inspiring and creative ways for this generation (and the next) to engage and experience the arts across two continents.

My dear friend Jonathan, under your direction, the Edinburgh International Festival has expanded its horizons to unimaginable reaches across the world – north, south, east and west. Because of such innovation, Edinburgh will always be a beacon of cultural enlightenment.

And now – sustaining private and public support for culture I guess many of us continue to endure hardship in a world gone mad: where tumbling stockmarkets, stumbling governments, and bumbling bankers from the heads of government to our own families and homes, nevertheless we need to sustain efforts in public investment are surely leaving us crumbling in our efforts to invest in culture.

There are a myriad of solutions but let me share with you my way – the way of a humble woman who fell in love with art and culture  – my journey driven by passion, care and a sense of advocacy.

I was born on a crossroads of cultures. My mother was Syrian; my father was from a large merchant family in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I was born and raised in Lebanon, a country known as the cradle of creativity, despite centuries of unrest and occupation.

As a child, I would spend night after listening to the visitors to my father’s majlis. So many people from different backgrounds and fields would gather in his sitting room to debate the issues of the day. I was fascinated by the Arabic poetry, the Hakawati storytellers, and the tales from our great oral heritage. The words of writers – from Nabati poetry to the verses of Al Mutannabi and Shawki – and the sounds of oud and nay …

All would remain with me for the rest of my life.
My eyes were opened to the riches of the golden age of Islam. The ninth and 10th centuries saw the Arab world pioneer new approaches to science, humanities and the arts. The legacy of this age can be seen all around us a millennium later. The thinkers, writers, artists and craftsmen of two distinct continents converged in a spirit of enquiry and engagement that spawned the impressive intellectual, architectural and artistic heritage we share today.

I remember running with my brothers through the courtyards and arches of the great houses of Damascus. I recall the scent of the great plates of food my mother would cook.
Arab homes are built on a tradition of hospitality. My mother learnt the art of cuisine from my grandmother who inherited it from my great grandmother. I soon realized that we women are the keepers of tradition and culture. We are the guardians of customs and the nurturers of creativity, and it is our duty to carry them from one generation to the next.

After my studies in Paris, I returned to the Middle East, where I married my husband, Mohamed, who was sent by his merchant family in Bahrain to run the business in Abu Dhabi. And so, we settled in the UAE capital.

Sixteen years ago, I established the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF), because of one young boy whom I met by chance outside a classical music concert. We talked. I asked him “Why don’t you come in?” He said “I would love to. I love music but I’ve not been invited.”
I took him by my hand and we went in together. After the concert I asked him ‘Don’t you have music and art lessons in your school?’ He said “No”.
That was the catalyst for ADMAF.

ADMAF was among the first not-for-profit cultural organizations in the UAE. It remains a rare breed – one that seeks to advance Abu Dhabi’s vision and nurture society through the arts, education, culture and creativity so that every child may fulfil their right to artistic expression.
At that time, I had no funding from anyone, not from private or public sources when I started ADMAF. I couldn’t ask for money for something I had no idea would succeed! So, with the little money we had, my husband and I underwrote the projects. We wanted to break open the doors for the young, so they’d learn from their rich heritage, not go back and dream of the glory of the past but to move forward. I wanted them to feel confident in their own identity and embrace the cultures of others from the four corners of the world and write a new chapter in history with the creativity that resides in each one of them.

We began in universities with small educational projects, which had a major impact on the academic performance of students. But beyond the grades, it touches their souls. I saw great talent and the power art has to change life.

I have been able to build upon these modest foundations as we go, with the support of our major stakeholder today, the Government.
How and why?    With an unbreakable bond of trust
Trust is the enduring and unwavering reliance on the integrity, ability, and character of each other. It cannot be measured. It’s a gift. It is the spirit of our human emotions: care, love, loyalty, commitment and understanding.

I was fortunate to build trust with the Government, the private sector later on, the educators and the community. This extended locally and throughout the country, the region and now internationally.
The most important message from the Government was to invest in education. I understood that. This was the legacy of Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates (The Land of Blessings, or ‘Bilad Al Khayr’ as we call it) -  a country founded upon tolerance, respect and understanding) and above all, giving.

Sheik Khayr’s legacy is to invest the wealth of the country in its people. I embraced that it because of complete conviction in the power of art to change lives… I helped to introduce more and more art and cultural education to strengthen creative leadership, and slowly built upon it, by investing in the young, nurturing talent, and creating opportunities and I kept my promise and delivered.

I will never forget Nadia, an Emirati university student who was passionate about painting. She would hide her canvases under her bed lest the family discover them. They considered art a waste of time. I heard from her teachers that she was desperate to apply for an ADMAF award for creativity, so I spoke with her mother “woman to woman” “mother to mother”. Eventually, she realized that no harm would come of her daughter and that creativity and self-expression would actually help her daughter blossom.
Nadia won the ADMAF Award for creativity that year and everyone voted for her. Today, she is one of Abu Dhabi’s most sought-after graphic designers.

This year, over 20,000 students in the UAE’s schools and universities have accessed the arts through ADMAF. We give them a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for dialogue that cannot be easily quantified.

But the benefits will be felt in the future well-being of the country: both economically and socially.

The barriers are falling and stories such as Nadia’s give me the strength to continue to develop ADMAF’s work and expand its funding base. 

The private sector remains the most challenging aspect of our work. Let me assure you that partnerships in the Gulf are no easier than anywhere else in the world, especially given the very austere economic climate. But we’ve found champions in the business and education has been an area of interest for the Government and the private sector.

We have 17 corporate partners today whose relationships are based on transparency, delivery, and a return on investment both tangible and intangible. We have been able to sustain and cultivate them. Today, 40 per cent of our income comes from this sector, and the list hopefully keeps growing as recognition of our work spreads.

Our overall objective is simply to make the value of culture understood in many different ways, by many different people.  This is probably the most important thing we do: slowly but surely, patiently, - a lot of patience – we advocate. Culture must find its place in the hearts and minds of all our partners.
We are able to achieve this because we share similar beliefs, principles, values, hopes and ambitions.

ADMAF has over 14 cultural partners across the world, three of which are right here in the UK. All of them give us the opportunity to learn, to strengthen the bonds and deepen the value of culture. Together, we are making the Gulf’s cultural renaissance visible across the world.

Today, the international spotlight is shining on the UAE. With its climate of stability, the emirate of Abu Dhabi is building bridges between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, between the moderate and the hardline, and between the liberal and the authoritarian.

We are all building bridges. As a philanthropist, ADMAF’s Bridge of Culture is strengthening dialogue and understanding and, in turn, is producing new forms of artistic expression.
Throughout my journey, the road to private and public support for culture has been full of  difficulties and obstacles.

The economy will always fluctuate; society will always change.

But on this journey, I have learnt to have courage. I have learnt to be patient; to choose my battles and never give up.

I have also learnt how to forgive and remain faithful to my mission and remain humble, but hold on to my principles and stand by my belief and what I promised to give, no matter what.

And I tell you my friends, the painful path of sustaining partnerships will never change. The painful path of getting funds to support your cause will never change.

So I will never surrender … I will never surrender my belief in the supreme importance of the story of humanity  -  that is culture.

About the summit

The Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2012 will bring together Culture Ministers with prominent artists, thinkers and others responsible for formulating cultural policy. 

They will discuss how the arts enrich the lives of people around the world and contribute to the wellbeing of nations.


  • The Edinburgh International @culturesummit has drawn to a close. Thanks for following! #culturesummit
    40 weeks 6 days ago
  • Jonathan Mills, Chief Executive of @edintfest addresses delegates #culturesummit
    40 weeks 6 days ago