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When it comes to workspace trends, coworking has quickly risen to the top over the last two years. In 2017, 1.1 million people set up shop at a coworking space worldwide, and the Gulf Arab states are no exception. Coworking spaces have grown quickly in Dubai, Riyadh, Doha, and other major urban hubs, and while many of them host young entrepreneurs, some are narrowing their focus even further to creative and artistic work.
One of those is Wejha, established in Salmiya near Kuwait City in 2018. CEO and founder Abdulaziz Al-Awadhi envisioned Wejha as an “Artist’s Heaven,” a space catering specifically to artists – photographers, painters, musicians, and others. The idea for the project came out of his need for a space that would support his own work as an Arabic calligrapher, a job, he says, that is too messy to do from home. Wejha sets itself apart from other coworking spaces in Kuwait by including music, photography, and art studies, as well as a workshop area and a gallery.
In Saudi Arabia, lawyer and social entrepreneur Sofana Dahlan founded Tashkeil Global Company, an accelerator and business incubator in the creative field. She then saw the need for affordable work spaces for startups and launched Kayan Space in 2011. Kayan Space quickly became a choice space for artists, designers, and creative entrepreneurs.
AGSIW spoke to Abdulaziz about his plans for Wejha as well as Sofana to learn about Kayan Space and its role in Saudi Arabia’s work culture.
AGSIW: What made you decide to found Wejha?
Abdulaziz: I needed a place to work because I had a new idea that I wanted to produce my own [handmade] paper. It’s messy, so I cannot work at home. That’s why I decided to have my own space, but as you know, renting a whole area for yourself in Kuwait is expensive. So, I came up with the coworking space for artists.
AGSIW: What does Wejha bring to the entrepreneurial culture of Kuwait? What does it add to the artistic culture?
Abdulaziz: We are aiming to expand awareness of the importance of art … We are trying to grow internationally to show how much Kuwaiti artists are capable of achieving an international reputation. We still have little knowledge about art, and most people think that it is not important. But as you can see through history, art and architecture are the only things you can know about those historical societies. When art starts somewhere, you know that the people were living in a good place where they all had their basic needs provided for, like food, shelter, and community.
Here in Kuwait, we have a saying: Art won’t feed you. That is wrong; art is the most transcendent type of business … If you see the Renaissance movement in Italy 800 years ago, it started with art and artists. Rich people used to have spaces especially for artists, and they used to provide them with everything they needed. And it’s really more than just making a painting; it’s something bigger than that – it changed the way they used to think about everything.
AGSIW: What are your plans for Wejha?
Abdulaziz: As a start, we would love to participate in international galleries, and travel around with our artists to show our talents. And then we hope to grow in the GCC and Middle East region. After that, we would love to have this kind of coworking space all over the world.
AGSIW: What was the landscape like for Saudis working in creative industries at the time you opened Kayan Space?
Sofana: I came back to Saudi Arabia in 2010, after completing my legal studies in Egypt and working as an intellectual property rights lawyer in Kuwait. Back then, I found that most creatives lacked knowledge of their rights, signed unfair contracts, and consequently got into disputes. And since the Saudi judicial system was not oriented toward intellectual property rights, I wanted to introduce commercial mediation to solve these disputes. As a result, I started to develop a network in the Arab world for settlements of intellectual property rights disputes through commercial mediation. I began to think about developing preconflict solutions, and so I launched a summer workshop for creatives on how to read contracts. This workshop became so popular that I had to organize it seven times each summer. I also realized that creatives lacked business knowledge, like how to create a business model or read financial documents. Therefore, I decided to establish Tashkeil Global Company, which is an accelerator and business incubator in the creative field. Tashkeil specializes in detecting talents and helps transfer their ideas into a business concept.
After incubating our first batch of creatives, we identified gaps in the market and one of the major impediments to the growth of creatives was the lack of affordable workspaces. So, in response to this need, Tashkeil Global Company created Kayan Space.
A conference for Behance portfolio reviews, hosted by Kayan Space
AGSIW: What kind of obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Sofana: In the beginning in 2013, the design of Kayan Space was a copy-paste of coworking spaces outside the kingdom, and it was named Creative Space. We did not consider the gender segregation rules in the kingdom, and as a result, the space was closed after six months. We reopened it two months later under the name Kayan Space, and we changed the whole interior to glass walls so that when a man works with a woman it won’t be considered as khalwah or seclusion with the other gender.
Another problem has been legalization. Before 2017 there were no legal regulations or recognition for the accelerators and business incubators or the coworking spaces in Saudi Arabia. Thus, as Kayan Space has multiple activities (consulting, renting office spaces, hosting events, etc.) we had to conduct business under five different commercial registrations. After 2017, the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority issued new regulations for coworking spaces and business incubators that hindered Kayan Space and the other projects established before 2017.
However, the new regulations do not take into account existing coworking spaces and business incubators and are aimed at supporting businesses established after the implementation of the regulations. For instance, most of the coworking spaces were established in residential areas, which became illegal according to the new regulations. Hence, I still have to conduct my activity under five different commercial registrations to legalize Kayan Space.
AGSIW: Your social enterprises at Kayan Space and Tashkeil look to incubate and promote creative entrepreneurs. What are some successes you have achieved in nurturing young creatives?
Sofana: In Saudi Arabia, Tashkeil has assisted around 10,000 creatives, both men and women, through many different programs. Tashkeil has launched four vital projects in the creative field, among them Kayan Space. The second is the Saudi National Creative Initiative (SNCI), which builds competencies in the creative field through knowledge exchange. Since 2013 we have hosted more than 200 experts from outside Saudi Arabia to hold workshops in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Khobar. Furthermore, the initiative aims to screen and map the creative field to understand the needs and gaps in the creative industry so that we can efficiently fill it. SNCI releases a report with the results every two years and proposes recommendations for the next cycle. The third program, which was just launched, is called Taleed; it is a project to safeguard intangible cultural heritage across Saudi Arabia like traditions and dances. Taleed aims to provide creatives with a cultural database. The fourth project is Diwaniyah, which is a cultural dialogue between creatives and people from other disciplines. We organize the Diwaniyah every three months around a specific topic.
AGSIW: Your work mapping creative knowledge through the SNCI gives you a current perspective on the creative ambitions of Saudi youth. What can you tell us about the future of creativity in the kingdom?
Sofana: SNCI’s last report was released in 2015 prior to the recent changes in the kingdom. Through this report, we found that the kingdom has plenty of untapped creative potential in the form of underground talent and creatives. Our database had more than 6,000 creative Saudi men and women in 12 different creative fields. However, many of those creatives had not received professional training. They depended on YouTube videos. Through this report, we were able to identify which specializations are needed in universities and what skills to focus on. Also, we were able to locate the sources and markets for every single business and industry in Saudi Arabia. Mapping all of this helps on a developmental level but also on a commercial and economic level because locating the opportunities in the kingdom.
Since the initiation of the Vision 2030 plan the kingdom’s landscape has totally changed. Today we have the Ministry of Culture and the General Entertainment Authority, which are great outlets for the creative field. But unfortunately, we still do not have a cohesive infrastructure in the form of supportive platforms.
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