Volume 2022 Number 3
  • EISSN: 2223-506X


To report novel developments in standard art therapy practices in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic circa 2020-22.

Art therapy services are a new phenomenon in the Middle East, with current practitioners having received their training primarily in the UK, US, and Australia. Religious therapies, such as prayers, rituals, talismans (against the evil eye) and Quranic recitation continue to be common approaches to mental illness in the Arabian Gulf. The visual arts have experienced a renaissance in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, with billions of U.S. dollars of government funds invested in art education, galleries, exhibitions, and museums (Louvre Abu Dhabi, Museum of Islamic Art, etc.). Qatar has a national strategy to become an art and cultural hub in the Middle East.

Self-reflective exercises, process art, and specialist discussions among 5 experts in the field currently practicing in the Gulf were conducted in 2020 to document and analyze new methodologies and perspectives implemented during COVID-19 lockdowns, primarily in the area of telehealth and telemedicine. A related study by the authors in 2020, “Best Practices in Art Therapy Telehealth Communication: Perspectives from the Middle East,” provided additional analytical data. Qualitative data was organized into themes using standard Grounded Theory techniques. The practitioners framed their therapeutic work within the model of Relational Cultural Theory (RCT).

The thematic findings were grouped under the headings: “Stigma,” “Empowerment,” “Confidentiality,” “Therapeutic Relations,” and “Art/Nonverbal Communication.” The pandemic allowed practitioners to expand services geographically outside of the Gulf beyond traditional face-face meetings through the Zoom.com videoconferencing platform. Online sessions provided unexpected benefits in the areas of increased privacy and reduction of social stigma. Since telehealth laws in the Gulf are almost non-existent, practitioners collaborated with international partners to develop best practices and ethical guidelines adapted to the local cultural context. Results of the analysis revealed shifts in previously established boundaries and power dynamics (clients and therapists can turn video and microphone off, see each other’s house, pets and other family members). The presence of family members at home sometimes impacted the privacy of the client, but in some situations allowed opportunities to meet extended family members, providing additional diagnostic clues into family dynamics. A reduced ability to communicate and understand nonverbal cues and body language (eye contact was different, lack of seeing the body) was cited as a drawback to virtual clinical encounters. The expert / novice skill level disparity of the therapist / client was diminished when co-creating digital artwork (ex. use of the Zoom whiteboard). The limitations on art materials that could be obtained during shop closures for some clients increased creativity and innovation in artmaking, but for others it decreased artmaking opportunities.

All aspects of art therapy in the Arabian Gulf, and especially online services provision, are under-researched. Areas for further inquiry include: cultural adaptation of western models of care, local perceptions of the origins and treatment of mental health disorders, and awareness and acceptance of expressive arts psychotherapeutic interventions.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
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