As the Middle East burns, Abu Dhabi blooms. The Arab world has unfortunately had more than its fair share of negative news headlines. However, this Middle Eastern capital city is steaming ahead with monumental cultural projects that will change the perception of the Middle East — not only regionally, but also globally.
In December 2015, Abu Dhabi will inaugurate a 24,000 square metre branch of the Louvre museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. Upon its opening, the museum will showcase 300 works on loan for 12 months from a dozen French institutions as well as the Louvre in Paris. Amongst these works will be Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronniere, Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon and Claude Monet’s La gare Saint-Lazare.
A few weeks back, Abu Dhabi inaugurated its new New York University (NYUAD) campus designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly. Soon after, Bill Bragin, current director of public programming of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in New York, was appointed as the very first artistic director of NYUAD performing arts centre. Next month, the Frank Gerhy-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is due for completion in 2017, will open in Abu Dhabi its very first show titled Seeing Through Light, which will bring together artists from across the world, including American Robert Irwin and the late German artist Otto Piene. The museum’s collection, to which I was made privy last summer in New York, also includes masterpieces by top Middle Eastern masters such as Syria-born and Berlin-based Marwan and Algeria’s Rachid Koraichi. Abu Dhabi is also planning to construct an opera house designed by Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum designed by Tadao Ando and a national museum named after the country’s founder late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and designed by Norman Foster.
Abu Dhabi’s renaissance project is spearheaded by General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who has taken a keen interest in positioning the city as a global leader in arts, commerce and technology. The emirate is already vital to the world economy as it sits on 8 per cent of the world’s total oil reserves and is embarking on a multi billion-dollar renewable energy project. The UAE capital city’s gross domestic product stands at $260 billion (Dh956.28 billion). If it were a country, it alone would have ranked amongst the top 40 states in the world. A new Midfield Terminal airport is due to open in 2017 with a capacity of 55 million passengers, many of whom will be carried on its award-winning airline.
Urban structure framework
Abu Dhabi’s investment in cultural projects is part of its plans to diversify its economy and falls within its Vision 2030 urban structure framework. Abu Dhabi is the epitome of what I regard as a gradual shifting of the Arab axis of culture eastwards to the Gulf cities.
In fact, Abu Dhabi’s cultural projects are so groundbreaking that according to a source I have spoken to, certain laws in the entire country are expected to be updated in order to comply with international norms such as the anti-seizure legislation, should third parties make claims on loaned art works. These projects have also spearheaded reforms in the labour sector. For instance, a 2012 follow-up report by Human Rights Watch on Saadiyat Island, which is home to all the planned museums, “found notable improvements since its first report on the subject in 2009”, although this is an ongoing process. Additionally, following a New York Times report on labour violations during the construction of NYUAD, New York University issued an apology while Tamkeen, the organisation that monitors the NYUAD site, appointed a third party to conduct an independent review, to be published by the end of this year.
No other city in the Middle East comes close to Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in terms of the size, scope and substance of its cultural investments. For instance, upon completion, the $27 billion Saadiyat Island will host world-class cultural institutions designed by five Pritzker prize-winning architects. Sadly, much of the Middle East is not only stagnant; the worst off parts of it are disintegrating and seem to be going back in time. Historic sites are being decimated; artefacts are being smuggled out or destroyed, adding to the tragic toll of human lives. No doubt, when the turmoil that the Arab world is witnessing ends — and it will certainly be over one day — Abu Dhabi’s growing expertise in preserving historic artefacts will help salvage the surviving cultural treasures of the Arab world. After all, the emirate already is amongst the world’s most generous states, both within the UAE federation and on a global level.
Abu Dhabi’s cultural projects have been a boon to the country and the wider region. They have spurred much-needed reforms that will hopefully be expanded and even replicated in the region. These projects — being built as much of the region’s heritage is lost — are also offering optimism to many in the Middle East that our future can also be full of life, colour and hope.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SultanAlQassemi