Tatchell: Abu Dhabi between Human Rights and the New Louvre

Jo Tatchell writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

A $27 billion makeover of Saadiyat Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is aimed at turning the UAE capital into a cultural mecca – and a bridge between east and west. But can the conservative capital pull off such a risky move?

Saadiyat Island

Abu Dhabi’s leaders are using art and creativity to raise the city’s presence on the world stage. And as well as investment in huge new collections they have recruited the most celebrated architects in the world. These names provide the kudos that an oil outpost in a notoriously unstable region could not otherwise obtain. By 2013 there will be a Frank Gehry Guggenheim, a Jean Nouvel Abu Dhabi Louvre. Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster are also designing museums and arts centres. The structures are extraordinary; floating cities, haphazard blocks, organic spaces, music halls, concert auditoriums. They will form the largest cluster of cultural institutions in such close proximity in the world. The developers are hoping for the “Bilbao effect”: the transformation of a relatively unknown place into a haven of global culture.

With more than 40 million people traveling through the UAE annually there is a potential market. “The region has been a crossroads for centuries,” says Rita Aoun, director of culture at Tourist Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the corporation behind the Saadiyat development.

But while Abu Dhabi wants to become a modern bridge between East and West, and usher in a new era of Islamic openness it is not plain sailing. The accelerated construction programme has been dogged by accusations from Human Rights Watch. The UAE has a very poor human rights record. With many of the vast migrant Asian workforce allegedly being exploited HRW has pressurized foreign visionaries, such as Gehry, into speaking publicly about workers’ standards and rights on the Guggenheim project.

Perceptions are crucial. It isn’t simply art. It’s big business too. Christie’s, the Auction House, are aiming to double their business in four years. The Louvre are being paid $1.3billion for the use of the French museum’s name. The Guggenheim are aiming to display some of the vast collection that is never on show in the US due to lack of space and draw in thousands.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Long-term partnerships like this are at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s strategy and there is no doubt that the injection of cash is a boon in the West where arts funding is being slashed.

But there are critics who fear sharing the cultural stage with a nouveau-riche newcomer. Didier Rykner of the Art Tribune in Paris has accused the Louvre of acting like a corporation. “It has begun a trend in which artistic agendas become secondary to diplomatic and policy-driven agendas. France wants to be friends with UAE. It has business there.” He also believes that since the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be able to afford what the Louvre Paris cannot a trail of talented curators will inevitably head East.

There are plenty jumping aboard. Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, is fully focused on Abu Dhabi. “The Middle East is one of the world’s most important emerging regions in terms of contemporary culture,” he has said. Contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor and the controversial Jeff Koons are mentoring UAE artists.

Koons is a surprising but significant choice. Since his more explicit works have shocked even jaded Western audiences perhaps his inclusion is an encouraging sign.

The biggest obstacle is still social evolution. Authentic culture is an intangible thing, and it cannot be bought wholesale. Abu Dhabi may want to follow the West’s model of individual creative freedom, but does it really have the stomach to let its people follow their creative visions, and to welcome all work in the name of freedom of expression. Will hopeful artists from around the world converge here in the way they do in NYC or London or Berlin? There are 200 nationalities living side by side, but they are strictly stratified and it is hard to imagine a ‘scene’ evolving out of the grass roots. Right now, Emirati artists are a small elite group; they need roughing up a bit, culturally speaking. But though a culturally forward society in the heart of the Gulf might suit the West, it is too early to get excited. This is still a place bound by rigid social and tribal traditions. The ruling family desire relevance on the global stage, but equally they will not want a rush of radical artists destabilising the social or political status quo.

So while they claim to be kick-starting the dawn of a new Middle Eastern Golden Age we need to reserve judgement a little longer. By 2015 we will know whether Abu Dhabi can be a cultural bridge, or whether the Saadiyat Island project is an epic white elephant.

Jo Tatchell is author of the just-published A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City

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10 Responses

    • They will all deserve to sink together.

      The starchitects like Gehry, who design junky, jokey buildings; the “artists” like Koons who produce junky, jokey “art” ; the oil sheikhs who literally have more money than they know what to do with and are pouring it into this cesspool of vanity.

      Of course, the aforementioned will not drown as they ought to but will be able to flee to Switzerland or someplace, leaving the foreign slave workers and any ordinary Arab citizens to their fate.

    • Future generations in Abu Dhabi and the surrounding Arab states will burn effigies of these idiots for centuries to come, because of their insistence in pissing away their vast wealth on frivolous ventures such as these. That is, if there’s anyone left in those areas after the inundation that will come from a 2 m minimum sea level rise or the ridiculous average temperatures… More than likely it’ll be examples in future history books of the catastrophic myopia of humanity leading up to the ‘great collapse’ (or whatever it gets called in a century or two).

  1. It always makes me laugh when these Gulf emirs think that culture and art is something you can just buy. It’s clear that Abu Dhabi wants to avoid the path taken by its crass, vulgar neighbour Dubai, and market itself as a ‘cultural’ destination. Some of the objections to this have been outlined in the article. There’s also the fact that Abu Dhabi is still a deeply conservative place where, until barely a generation or two ago, illiteracy was almost universal. The emirate also has an appalling human rights record, and freedom of the press is almost non-existant.

    In short it’s hard to imagine a less suitable venue for a ‘cultural hub’. Of course, the big name museums in the West will happily take the emirs’ money in these hard times, while laughing at their pretensions behind their backs. It has been ever thus in this part of the world.

  2. “When the sea level rises” is a good question but…………..Isn’t a great deal of the foundation for this ‘city’ man made. What if it starts to sink?
    Saadiyat Island is one ugly looking mess. Just my two cents.

  3. Agree with earlier comments that the renditions make this project look like an architectural horror show that is totally removed from any kind of human touch.

  4. I can understand where the skepticism and attacks are coming from but we all have to remember the bouncing back effect that a project like this would have on its creators. Culture and art will shine its light back at what the author is calling a “rigid social and tribal traditions” as he should know. Concentrating on the human aspect and rights of the workers rather than attacking the entire project would make more sense. This money is not going somewhere else so it might as well go to art and culture that would soften the minds.

  5. In the western world that is how art and culture developed and it never had anything to do with democracy (sic) and human rights (resin).

    Prince and patron. Culture has always been for the “elite”. We know the debate that is raging here in the west.

    The issue here is more that all this is imported nonsense disconnected from the local reality, history, etc.

  6. The day will come when the people will rise. The people in this case being all the expatriates who are treated like second class citizens and whose rights are trampled upon every day with the support of Western governments. What is the UAE and all these other sheikhdoms is a crime covered up by western media. If people saw how expatriates are treated, especially the low skill workers, they would spit on those countries.

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