Will Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi's Multi-Billion Art Island, Pay Off?

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, ArteFactory, TDIC, Lourve Abu Dhabi

Over the past decade, Abu Dhabi has spent billions creating a cultural paradise on the recently uninhabited island of Saadiyat, including outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Can the Emirate's bet on high art pay off?

Saadiyat, an island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is a land of promise. Its name translates to “happiness,” the ingredients of which, apparently, are luxury real estate, golf courses, and world-class art. Renderings of Saadiyat show a gleaming utopia dotted with architectural fantasies and surrounded by the impossibly turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. When I arrived on the island on a tolerably hot day last year, I found a sprawling construction site. The only feature I recognized was the water, which seemed even more resplendent in real life.

Today few structures stick out from the island’s sandy, crane-studded flatland. These include two beachside resorts, the St. Regis and the Park Hyatt, and Rafael Viñoly’s new campus for NYU Abu Dhabi, the only major project to have been completed since my visit. But Saadiyat’s planners hope over the next few years it will become a cultural destination to rival Paris, New York City, and London. To achieve that goal, the Tourism Development & Investment Company, run by the government of the United Arab Emirates, has partnered with top museums in those cities—the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the British Museum—and hired a dream team of Pritzker Prize–winning architects. The whole undertaking, announced with great fanfare in 2007, will cost an estimated $27 billion. After years of delays, due in part to the global financial crisis, the first major museum to be unveiled will be the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opening in December.

For the moment, the sole operating museum on the island is Manarat Al Saadiyat. This is where pieces from the collections of Abu Dhabi’s future institutions have been temporarily shown. The day I went there the only thing to see was an exhibit on Saadiyat itself. A busload of tourists gathered around a detailed model of the island—resorts, condos, and all—as a guide pointed out future landmarks along its waterfront. There was Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, with its wide canopy that brought to mind the starship Enterprise. To the north, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which looked like a collapsed Jenga tower. To the south, Zaha Hadid’s biomorphic Performing Arts Centre. A few hundred yards inland—about one foot on the model—was the most otherworldly structure of all: the Zayed National Museum, designed by Foster + Partners. It’s dedicated to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler who oversaw the UAE’s 40-year transition from sparse communities of fishermen, pearl divers, and Bedouin nomads into the modern, oil-rich federation it is today. The region’s seafaring tradition will be celebrated in Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum, a paragon of architectural fluidity.

At the Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibit, a short film presented a surreal vision of this incipient cultural paradise—a phantasmagoria of plein air painters, sculptors, musicians, and dancers performing on a pristine beach at sunset. The film is emblematic of Abu Dhabi’s undaunted optimism. It is a place that exists more in the future than in the present. Walls around almost every construction site are covered with images depicting how people will live in the finished spaces: Emiratis in dishdashas and abayas mingle smilingly with cosmopolitan expats, forging business deals and soaking in high culture.

This focus on the future is part of Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030, a long-term economic and urban-development plan devised to reduce the city’s overwhelming dependence on oil revenue. Abu Dhabi realizes the importance of diversifying into other industries, such as finance and tourism, and has put particular emphasis on building a cultural infrastructure. Also at stake is a more or less friendly rivalry with other Gulf States pursuing similar strategies. Its fellow emirates Dubai and Sharjah have both established respected art fairs. Qatar’s royal family, meanwhile, has reportedly been spending $1 billion a year to acquire masterpieces of Western art by the likes of Cézanne and Gauguin.

Abu Dhabi, which of all the emirates sits on the most oil, is said to be more traditional than its hedonistic sibling, Dubai. But among global capitals, it’s still an adolescent. When I asked a woman at the Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA) where I could find a traditional market, she said, “Well, we had a souk, but it recently burned down. It was in a great old building, too—from the ’80s.” The new souk consists of a few stands in a mall downtown, with a small display of how the old souks used to look.

Abu Dhabi’s past seems to manifest itself primarily as a set of symbols and architectural allusions. Case in point: Jean Nouvel’s Louvre. Its salient feature, the 590-foot-wide canopy that rests atop the galleries, is meant to reference the domes of mosques and madrassas. Its intricate latticework structure mimics interlacing palm fronds, a once-common roofing material in the Gulf, and casts exquisitely dappled sunlight onto the walls and floor. The galleries themselves are laid out to evoke the feeling of a small city or, as the Louvre planners describe it, a traditional souk.

When plans for Saadiyat’s cultural district were announced in 2007, the $1.3 billion deal struck with the French government ($520 million for the rights to use the Louvre name and $747 million for curatorial advice and art loans from the country’s top museums, including the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles) made the most noise. More than 4,600 people, including many French museum workers, archaeologists, and art historians, signed an online petition opposing the deal and accusing France of selling its cultural heritage. (Others speculated that the agreement could have been payback for the more than $10 billion in armaments that France had sold to the UAE over the years.) The Louvre’s president, Henri Loyrette, came to its defense. “It’s a fair fee for the concession of the name,” he told Agence France-Presse. “This tutelary role deserves reward. It’s normal.”

Didier Rykner, editor of the French online art review La Tribune de l’Art, has been one of the project’s most vocal critics. “My reaction was one of incomprehension, because this is completely unprecedented,” he says. “The lending of works is fine with me. What I object to is the renting of works,” which is how Rykner characterizes the arrangement whereby approximately 300 artworks from 13 French institutions were transferred to Abu Dhabi, each for as long as two years. These pieces include a statuette of a Bactrian princess from the third millennium b.c., Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, Edouard Manet’s The Fife Player, and nine canvases by Cy Twombly.

“They’ve taken pieces—many of them masterpieces—that have nothing in common,” says Rykner. “One shouldn’t send works for exhibits that don’t illuminate anything about art history.”

For the curators of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Rykner’s reservations reflect an outdated, myopic conception of art. The historical and geographical breadth of the collection is not a shortcoming, they argue; it’s the point. They’re hoping to build a “universal museum” that draws connections between different cultures, especially crucial amid the geopolitical upheavals in the greater Middle East. “The multiple perspectives introduced by this comparative exercise undoubtedly disrupt a certain world view that the West has imposed,” writes Laurence des Cars of Agence France-Muséums, the UAE-financed collective of French-museum experts formed to guide the project, in her preface to the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s catalog.

“This region has always been a crossroads of trade and connection,” says Hissa Al Dhaheri, a young curator for the Louvre Abu Dhabi whose breathless delivery betrays the enthusiasm of the new generation of Emirati art professionals. “It is but natural that the universal museum established in Abu Dhabi reflect that.” Al Dhaheri describes the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s curatorial concept as a narrative, a chronological trail “putting different civilizations in dialogue with one another.” For example, she says, a 12th-century Moorish fountain spout known as the Monzon Lion, from the Paris Louvre, will be paired with a 12th-century Christian lion-shaped jug from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection. Elsewhere an equestrian portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David will be matched with a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

“We’re sure it’s going to be a big draw,” Al Dhaheri adds. “You’ve got an iconic building, an iconic collection that we have acquired, but also iconic pieces from 13 French museums all in one place. So instead of jumping around 13 museums in France, you can just go to one and see it all.”

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, set to open in 2017, has no such grand concept, perhaps because its focus is more historically defined. “We decided to start the collection with the 1960s because that’s the moment that the world begins to change,” says Valerie Hillings, the museum’s curator. The 1960s are certainly the moment that the world begins to change for Abu Dhabi, since oil was first struck off its shores in 1958. Hillings says the ever-expanding collection will be “totally international,” including signature works by Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, El Anatsui, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Yayoi Kusama. Hillings was particularly excited to announce the acquisition of a major body of work by the Emirati conceptual artist Hassan Sharif.

The museum, about 12 times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, in New York, will cost Abu Dhabi an estimated $800 million. Frank Gehry’s design is a sort of cubistic reinterpretation of traditional Arabic architecture, with a repeating motif of cones (designed to draw away the heat) echoing the proliferation of domes commonly found in Middle Eastern buildings.

The UAE has lurched forward so quickly toward the future that its leaders seem to fear its past will be forgotten. Preserving that heritage is the focus of the Zayed National Museum. Its collection, assembled with the help of the British Museum, pays tribute to the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, and the cultural patrimony of the region since pre-Islamic times. The Foster + Partners–designed building, to be completed next year, will be encircled by a moat and built into a hill out of which will sprout a cluster of towering elliptical plates meant to evoke falcon feathers, an allusion to the UAE’s national bird and its history of falconry.

Saadiyat’s website describes the Zayed National Museum as “fittingly elevated above the rest of the cultural district at its highest point,” reflecting the quasi-mythological status of its namesake. Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, is still admired for uniting the Emirates and ensuring their prosperity and good ties with the West. Billboards across the country show his benevolent face, which bears a passing resemblance to Sean Connery. His eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is president of the UAE. His grandson, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, is the chairman of the TCA, which oversees all cultural projects in Abu Dhabi.

The TCA has not, as yet, given cause to the art-world Cassandras who worry that free expression will be compromised in a conservative Muslim state. No nudity or profanity has been censored. And though the UAE doesn’t officially recognize Israel, the TCA did not prevent the Louvre Abu Dhabi from displaying a Torah scroll from Yemen. For her part, Hillings says, “We walk in full lockstep with the cultural authority—TCA Abu Dhabi has made incredible efforts to bring attention to the arts in general.” (The TCA declined to comment.)

If Abu Dhabi’s partnerships with the British Museum and the Guggenheim haven’t stirred as much controversy as the Louvre Abu Dhabi has, that could be because the British Museum took a backstage role and the Guggenheim had already opened a foreign branch in Bilbao, Spain. Or it could be because neither project involved the French.

But that hasn’t spared the museums from the international opprobrium surrounding the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf. Construction in Abu Dhabi is nonstop. From my window on a high floor of the Rosewood hotel on Al Maryah Island, I could see the enormous white crane assembling the dome of the Louvre in the distance, and severed anthills of green-vested builders working around the clock, even at two in the morning.

Emirati nationals make up just one fifth of Abu Dhabi’s population, and their livelihoods are guaranteed by generous government assistance. The rest consists of expats working in various industries, with migrant laborers from the Indian subcontinent constituting the vast majority. According to several reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW)—the latest in February—these workers are subject to systematic abuse by local contractors, including occasional passport confiscation, poor living conditions, exorbitant recruitment fees that leave migrants cripplingly indebted to their employers, and summary deportation in response to complaints or attempts to strike. “I’m not saying that all workers or even a large section of migrant workers in the region are in conditions of slavery,” says HRW’s Middle East researcher Nicholas McGeehan, “but it’s an appropriate comparison in many respects.” Abu Dhabi’s Tourism & Development Investment Company, while rejecting many of HRW’s allegations, has reaffirmed its commitment to enforcing local labor laws and funded an investigation by PricewaterhouseCoopers that found conditions have dramatically improved over the past five years. The Louvre and the Guggenheim, too, have vowed to uphold fair practices.

Concerns remain among the museums’ staffs. One former British Museum curator advising the Zayed National Museum says if she had not left for personal reasons, she would have quit over what she calls the “great frustrations” of the project. “I would have had a great issue with the treatment of the migrant workers,” she says. The curator, who requested anonymity, says she was equally troubled by the lack of professionalism among the local curatorial staff. “It’s not in the culture of the Gulf to preserve heritage,” she says. “There’s not enough attention paid to the history of art.” While the curator was confident that these were just “teething problems,” she says the situation in the meantime remains “unsatisfactory.”

Western critics of Abu Dhabi’s cultural ambitions have tended to question its intentions. Is the emirate buying sophistication? Is the importation of high culture meant to give expats a reason to stay? Or to give Emiratis a reason not to leave? Or to increase the value of real estate on Saadiyat?

Similar questions could well have been asked about the birth of New York City’s cultural infrastructure. New York in the late 19th century was an unsophisticated upstart taking artistic cues from Europe. Like the Saadiyat projects, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art were built largely with oil money (namely Rockefeller’s), and their early collections contained mostly foreign works. Solomon Guggenheim, as well, converted a natural resource—gold, in his case—into cultural capital. Now, when we think of what makes New York New York, we think of its cultural institutions, which have acted as ballast as the city soared to global economic prominence. Abu Dhabi presumably wants its museums to play the same role.

What is unprecedented about Abu Dhabi’s museums is the speed at which they’re all being built. It took the Louvre more than five centuries to amass its collection. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, hopes to be taken seriously after just eight years. It will certainly take time for Saadiyat to be cited alongside hallowed Western institutions without irony. That acceptance will require Abu Dhabi to develop a passionate and knowledgeable Emirati creative class. To address this need, the government is importing higher education as well. It has built dazzling campuses for its Sorbonne and NYU outposts, each complete with architectural allusions to their cities of origin: a Haussmannian dome at the Sorbonne; a High Line park at NYU, similar to the one on Manhattan’s West Side.

The moment I realized Abu Dhabi’s grand bargain could pay off was during last year’s edition of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, at an opera recital by American soprano Renée Fleming. The festival is another cog in the UAE’s growing cultural mechanism. Like the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s art collection, last year’s festival lineup was a mishmash of impressive but unrelated names: Herbie Hancock, the Dresden Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, and the Lebanese composer Michel Fadel, to name a few of the performers.

Fleming’s last song was a Mozart aria called “Nehmt meinen Dank,” an expression of gratitude for patrons of the arts, which Fleming seemed to address directly to the officials in the front row. For her (planned) encore, Fleming returned to the stage with a young singer named Sara Al-Qaiwani, whom the program introduced as the first Emirati operatic soprano. Together they sang the duet from The Marriage of Figaro in which the Countess (Fleming) dictates a letter to Susanna. Sitting in the auditorium of the Emirates Palace hotel, a gilded behemoth in downtown Abu Dhabi, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the sublimity of those two intertwining voices. The applause when it was over was the loudest of the night, and all eyes were on the younger singer.

Photo Credits: Courtesy Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority; © 2015 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York