Saadiyat Island

Abu Dhabi’s ambitious arts district.

French Culture Minister Christine Albanel (C) and Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnun al-Nahayan (2nd R), president of Abu Dhabi tourism authority, look at the location of the Louvre museum on a map of Saadiyat Island in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. Click image to expand.
French Culture Minister Christine Albanel (C) and Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnun al-Nahayan (2nd R), president of Abu Dhabi tourism authority, look at the location of the Louvre museum on a map of Saadiyat Island in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi

It is Grand Prix weekend in Abu Dhabi City and the gods of motorsport have smiled on one of Formula 1’s newest circuits. The thrilling last race of the season sees the drivers’ championship wide open. But, as is so often the way in modern sport, there is an air of anticlimax in the German driver Sebastian Vettel’s eventual victory, the race failing to live up to the preposterous hype around it. The unequivocal winner of the weekend is the striking and audacious Yas Marina circuit itself, hosting the Formula 1 circus for only the second year and once more impressing with its spectacular backdrop, gleaming facilities. and immaculate organization.

The Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, to give it its full name, is one of a number of glitzy international events that have been brought to the United Arab Emirate capital to raise its global profile. Next door to the Yas Marina circuit is another crowd- and money-spinner: Ferrari World, an homage to the Italian racing car marque, the world’s largest indoor theme park and home of “Formula Rossa,” a new roller-coaster ride that slings you to a speed of 100 kilometers per hour in less than two seconds.

There is no more-telling metaphor of this country’s intent than this dizzying and extravagant ride (its hydraulic winch system has been borrowed from jet-plane launch technology). Abu Dhabi is a country that is not so much embracing as hurtling toward the future. A place that loped to the stately rhythms of the desert and that depended on fishing and pearl-diving half a century ago has, since the discovery of oil in 1958, become a hothouse of economic planning and futuristic thinking. Today, it is the largest and wealthiest of the Emirates, a curious mix of beaches, skyscrapers and desert reflecting both its origins and future orientation.

Talk to some of its leading figures about their 20- and 30-year master plans, projected growth figures, and forthcoming educational and scientific initiatives, and you feel something like the G-force of that 0-100-kph race toward the first dip of Formula Rossa, and similar questions pop into your head: Is it really possible to go this fast? And what happens if we go flying off? But it is precisely to secure its growing international reputation, as a society on the move, that Abu Dhabi has looked beyond the attractions of sport, leisure, and shopping, and begun to address itself to something more sophisticated and more enduring: culture.

Look west across a scattering of islands from Yas Marina and you will see a larger, triangular land mass, a 27-square-kilometer sanctuary just 500 meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi City. This is Saadiyat Island (“Island of Happiness”), a nondescript patch of land that is currently a mixture of building sites and unremarkable low-rise housing, but that in the next few years will oversee the single most important development in world culture.

The western corner of Saadiyat Island has been designated as Abu Dhabi’s cultural district. That almost understated description belies the ambition behind the project. This is a cultural district like no other. Over the next five years, Saadiyat’s skyline will be transformed by a succession of hugely prestigious landmarks, piloted by some of the world’s leading architects: a Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry; the Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Jean Nouvel; a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid; the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster; and a Maritime Museum by the Japanese master Tadao Ando.

It will be the world’s largest single concentration of cultural institutions of this caliber. This is a country that is becoming used to making statements through superlatives and records. It is hoping to attract millions of visitors who will help support an economy that is, some would say, dangerously dependent on just one source, its oil revenue (pessimists predict a fall in the region’s oil production within 15 to 20 years).

The Saadiyat development, estimated at $27 billion, will also include luxury resorts, golf and beach clubs, and a nature reserve. It wears its fashionable multi-use label with no little impunity, and is not proceeding without controversy: The issue of the abuse of migrant workers from South Asia was raised by a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch that put ironic quotation marks around the “Island of Happiness” project. The UAE government responded that the report had not acknowledged improving worker rights and conditions.

But Saadiyat is more than a tourist initiative. The implications of its successful development are potentially more profound than that. The cultural district project aims to redefine and reposition Abu Dhabi’s place in the world, and it will also force us to think in a new way about the Middle East. Can a region that has become a watchword, in Western circles, for intransigent problems and violence once more become an energizing cultural force?

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I meet Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), in a VIP box overlooking the Yas Marina circuit, just a couple of hours before the start of the Grand Prix. There are engines revving up a storm on the circuit and it is hard to pick up Sheikh Sultan’s answers to my questions, delivered in softly spoken, fluent English (he holds an MA in economics from Tufts University in Boston).

Sheikh Sultan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, is the driving force behind the cultural initiatives in Saadiyat, for which he has received a cultural leadership award from the American Federation of Arts, as well as being appointed a commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. The world is watching his experiment carefully. He sees his commitment to the arts as a vital, rather than marginal, force in shaping the future of Abu Dhabi. “Artists,” he says, “are often the first people in a society to anticipate future trends.”

He explains that the museums quarter in Saadiyat is only “part of a bigger story” that aims to make Abu Dhabi a cultural hub in the world. Each museum will have its own specific role: The Guggenheim will examine Arabian, Islamic, and other Middle Eastern art in the context of the major developments of the past 100 years; the Louvre will be a world museum, borrowing prestigious pieces from its “parent” museum in Paris (which will receive a reported $1.3 billion in return for its largesse, not to mention its name). The Zayed National Museum, named after Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan, former ruler of Abu Dhabi and founding father of the Emirates, will tell the story of the UAE.

I put to Sheikh Sultan the most commonly expressed skeptical view of the Saadiyat project: How can a small albeit wealthy Islamic country, governed by dynastic succession, that prides itself on order and stability, become a genuine center for artistic freedom and creativity? Art has a way of becoming a focus for dissent and destabilization, I say. Culture can be a very awkward proposition.

He is unfazed. “This is the challenging aspect of art,” he replies. “It can change the way you think from time to time. We do not have a problem with that. We believe this challenge is a way to inspire innovation. This is proven.” He draws attention, in response to critics who anticipate censorship issues, to an exhibition of works by Picasso shown in Manarat Al Saadiyat, the island’s visitor and exhibition center, which is already up and running. The works, borrowed from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, included some of that artist’s characteristically erotically charged creations.

The center recently showed works from the collection of the world’s top art dealer Larry Gagosian in a classy exhibition titled “RSTW” after the featured artists Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol (that unattractive title shows that marketing is perhaps not yet Saadiyat’s strong point). I attended the show on a Friday morning, the Islamic day of rest, and it confirmed the worst suspicions of skeptics over the level of indigenous interest in Western contemporary art: It was virtually empty.

Rita Aoun-Abdo is TDIC’s cultural director, and is sanguine when I raise the issue of the missing crowds. She emphasizes that the country is, in terms of cultural consciousness, at the beginning of a steep learning curve. The first exhibitions held in Abu Dhabi City attracted about 75 people a day; the most recent edition of the Abu Dhabi art fair pulled in 17,000 viewers. “That is a lot,” she says. “We only started on this path five years ago. The growth in audience interest is amazing.”

Whereas Western audiences are accustomed to using Sunday mornings as a time to catch up with culture, in Islamic societies, Friday mornings are for prayers. The establishment of a museum culture in Abu Dhabi “will question the very notion of what a museum is—a public space, a civic space?”  Expatriates too need to change their habits. “You very rarely see a CEO at a cultural event. They are in this country for commercial reasons, and congregate in business spaces. There needs to be a shift in the way all the people here live.”

Aoun-Abdo, a Lebanese who arrived in Abu Dhabi five years ago, also stresses the educational role of Saadiyat’s projects. “A cultural district not only provides a world-class destination. It goes beyond that. It is to foster a culture of art.” Even if that culture begins to engage with uncomfortable themes—the role of women in society, gay rights, democracy? Aoun-Abdo echoes Sheikh Sultan’s embracing of the forthcoming challenges, and issues one of her own: “The last thing Abu Dhabi wants is to build replicas of western institutions. What we have here is the creation of a new model that is able to connect different civilizations.” The new museums also need to play their part in “sustaining the heritage of the local environment. If not, they will not be credible.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has proved the most controversial of the Saadiyat projects, provoking vivid protests among dissenters in France who were dismayed to see the distinguished museum’s brand sold to the highest bidder. Aoun-Abdo says the criticism was based on “misinformation,” bridling when she hears references to Abu Dhabi’s “branch” of the Louvre. “That is totally wrong,” she says animatedly. “It is the Louvre Abu Dhabi. How can we have a branch of the Louvre, today in the 21st century?” Her vehemence reflects local sensitivities to what may look like a culturally colonial arrangement. Today, she adds, many of those vociferous critics have come round to Saadiyat. “They can see the richness of the project. But it is our responsibility to continue to explain it.” The loan of the “Louvre” name is for 30 years, and is renewable.

As for the notion of Abu Dhabi being able to contain the sharper provocations of contemporary art, she takes a broader view of the subject. “There are so many notions of art that are set in stone, and need to be reviewed.” In the West, she says, contemporary art is seen as the last point of a timeline that includes the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and modernism. The displays at Saadiyat will, to some extent, feel liberated from those art historical strictures. “They will ask fresh questions of museum aesthetics, of what the contemporary means—and of the notion of the Middle East itself.”

The efforts to use culture to help redefine Abu Dhabi’s identity are not unnoticed by the country’s fellow Emirate states. Qatar, famously victorious in its bid to stage the first-ever air-conditioned World Cup in 2022, is following a similar path to Abu Dhabi, with the building of its own National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel, I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art, and the newly opened “Mathaf,” the Arab Museum of Modern Art. There is naturally a spirit of competitiveness between the two Emirates, but it is relatively well-disguised, both countries preferring to concentrate on the complementary nature of their initiatives.

The Emirates were founded as a federation under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed in 1971, and it is the museum bearing his name on Saadiyat Island that is in many ways the most interesting project of them all. The Zayed National Museum’s spectacular fan-shaped design by Norman Foster, referencing the feathers of a falcon’s wing in homage to a favorite local pastime, was unveiled during the queen’s visit to Abu Dhabi last November. Here is where the Emirati capital will display and explore its own identity through its history and traditions. There is more Western support for this project, in the form of a consultancy role for the British Museum. Under its charismatic director Neil MacGregor, the BM has been developing bilateral links and organizing loans with foreign museums.

Justin Morris, the BM’s head of strategic planning, said the link with the Zayed was strongly encouraged by the British government. “Although we are at arm’s length from the government, it has a significant role to play in developing such relationships— and it was very proactive in this case,” he tells me in his office in Bloomsbury. He says the last thing on either country’s mind was to establish a form of “outpost” in Abu Dhabi. “But we wanted to offer our services, they wanted an internationally credible museum.” He declines to disclose the fee for the museum’s services.

Morris says that the legacy of Sheikh Zayed is central to the museum that bears his name. “He is not particularly well-known internationally, but he was clearly an incredible man, full of real foresight and wisdom. That is why he is considered the father of the nation. He led and changed everything. And that is a big story to tell.”

Eschewing the cynicism that sees Saadiyat as an overblown vanity project, Morris emphasizes the long view: “There is a rich and fascinating history here. In the third millennium B.C., the [Persian] Gulf played a significant role in the trading process. Sheikh Zayed was keen to understand more about that long history and encouraged archaeologists to come to the UAE.”

When I ask him about the potentially subversive effects of opening what is still a fairly closed society to the unpredictable influence of cultural stimulus, he too underplays the tensions involved. “I think it is widely recognized that the museum is a device for developing civic society. And they have certainly talked to us about wanting to encourage debate and dialogue.”

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In response to the region’s growing interest in culture, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been active in selling art there. The most recent auction, held in Doha, was Sotheby’s “Hurouf: The Art of the Word” sale held in mid-December. It consisted entirely of work inspired by calligraphy, and raised $5.6 million, above its high estimate. That is a trifling sum compared with the headline-grabbing auctions of Western art, barely capable of buying the hind quarter of a Hirstian cow, but among the encouraging figures was the proportion of buyers—32 percent—who were new to the auction house.

Edward Gibbs, director of the Middle East department and worldwide head of Islamic art at Sotheby’s, says the works in the auction were the opposite of the shocking statements that accompany the wilder excesses of Western contemporary art, tailored to local tastes and sensibilities. He says the increased emphasis on culture in the region has been “astonishing” to watch since the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004. “The baton has passed to a younger generation, who have been educated abroad and are cosmopolitan, switched on, smart.

“There is a huge amount of talent in the Muslim world that is begging to be seen and heard and recognized. And Middle Eastern contemporary art has certainly found its feet in recent years.” He describes the clusters of Emirati women who have been active in leading the cultural charge as an “interesting group to watch. They have traditionally not been involved in business matters, but are [now] at the forefront of artistic patronage.” They include Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan al-Nahyan, wife of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed, and Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Gibbs says that the Saadiyat development is something that goes beyond attracting more tourists, or even helping Abu Dhabi come to terms with its own history. He sees it as nothing less than a harbinger of an important geopolitical shift. When I express my doubts that culturally jaded Westerners will be attracted by Saadiyat as a holiday destination, he replies: “But it is not for us. It is for people from the Middle East, and Indians, and Chinese, and Russians. They are not trying to attract American tourists. They are looking ahead, and the future is Asia, whether you like it or not. And the Asians will come in their millions.”

Gibbs talks of the ancient staging posts of the Silk Road, “the great cities like Palmyra and Nishapur, that died and collapsed back into the sand. Well these are the new staging posts—Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai. People love to sneer at it, but I think it’s fantastic.”

Morris also sees more profound motives behind Saadiyat than is commonly supposed. “They could easily have spent all the revenue generated by oil, and done little else. But I have been particularly impressed, not only by their long-term vision, but also their lateral thinking.” In asking questions of their own history and traditions, he says, and in studying them in a genuinely global and starry context, the rulers of Abu Dhabi may yet be preparing for a more demanding role. “You have to wonder about the extent to which they want to participate in the wider politics of the region. When you scratch beneath the surface, it is indicative of the direction they are taking.”

So Saadiyat Island could become the ultimate test, not only of a group of well-wishing art lovers who want to raise the profile of their native country, but of the power of culture itself, to change lives, to transform societies, and to foster peace and greater mutual understanding. The stakes are that high. Watch this fast-moving space.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.