Da Vinci in the Desert

Abu Dhabi’s new Louvre is a glimpse of our curated urban future, in which no one sees what the state doesn’t want you to see.

Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum
Women walking outside the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Nov. 11.

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

The Louvre Abu Dhabi sits on one corner of an island called Saadiyat, a large triangle of desert joined to the capital of the United Arab Emirates by a bridge.* Scattered in the sand on Saadiyat Island are a handful of other upscale developments: a golf course, a Park Hyatt and a St. Regis, scores of suburban-style villas, and a campus of New York University. Soon to come is an outpost of the Guggenheim, whose Frank Gehry–designed building—10 times the size of the Frank Lloyd Wright building in Manhattan—is currently just a hole in the earth. The architects Tadao Ando and the late Zaha Hadid have also designed a museum and arts center for the site, respectively, that have yet to break ground but will buttress the Louvre in a new Cultural District.

At the southern tip of the island is the Saadiyat Accommodation Village, a minicity that houses the thousands of migrant laborers who work on the island’s prestigious projects. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, workers on Saadiyat Island faced rampant wage theft, were subject to arrest or deportation for striking, and had their passports held by employers.

The opening earlier this month of the Louvre, by all accounts a rapturous achievement by the French architect Jean Nouvel, proves the Emirate is serious about creating this city-within-a-city anchored by Western institutions and seems to offer further evidence that those institutions can easily adapt to life in a police state. Saadiyat Island is a little glimpse of the highly curated urban future, in which a city—or at least the part that tourists, business travelers, and well-off locals see—shows exactly what the state wants you to see and nothing more.

Singapore pioneered and perfected this model, with a weird mix of high-class fun laced with fear that William Gibson, back in 1993, memorably labeled “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Multinational corporations were always open to the compromise. Now, on Saadiyat Island, museums and universities are too.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a franchise of sorts: It shares its name, some of its art, and some of its management with the famous museum in Paris. The building consists of white blocks linked by open corridors, forming what Nouvel has likened to a medina, the traditional center of an Arab city. Atop this complex is a giant, shallow dome of metal lattice, whose diameter spans nearly two football fields. It sprinkles the open parts of the interior with sunlight during the day and glows like a magic lantern at night. “Mesmerizing,” writes the Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright. “You feel transported to another realm.”

When the deal was announced 10 years ago, just before the crash, the Louvre argued that Abu Dhabi was reclaiming its role as a Silk Road crossroads. Hardly: Abu Dhabi is no older than the Louvre in Paris. But Abu Dhabi did transfer nearly $1.4 billion to France for three decades of naming rights, consulting, and artwork loans—$525 million for the name alone, and another $750 million for the services and appearance of more than 300 works, including Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps. French institutions are using the money to pay for renovations, some of which will bear the name of the Emirates’ late president.

In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote runs down the gushing assertions that accompanied the opening:

Its French director, Manuel Rabaté, calls [it] “the first universal museum of the Arab world”. It carries, he says, a “message of openness, of fraternité humaine”. There were other grand claims among the opening speeches, including that of Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Paris Louvre, calling Abu Dhabi’s “the most ambitious cultural project of the early 21st century”. Mohamed Al-Mubarak, chairman of the Emirate’s tourism and culture authority, claimed that “every single person in the world” will find their culture represented here.

It’s an ostentatious display of soft power by both France, seeking to maintain its position as the guardian of global culture, and the UAE, which has proclaimed itself the bulwark of tolerance in the Middle East. Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the UAE minister of state, told the New York Times that the museum serves the Emirates’ larger aim of countering the influence of radical groups that have “kidnapped Islam.” It is hard not to think of the new museum as a bright counterpoint to the systematic destruction of ancient sites undertaken by ISIS in Syria. French ministers made that contrast more explicit.

The Gulf states have paid handsomely for this kind of recognition from Western institutions, which have been happy to indulge the trade-offs. Qatar appears to have bribed its way to securing the 2022 World Cup, a formidable achievement for a tiny country that’s remarkably uncongenial to both watching and playing football: Public drunkenness is outlawed, and summer high temperatures average over 100 degrees. But nothing conveys supra-state legitimacy like great art. In an excellent 2015 story for Even magazine, Kanishk Tharoor laid out the philosophical underpinnings of the Emirates’ hunt for art-world prestige. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, he surmised,

will try to conjure the experience of belonging not to a nation-state or even a civilization, but to the world. There is a wonder to the prospect of being able to flit from, say, Han dynasty pottery to the statuary of Mesoamerica to funerary reliefs from Sidon. That experience may well produce the kind of “secular cosmopolitan space” craved by proponents of universal museums. But there is a clear irony: this post-national presentation is being paid for and masterminded by a government using art as an instrument of national power, and the bourgeois values of liberty and individualism are nowhere to be found in autocratic Abu Dhabi.

The point is more broadly true: The Asian colonies of Western institutions, from Gulf museums to Yale’s Singaporean satellite, Yale-NUS College, are riddled with ironies and contradictions that make them difficult to defend but also challenging to condemn outright. In the case of the Louvre, the collaboration has thrived so far because no one has pushed the boundaries. There has not been a piece like Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung, exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, that caused New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to threaten to seize control of the museum. (The museum filed a lawsuit against Giuliani and won.) French officials have repeatedly said there were no restrictions on the art in the collection, but the Associated Press noted a “relative absence of pieces depicting nudity.” The subversive currents in Ai Weiwei’s Fountain of Light, to take one new piece, aren’t obvious. The crystal-draped structure is modeled after Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third International but could easily be mistaken for a water feature at a hotel bar.

“I had to have the content reviewed, but no one said no,” the American artist Jenny Holzer told the Times about her contribution, a trio of stone walls engraved with historic texts. Antje Stahl, writing in Zurich’s daily paper, criticized Holzer for shying away from the controversy. Few female artists are represented here, she wrote. Few female representatives from the UAE joined French first lady Brigitte Macron for the opening; instead, the female relatives of Emirati VIPs arrived on Day 4 for a private, closed viewing.

Many of these friction points are big-picture political issues over free speech and political dissent, over the rights of women and of workers. But it seems likely they will play out on the beachheads of Western institutions nominally committed to those ideas, in the museum and the university. In a city of private spaces, they provide the closest thing to a town square.

Two weeks ago, a pair of journalists from the Swiss broadcaster RTS reporting on the migrant workers who built the Louvre Abu Dhabi were detained for more than two days and denied contact with the outside world. They were blindfolded and subject to interrogation sessions that could last more than 10 hours, released only after signing ambiguous confession forms, and permitted to return to Switzerland without their confiscated cameras and memory drives. “All we wanted to do was put the opening of the Louvre in a wider context,” one of the journalists, Serge Enderlin, told Al Jazeera.

So far institutions like NYU and the new Louvre have kept that wider context just outside the frame. But the RTS incident isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time that their values butt up against the despotic rule of their new home. No doubt their role in Abu Dhabi is more complex than their equivalents in New York and Paris. But the Louvre in Paris was born as a revolutionary idea, a palace seized in 1791 to bring art, in all its beauty and discomfort, to the public.

These institutions are intended to bolster the UAE’s reputation as a tolerant global hub. If they really stand for the open exchange of ideas they represent for outsiders, they ought to speak up. Art and coursework are just the beginning.

Correction, Nov. 30, 2017: This post originally stated that Saadiyat is joined to Abu Dhabi by a causeway. It is joined by a bridge. (Return.)