Summer 2013 | ArteZine

Risks and Returns of the High Culture Gamble in the UAE


Abu Dhabi has worked frenetically to establish itself as a world class centre for the fine arts.  From the much-touted museums to the international film festival, from a classical music series to literary awards, from the architectural experimentation to major international exhibits and auctions of art, Abu Dhabi appears to be wholly committed to becoming a major player on the globalized fine arts scene.  What is to be gained and at what costs and sacrifices?  This essay explores the rationale behind this cultural boom and wonders about both the risks and benefits of this concerted—and hugely costly—endeavor.

When the richest city in the world(1)  decides to become a player on the global art scene, there is bound to be excitement in many quarters.  In a concerted effort, the government of Abu Dhabi has committed to “branding”(2)  the city as a hub for high culture of every variety: visual arts, literature, music, and everything related to the sister arts (and their cousins) are finding massive patronage in this small but ambitious Gulf state.  As a model for aspiring globalized cities, Abu Dhabi is indeed breaking new ground, both physically and intellectually.  Of particular note is the intertwining of support for the arts with goals for sustainable economic growth and (eventual) commercial viability.  If successful in Abu Dhabi, promotion of the fine arts could become a necessary component of any aspiring “world class” city’s development scheme, much as hosting a major international sporting event or having a stock exchange are boxes to tick on the road to attaining global recognition.  My question remains, what is the object of the exercise in Abu Dhabi?  At best, the various lines of funding amount to an enormous seed grant bestowed to nurture the arts and to build a society that routinely engages a universe of creative expression.  At worst, it is a cynical attempt to enhance Abu Dhabi’s image as a high-end, luxury product.

Perhaps a brief bit of background will help to set the scene.  The United Arab Emirates only formally achieved its current nationhood in 1972, as a union of seven semi-autonomous Emirates (states) under a federal superstructure.  Each Emirate revolves around its eponymous principle city.  While several of the Emirates–Dubai is the obvious example–are in fact large city-states, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi remains the largest in terms of landmass and in terms of oil reserves.  There is no doubt that Abu Dhabi is politically and fiscally dominant.  Until late 2004, Abu Dhabi remained contentedly in the shadows of its brash and freewheeling neighbor, Dubai.  Less than two hours by car apart, these two cities were conceived and evolved as different faces of a rapidly developing nation.  Abu Dhabi was conservative and confident of a future guaranteed by its oil reserves; Dubai was hungry to claim a place in the world through entrepreneurial spirit and shrewd commercialization.  Dubai did a remarkable job of building associations with its name: modern, luxurious, progressive, and committed to consumerism as an extreme sport.  But Abu Dhabi, the Emirate, with its island capital city (also called Abu Dhabi), has been roused from its slumber and has embarked upon a manic reinvention of itself as the rightful first city of the nation.  More than simply outspending Dubai in a sort of sibling rivalry, Abu Dhabi has fundamentally questioned the way in which young cities cultivate a civic identity, and has designed a new model for development. At the heart of this scheme is a seemingly unshakable dedication to Government sponsorship of the arts.

With a highly sophisticated public relations machine, and vast sums of money behind it, Abu Dhabi has embarked upon dozens of Government-funded initiatives that have caught the world’s attention.  Hardly a week passes without unveiling some new project.  The Saadiyat Island project (3), with its Louvre and Guggenheim museums, may be the most well known, but the Art Paris (4)  exhibition, the Abu Dhabi Classics (5)  music series, the Middle East International Film Festival (6), the Kalima translation project (7) , the Prince of Poets (8)  programme, the “Poet of the Million” (9) (sic) competition, and numerous other high-profile initiatives have begun injecting high culture into the UAE.  At every turn, there seems to be a premium placed on famous names: Picasso was the first art exhibition, Gehry is heading the architectural team for the Guggenheim, Zubin Mehta is our “conductor in residence,” Hollywood stars aplenty are trotted out to attest to the glories of Abu Dhabi.  All told, these projects represent a truly vast investment in the arts, particularly since in many cases they will be housed in purpose-built facilities or presented existing spaces like the lavish Emirates Palace Hotel (10) . Yet I have to wonder what all of this frenetic activity is supposed to achieve and whom these events are supposed to serve.

As a long-term resident of Abu Dhabi, I am delighted at all of these new opportunities to quench my thirst for the arts, but I sincerely doubt that the overall objective of these projects is to add richness to the lives of expatriates.  Bear in mind, however, that the citizenry—namely UAE locals—amounts to no more than 20% of the overall population (11).  The estimates vary considerably, but anecdotally and by observation, citizens are a decided minority, and there is much in the press and in casual conversation that suggests they often feel overwhelmed with foreigners and alienated in their own society.  By various official and semi-official accounts, the objective is to provide an array of opportunities to the local population of citizens in an attempt to enhance their exposure to many forms of creative expression.  One example of the lofty, media-savvy verbiage will suffice: Art Paris’ stated objective is “to foster dialogue between all cultures through economic and cultural exchange.” (12)  Doubtless these stated goals are worthy and commendable.

One obvious question springs to my mind: does the importation of non-indigenous art forms not contribute to these feelings of alienation?  The subtext of the gung-ho promotion of global art may be to denigrate the perceived value of local or regional production.  Already there is much consternation at the lack of Arabic in use in the UAE and the (alleged) diminution of traditional cultural practices.  I respect these concerns, but I would hope that indigenous cultural identity is strong enough to withstand incidental and occasional exposure to great examples of art, music, and literature that happen to have been produced in other cultures.  Furthermore, huge efforts are made to make these cultural events accessible to locals and foreigners alike: programs and guides in both Arabic and English, promotion in a variety of media, and assorted accommodations to the needs of the local population.  Nonetheless, I am often struck by the obvious lack of large numbers of locals at concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and events. (13) To be sure, there are some Emiratis who do attend, avidly and with enthusiasm, and others who obviously are curious and want to see what all the fuss is about.  But these individuals are the exception rather than the rule.

The vision is grand and idealistic, and the various Government agencies that are working very hard to make this renaissance occur deserve serious, earnest praise.  As noted by Haupt and Binder, the ostensible goals avowed by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) are nothing short of utopian: to use the fine arts to build bridges between West and East, to balance between the traditional and the (post)modern, and to position the Emirati society at the center of a new universal humanism. (14)   Having seen, over the last ten years, the way impossible visions become reality in the UAE, I can only marvel at such grand dreams and wonder if maybe they can succeed.  The return on the investment would be enormous: a society populated with residents absolutely at ease with different expressions of identity or beauty, comfortable with highbrow as well as folk art, and able to balance between the region’s rich heritage and offerings from afar.  Surely creating such a citizenry would handily position UAE to take a leading role in the region, if not the world.  In this light, the ambitions of Abu Dhabi seem noble and practically revolutionary.  What leader would not be willing to risk a small piece of his fiscal pie for such an outcome?

Like most truly bold initiatives, if it fails there is much more than squandered billions at risk.  In these times of global economic difficulties, the UAE may be largely insulated, but there can be no doubt that the greed endemic to the banking and real estate industries in the U.S. and Europe is also present in the Gulf.  The gap between the hugely wealthy and the so-called middle class is yawning cavernously.  Housing prices and rents have risen astronomically in the past five years, and double-digit inflation across the board has pinched many budgets.  It is hard to justify bringing entire ballet troupes from Russia when a portion of the citizenry, which feels entitled to cradle to grave safety nets, is sinking into debt.  In the worst cases, such incongruity leads to real dissatisfaction with the Government.  Fortunately there are resources aplenty, and any large-scale political dissent is a long way off.  Nonetheless, I hear genuine consternation voiced by some locals regarding the setting of priorities.  They read the mind-boggling figures in the newspapers and see the photos of events in the tabloids and wonder why their government is devoting so much to the benefit of so few of the citizens.

The real risk remains an outright rejection of the fine arts in general.  With up to fifty percent of the citizenry under 20 years of age (15) , this is a very young society.  Even in the most cultured of cities in the world, attendance and commitment to the fine arts among the younger members of the community is often lacking.  With competition aplenty from globalized popular culture—and the appealing technologies that often accompany it—the so-called highbrow arts may be shunned by the young people who are the genuine target audience.  By actively avoiding these events, a pattern of behavior is established and attitudes are formed: the fine arts are not for “us” but for “them”.  This binary distinction is made more dangerous by the conflation of “them” with middle-aged, largely Western guest workers who have both the financial means and the disposition to support the fine arts.  Should this wholesale disdain for internationally recognized high culture continue, my fear is that the funding will evaporate and another renaissance will have been aborted.

In cities across the globe, art in the public sphere is buoyed by established education systems and practices.  Ideally, we learn to appreciate the fine arts at school, at a very young and impressionable age.  I see scant evidence of art, music, and literature playing a major role in the primary educational curricula, and a positive dearth of the humanities on offer at the universities in the UAE.  While some disciplines—like film making and graphic design—are garnering some students, the educational system is mostly leaving students to fend for themselves by acquiring an interest in the fine arts on their own time at their own initiative.  Is it any wonder that few students choose to attend these cultural events, particularly if their parents or role models show decided disinterest?  Missing the opportunities to cultivate interests in art, music, and literature at a young age may be the biggest hurdle for arts promotion to overcome, yet I hear little talk that suggests that the problem is even acknowledged.

Already in these early days, I can see many points where the whole scheme is failing to connect with its target audience.  One of the possible explanations is that the conceptions of public space and community events are culturally constrained in the Gulf.  Lives are compartmentalized in ways that are starkly different from those in pluralistic societies around the world.  Few opportunities exist for residents from all walks of life to be in the same place at the same time, save perhaps in cars or in malls—neither one being conducive to collective identity or civic pride.  Sadly, informal interactions outside of ethnic or language clusters are often limited.  Promoting and advertising events has proven to be ferociously difficult; it seems easier to inform the world of major developments than to alert the community to the precise details of an upcoming event.  Cultural attitudes towards time and timeliness cause additional complications as events rarely start on time.  The lack of a public transportation system, the dearth of taxis, and the recent advent of impossible congestion on the roads further diminishes the willingness of many to venture out to cultural events.  At the end of the day, in spite of world-class events being held on a regular basis, I see little evidence that many who are not intensely keen culture vultures are availingthemselves of the wealth of opportunities on offer.  Is it any wonder that few of the young locals, the core target audience of these events, cannot be bothered to attend?

I begin to worry that the goals are more spin than objectives that are measurable and assessable.  This leads me to a fear that much of the impetus behind promotion of the arts is for the sake of brand-value.  The association between high culture and wealth is close and long-standing; aesthetic value and monetary value are conflated in many contexts.  One only has to think of advertisements of luxury products for an example: classical music and opera are default soundtracks in advertisements for exclusive products.  In the same way, individuals in various cultures use the fine arts to proclaim—truthfully or not–their status: owning original art announces one’s disposable income and rows of “serious” books—read or unread—suggest an active life of the mind.  In many ways, high culture is often used as an accessory to suggest values one wishes to project.  Perhaps the same is true in the UAE.  For a city that wishes to announce that it “has arrived” on the world’s stage, brand names like the Louvre and the Guggenheim are hard to beat.  When coupled with “brand name” architects like Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, the projects on Saadiyat Island are even more impressive.  Yet little discussion is devoted to just what these museums will house, and who gets to decide what is relevant, pertinent, or even appropriate in this context.  Similarly, the Kalima translation project began with a mandate to translate 500 of the worlds great books into Arabic.  Doubtless this project is of value and serves a clear need, but is the reading public of the Middle East likely to read with relish the writings of Umberto Eco, Jurgen Habermas, Stephen Hawking, or Haruki Murakami (four of the first authors they have translated)?  Withso much emphasis placed on appearances and the obvious desire to look impressive, will these cultural initiatives really serve the needs of the public?

I suppose on one level it really does not matter–art patronage often moves in cycles of boom or bust.  When the times are good, the arts behave like global businesses: they seek viable markets.  Yet as one who has chosen to devote a decade of his life to this country, I have high hopes for its ability to counterbalance the unabashed negativity that is often reflected in the media.  The ingredients are here for a humanistic rebirth worthy of the name Renaissance, and at very senior levels there is a willingness to devote significant resources to nurturing this development.  But, as anyone who has worked for the UN is quick to point out, goodwill and a pot of money are not enough to cause real and lasting change.  As with so many aspects of life in the Gulf, the ideal and the real, the theory and the practice, are miles apart and walking in opposite directions.


Strong Connection: The new Sheikh Zayed bridge will open near the current link to Abu Dhabi,

the 1970s-era Maqta bridge. Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.


The Maritime Museum. Image courtesy of Tadao Ando Architects.


Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre. Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.



Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi. Images courtesy of Ateliers Jean Nouvel




(1) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/03/19/8402357/index.htm

(2) http://brand.abudhabi.ae/Sites/OBAD/Navigation/EN/media-centre,did=90286.html

(3) http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2007/saadiyat_cultural_district/projects/saadiyat_island

(4) http://www.artparis-abudhabi.com/index_uk.php

(5) http://www.abudhabi-classics.com/adc/editorial/show.action?channel=23&request_locale=en

(6) http://www.adach.ae/featured-projects/middle-east-international-film-festival/en/

(7)The web page is currently under construction (www.kalima.ae).  It was initially launched as a project to translate hundreds of works of fiction and nonfiction from around the world into Arabic.  The first nine volumes have already been released.

(8) http://www.adach.ae/adach/press-center/news/en/18-08-2008.php

(9) http://www.adach.ae/featured-projects/poet-of-the-million/en/

(10) http://emiratespalace-px.trvlclick.com/en/home/index.htm

(11) http://www.uaeinteract.com/docs/Expat_growth_widens_UAE_demographic_gap__/32128.htm

(12) http://www.artparis-abudhabi.com/index_uk.php

(13) While it may seem impossible to judge who is a citizen and who is not, in the UAE the local population overwhelmingly wears distinctive national clothing and is clearly distinguishable.

(14) Haupt & Binder, “Culture Boom in Abu Dhabi”  http://universes-inuniverse.org/eng/nafas/articles/2007/abu_dhabi_culture_boom

(15) http://www.bi-me.com/main.php?id=5093&t=1&c=43&cg=5&mset=1011

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