When they are finally completed, both the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be almost entirely surrounded by water. Perched on the eastern rim of Saadiyat Island – a monumental £18bn complex that seeks to turn the capital of the United Arab Emirates into a global cultural hub – they will look like fantastical chrome-and-glass atolls, constructions that could have dropped from space to dock on Abu Dhabi’s shores. Like all statements of power, they suggest an imperviousness to misfortune elsewhere, floating serenely above the threat of climate change and rising sea levels. Nothing captures the strange ambition of these museums better than their location on the edge of Abu Dhabi, tenuously attached to the mainland by textured steel.
Saadiyat Island promises to be a highbrow and high-rolling amusement park, a place to park your yacht or toddle from green to green in close proximity to some of the world’s most celebrated art. Its additional frills are a performance space designed by Zaha Hadid, a marina, a golf course, exclusive villas and luxury hotels.
The sums involved are significant by any measure. In 2007, Abu Dhabi signed a deal with French officials worth over £663m to buy the use of the Louvre’s name, to construct the Jean Nouvel-designed building that will house the art, and to facilitate special exhibitions and cultural loans from French institutions. The museum is scheduled to open next year. The Louvre branding itself is worth over half the value of the total: £344m for a period of 30 years.
A similarly gargantuan sum was promised to the Guggenheim, which will open its outpost in Abu Dhabi in 2017 or later (the project has been much delayed). Curators have been granted a £400m budget for new acquisitions, while the museum designed by Frank Gehry – a medieval jumble of cones and impossible angles – will cost £530m to build. It will be 12 times as large as the Guggenheim in Manhattan.
More so than other bastions of oil wealth in the Gulf, Abu Dhabi has resolutely sought the cachet of western institutions to boost its international profile. This is most evident in the world of sports. In 2008, Abu Dhabi acquired the football club Manchester City. It has since spent close to £1bn on turning the club into a superpower of the world’s most popular sporting league. Manchester City’s ground is now known as the Etihad Stadium, part of a sponsorship deal with Abu Dhabi’s luxury-besotted airline. The club’s Etihad-emblazoned jerseys can be found in shops from Manchester to Mumbai. More recently, Abu Dhabi partnered with the New York Yankees to plonk an Etihad-branded soccer team in the Big Apple.
The ties to New York do not end there. Development on Saadiyat Island includes a lavishly funded and controversial campus of New York University, which aims to become one of the premier academic centres in the region, granting the same degrees to Gulf students as it does to New Yorkers. Abu Dhabi has shouldered the expense of building the new campus, the construction of which is now complete. Abu Dhabi is also paying the salaries of the professors brought to teach there, and even subsidising students’ tuition. (Neither NYU nor Emirati officials have revealed the full cost of the project, but Abu Dhabi paid an initial £33m merely to secure NYU’s interest.) Its students and professors will inhabit a so-called “cultural free zone,” opening a tiny redoubt of liberal norms of academic free speech in an otherwise illiberal country. At least allegedly. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on limitations to academic freedom in the UAE, as well as the horrific living conditions of the workers building the campus. Once back in New York, the reporter found herself hounded by a private investigator, tasked with discrediting her.
Ostensibly, the goal of all this extraordinary expenditure is to transcend oil. The various galleries and institutions on Saadiyat Island hope to recast Abu Dhabi as a centre for fine arts and learning. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al‑Nahyan said at a summit earlier this year, “Maybe in 50 years, we might have the last barrel of oil. The question is: will we be sad? If today we are investing in the right sectors, we will celebrate that moment.”
But why, specifically, have the Louvre and Guggenheim landed in Abu Dhabi? Who are the Guggenheim and Louvre actually for? Who will benefit from Saadiyat Island? Critics of the UAE’s poor treatment of migrant labourers argue that these museums conceal the repressive conditions of their construction. In this view, Saadiyat Island is a shop window for a society that does not exist. Can culture cross borders as easily – and with the same impunity – as capital? Saadiyat Island proposes that global museums are like fibre cables, functional infrastructure that can spread over physical geography heedless of human geography.
* * *
Announcing its deal with Abu Dhabi in 2007, the Louvre justified the move by pointing to the city’s historical and modern cosmopolitanism. A statement on the Louvre website claims that the museum’s “universal approach suits Abu Dhabi well, reflecting the city’s position at the crossroads of east and west, and its vital ancient role in the days of the Silk Route”. This is a rather bald exaggeration. While the wider Gulf region has always sat on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, Abu Dhabi itself did not exist in any form until 1791, when the nomadic Bani Yas tribe pitched their tents around a spring. As many writers have noted, Abu Dhabi is itself only as old as the Louvre Museum. In 1791, just as the Bani Yas Bedouin were setting down, the revolutionary National Assembly in Paris decreed that the royal palace should become a public gallery, which opened two years later, at the height of the Reign of Terror.
When oil was discovered in the region in the 1950s, fewer than 100,000 people lived in the Emirates, which were then still a British protectorate. Now the population of the UAE is 9.35 million: a little smaller than Paris and its environs. Though small, the cities and states of the Gulf are islands of relative stability in the Middle East, offering refuge not only to jet-setting upper-class elites and foreign expats, but to middle-class professionals, scholars and artists from around the region. This is the more modest way to understand the Gulf’s epochal ambitions. Where for centuries Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo defined the Arab world, oil has tilted the scales of heft and influence towards the likes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, and Doha in Qatar.
Both the UAE and Qatar have increasingly involved themselves in regional conflagrations, including forays in Libya and Syria. In August, UAE troops entered Yemen. The UAE ranks fifth in the world in terms of military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (just ahead of Israel). Since the convulsions of the Arab spring of 2011, both governments have worked hard to stamp out the merest inklings of dissent, jailing citizens and non-citizens alike. It is therefore a mistake to imagine the Gulf cities as versions of Singapore or Hong Kong, placid islands of global capital. The countries of the Gulf are not simply commercial and financial hubs, but nation-states – with all the bristling accoutrements that implies.
Within the UAE, competition for prestige is fierce. Abu Dhabi may sit on far greater reserves of fossil fuels than Dubai, but it has long been in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbour. Abu Dhabi’s slower and steadier approach hopes to avoid the pitfalls of Dubai’s boom-and-bust growth.
A more serious rivalry exists with neighbouring Qatar. Much like Abu Dhabi, Qatar has pumped money into football to raise its global profile, signing sponsorship deals with FC Barcelona, a ubiquitous football “brand,” and revamping the French club Paris Saint-Germain. Qatar was also controversially awarded the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, the biggest sporting tournament in the world. That decision may yet be reversed. Fifa, football’s governing body, is imploding under the weight of numerous indictments by the US justice department. But it remains a measure of Qatar’s wealth that a tiny nation of 2.1 million people could host a tournament last held by Brazil, a country almost 100 times its size.
Unlike Abu Dhabi, Qatar has not sought the imprimatur of western museums in its significant forays into the art world. Instead, it is building its own institutions, with three museums in Doha devoted to regional and Islamic art, one of which is also designed by Jean Nouvel.
In 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York each spent around £23m on acquisitions; in the same year, Qatar is thought to have spent £663m. Under the aegis of the Qatar Museums Authority, the country has invested £16.5bn in the global art market, including the remarkable £166m acquisition of Paul Cézanne’s Card Players in 2011. The campaign has been masterminded by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bin Khalifa Al-Thani of the Qatari royal family, the single most important collector worldwide for blue-chip art.
The scale of Qatar’s acquisitions is excessive, but that is the point. For millennia, polities have sought to dress their hard power in the softer stuff. In the 19th century, for instance, a rapidly industrialising United States heralded its rise on the international stage by amassing art from Europe and elsewhere, and consecrating museums in such cities as New York, Boston and Cleveland. The American way of accruing artistic wealth may have been less bludgeoning than the methods of the past, but its motivation was the same. Art – or, more properly, the possession of art – was an assertion of arrival. Owning art, for nations as much as for individuals, signals that you have made it.
The deals with the Guggenheim and Louvre form Abu Dhabi’s entry into this age-old arms race for cultural capital. Emirati officials are conscious of the arriviste pretensions of Saadiyat Island. As one adviser admitted: “We have to begin somewhere. We know we cannot create culture overnight.”
* * *
Mythology, on the other hand, can be created overnight. A third, less discussed museum in the Saadiyat complex is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, and designed by Norman Foster to resemble a falcon. Billed as a “national museum,” it will celebrate the history and accomplishments of the Emirates and the Gulf region. For a sizable fee, the British Museum has scheduled a tranche of loans to the Zayed National Museum, including Assyrian royal panels, a mummified falcon from Egypt, Achaemenid silverware, and a stone Buddha from Afghanistan. This somewhat disparate range of objects suggests the museum will peddle a familiar story, placing Abu Dhabi and the UAE at the confluence of ancient networks of trade and cultural exchange. Of course, Abu Dhabi is barely two centuries old. Its own archaeological record is meagre. By amassing the historical culture of the wider region, the museum projects the UAE’s vision of itself in the present deep into the past. The emergence of the Emirates as a major international hub is made to seem inexorable.
Proponents of universal museums – encyclopaedic institutions such as the British Museum and the Smithsonian, children of the Enlightenment and empire – deride institutions such as the Zayed National Museum, which clearly yoke art to the service of a modern political narrative. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, a universal museum, will sit only a stone’s throw from the Zayed National Museum. The universal museum, its proponents insist, puts art in the service of humanity. Such institutions, traditionally located in the west, act as secure cultural repositories, keeping civilisation safe in perpetuity. For a number of museum curators in Europe and North America, the recent destruction of the ancient ruins of Palmyra reinforced an abiding belief in the necessity of their collections. With Isis rampaging through the Middle East, voices in the west insist that Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman antiquities are better off outside the region than within. The Louvre Abu Dhabi splits the difference, providing an opportunity for many people to be introduced to the delights of a high-quality world museum. (It is far easier, for instance, for south Asians to travel to the Gulf than to obtain visas to go to Europe.) It will also make its own small contribution to dismantling the idea that cosmopolitanism is the preserve of Europe and North America.
Resembling a flying saucer that has touched down in the Gulf, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be an Emirati museum. It nevertheless has relied heavily on French guidance, not only from curators and consultants but from organs of the French state – reaching past the culture ministry to the diplomatic corps and all the way to three successive presidencies. (Indeed, the announcement of the Louvre deal with Abu Dhabi coincided with the building of a French military base in the UAE, and the Hollande government is currently negotiating the sale of 60 Rafale fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.)
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, its parent institution says, “is intended to be a place of discovery, exchange and education … It will also play an important social role in the United Arab Emirates. In this respect, it can be seen as a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe.” With a whiff of the mission civilisatrice, the Louvre in Paris suggest that its Gulf spinoff will finally bring the Arab world into the relative modernity of the late 1700s.
It aims, however, to avoid a western point of view. It will abandon the traditional taxonomy of the Louvre in Paris and its fellow western museums, which classify and segment artefacts by region. Its organising principle will be time, not space. According to museum officials, “the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be different. Its unique museographic approach – displaying objects and art chronologically – will explore connections between seemingly disparate civilisations and culture around the world. This is what will make the museum truly universal, transcending geography and nationality.”
It remains critical to remember that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not a branch of the Louvre. It is a new institution, Emirati and not French, that has rented the name “Louvre” until 2037. It is also renting 300 artworks from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and other French museums, including Manet’s Fifer, David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Titian’s Woman with a Mirror, and Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière. (No self-respecting nouveau riche can be without a Leonardo.) And it has acquired many works of its own, on the advice of French curators. Critics of the Louvre Abu Dhabi have warned that a museum in conservative Abu Dhabi may shy from much of western art history – nudes, notably, or else paintings of Christian saints – though according to Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s soft-spoken new director, the Emiratis imposed “no censorship … not of themes, not of techniques, not of countries.”
Nevertheless, the planned display of Louvre Abu Dhabi is a measure of how much the Louvre itself has moved from its roots, when as a national museum it sought to produce an emboldened citizenry. “The ritual task of the Louvre visitor was to reenact [a] history of genius,” the art historian Carol Duncan writes, “relive its progress step by step and, thus enlightened, know himself as a citizen of history’s most civilised and advanced nation state.” In the 19th century, almost every western nation established a similar public art museum.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, by contrast, will try to conjure the experience of belonging not to a nation-state or even a civilisation, 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.
That irony extends to the present day, in the form of the Louvre’s neighbouring institution of modern and contemporary art. The collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be far more representative of the non-western world than the collections of other Guggenheim satellites such as Bilbao. More than half of the collection will be drawn from the surrounding region. Curators, working from New York, have also acquired a great deal of work from southeast Asia and other areas not widely exhibited in traditional western modern art galleries. The emphasis will be on work produced after 1960, that moment so synonymous with the eruption of Pop art and minimalism – and, not coincidentally, the era of the birth of the UAE. Yet again: 50 years of culture cannot be created overnight, but Abu Dhabi’s mythic position as a valuable central force in its dissemination and presentation can.
* * *
According to James Cuno, the cosmopolitanism of universal museums grows naturally from their urban contexts. He describes the 18th-century London that gave birth to the British Museum as “one of the world’s largest and busiest cities, where people and things from all over the world lived and worked”. Abu Dhabi of the 21st century can be discussed in this way. The museums of Saadiyat Island trade on the matter-of-fact globality of the city, its role as an international entrepôt, its polyglot and multi-faith communities.
But is the mere fact of Abu Dhabi’s diversity enough to characterise the society that the Louvre and the Guggenheim will soon call home? For sceptical outsiders, the glitzy cosmopolitanism of Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Doha cannot mask the aridity of their illiberal host societies. The UAE, for instance, restricts personal and political freedoms and operates what is in effect a 21st-century caste system, stratifying Emirati citizens, well-heeled foreign professionals, and the huge underclass of workers from south and south-east Asia. The great divide between the elite and its subcontracted proletariat lends itself to caricature, of falconeering sheikhs building their decadent lifestyles on the backs of migrant labour.
Emirati citizens, who make up only 11% of the population, enjoy the perks of a generous welfare state. (A similar situation exists in neighbouring Qatar, where Qataris make up only 12% of the population.) The UAE’s legions of migrant workers comprise over half the country’s population and have no political rights, leaving them vulnerable to appalling abuses. The Gulf’s kafala (or sponsorship) labour system relies on the desperation and enormous supply of willing workers from poorer countries. Foreigners sent home over £19bn in remittances from the UAE last year. Nearly a fifth of the population of the south Indian state of Kerala – from which many workers migrate to the Gulf – receive funds from abroad.
By hanging on to the coattails of famous western museums, Abu Dhabi has at once won more attention than Qatar and invited more scrutiny upon Saadiyat Island. Human Rights Watch and Guardian investigations have revealed that workers constructing the sparkling complexes on Saadiyat Island have been treated abysmally. They live in squalid conditions, have their passports confiscated, suffer from wage theft and underpayment, are deeply indebted, and are denied any rights of organisation. The reports sparked protests in New York, with activists targeting both the Guggenheim and New York University.
Both institutions face pressure from Gulf Labor – a coalition of artists, scholars, and other concerned individuals – to “assert responsibility for the wellbeing of these workers”. In a letter to the New York Times in June, Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong insisted that conditions on Saadiyat Island had improved in terms of “worker accommodation, access to medical coverage, grievance procedures and passport retention”. He nevertheless acknowledged the Guggenheim’s inability to more broadly affect the political and legal landscape of the UAE. A recent report released by Gulf Labor found that poor conditions persist on Saadiyat Island despite a public relations campaign to highlight a model housing complex for the island’s workers.
In June, a Pakistani worker was killed in the process of adding the final touches to Louvre Abu Dhabi. Emiratis often bristle at the attention that outsiders place on their labour system. Every country is home to exploited labour, including the United States, where migrants with few rights and protections form an enormous and inextricable part of the economy. Few contemporary building projects in the west, however, are as deadly as these grand developments in the Gulf, and what is galling about exploitation in the region is that it is entirely formalised. The abuse happens with direct legal sanction.
Beyond the material circumstances of the building of the museums, the UAE’s overwhelming reliance on migrant labour poses another important question. Museums such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim emerged in Paris and New York with the aim of serving the public. They enshrined the belief that art was a common good, and that museums could help foster an enlightened and humane society. How can that original mission be translated to a place with no clear sense of a public, where citizens and expatriates lead lives so utterly separate from and different from those of the great body of workers?
Despite the nationalist aims of Abu Dhabi’s museum construction, the “audience” envisioned for the museums of Saadiyat Island is palpably not a national one. Armstrong has talked up the number of tourists that come through the region, noting that the expansion of Abu Dhabi’s airport will soon allow it to handle the traffic of 45 million passengers annually. Thanks to their useful location between Asia, Africa and the west, airports in the Gulf have already supplanted many of their European counterparts in funnelling people around the world. Saadiyat Island will be the ultimate stopover destination. Its museums will cater to the worldly sensibilities of travellers, condensing the global in the Guggenheim’s cones and in the Louvre’s spiralling corridors.
Abu Dhabi officials talk vaguely about the connection between the museums and their domestic society. One curator confessed to the New York Times that “it will take one or two generations before a museum like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will soak into the quotidian part of life … It will take a while to feel internalised and natural.”
But internalised and natural to whom? The sliver of the population who are citizens? Surely not the nearly five million south Asian migrants, many of whom lead immiserated lives in segregated camps, bunked in sweltering cabins? The curious truth about Abu Dhabi’s grand projects – from Saadiyat Island to the English-language newspaper The National – is that they presume an interested civil society that does not exist and cannot easily be magicked into existence. They must operate above and beyond the level of “the local” precisely because the local is too small and too segmented to be a meaningful constituency.
Saadiyat Island should be judged in this harsher light. It is unquestionably a vanity project, aspiration inflated to monumental proportions. It promises a recreational and educational idyll made for glossy magazines. Of course, many fine and serious minds are right now researching acquisitions and devising exhibitions for the new Guggenheim and Louvre. That work does not deserve to be denigrated, but the enterprise that that work serves was not conceived in the classroom or the studio, but in the boardroom and the business-class lounge.
* * *
When the French revolutionaries summoned it into existence in 1791, the Louvre in Paris marked a clear break from the past. The Louvre smashed apart the old tradition of cabinets of curiosities and of princely collections, which served primarily to dazzle visitors, glorify the monarchs who owned them, and solidify their claims to rule. The Louvre, by contrast, laid out paintings and sculptures in a procession of art-historical schools, each of which expressed a national or cultural “genius”, and addressed visitors not as aristocratic connoisseurs but as citizens. The museum sought to serve a public that, however shadowed by the spectre of the nation, was imagined in the broadest terms.
Without this clear relationship between art and society, the museums on Saadiyat Island turn back the clock. They may adopt sophisticated museographic practices and cherry-pick from the latest trends in cultural theory, but their main aim is to dazzle and awe, to plump the reputation of Abu Dhabi and its rulers. Western museums have been only too happy to abet this project and lap up the largesse of the Gulf. For the Etihad-pampered visitors to Saadiyat Island, the effect of touring its galleries will be much like that of seeing the royal collections of the 17th and 18th centuries. All the wonders they encounter within will be refracted through the inescapable power of the king.
It is unfortunate that the first museum to break the west’s monopoly of the universal is so ethically flawed. The likes of James Cuno, head of the Getty, and Neil MacGregor, departing chief of the British Museum, are right to emphasise the need for humanist institutions like theirs in a time when information technology, global capital, and resurgent chauvinisms shove people both together and apart. Yet lifting the universal museum from its bedrock of western privilege remains a major challenge. (We should not sniff at online dissemination of art, but it still insists on the grossly unfair divide between people who get to experience art intimately, on the other side of the glass, and people who will only ever see that art from a remove, pixellated on the screen.)
Universal museums will never be evenly distributed around the world. The same legal and political conditions that limit the directors of the great western museums will make it hard for museums in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to build their own diverse collections. The laissez-faire norms of the 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to a more rigid system of cultural exchange, in which would-be curators cannot imitate their European forebears in happily relieving the world of its cultural patrimony. The best they can hope for is a trickle of expensive and grudging loans from institutions in the west.
Short of a Met in every middling metropolis, an ideal future for the universal museum might look something like this. It would be constantly in motion, moving from country to country as a touring exhibition of the world’s cultural patrimony. Like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it would be organised chronologically, avoiding the taxonomy of region and civilisation. People in Lagos and Lima might walk its halls, studying the intricacies of Safavid chainmail or the unfurling of Chinese landscapes, and feel as much of a claim to those objects as Londoners do now. This roving caravan of marvels would be a logistical nightmare and a financial impossibility, but it would best express the ethos of the global museum, free of the bedevilling complications of place.
A longer version of this article initially appeared in Even, a contemporary art magazine based in New York. More information can be found at evenmagazine.com