An Arabian self-portrait

31 August 2023

Inspired series

Think of the Louvre, and what do you picture? The Mona Lisa. The Venus de Milo. An incongruous glass pyramid. Possibly not a $4 billion aluminium and stainless-steel dome in downtown Abu Dhabi. But that’s all changed. “See humanity in a new light1” is the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s slogan, and light is certainly its most arresting feature. The cupola, designed by French “starchitect” Jean Nouvel, is a 7,850-piece jigsaw of perforated aluminium and stainless-steel panels, that creates a delicate, lace-like parasol. Rays of sunlight permeate the gaps and dapple the concrete walls of the 23 galleries that are divided into four wings, mimicking the layout of a traditional Arabic souk. 

This eye-catching artistic development is the result of Abu Dhabi partnering with the Louvre to choose artefacts from wildly different places and times, and exhibit them side-by side to highlight similarities in universal themes, such as the birth of civilisation, motherhood, power and the divine. Curatorial assistant Myriam Al-Dhaheri hopes visitors will “understand the connections between people, rather than the differences2”. 

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Black gold meets Western architecture

Abu Dhabi is spending another US$3.5 billion3 on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the fourth and largest Guggenheim, which like its peer in Bilbao, is designed by Frank Gehry. 

Scheduled to open on Saadiyat Island in one year’s time, it will house more than 600 works of modern and contemporary art by established names such as Louise Bourgeois, as well as new Emirati artists and emerging talents from across Asia and Africa. It will be followed by a multi-faith cultural centre called the Abrahamic Family House, and two more cultural institutions to be unveiled next year. The grand total investment for all of these artistic projects is approximately $12 billion4.

Half an hour’s flight away in Doha, Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who runs the Qatar Museums Authority, is also mixing black gold with Western architectural and artistic expertise in the emirate, which is ruled by her brother, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The centrepiece of her development is the strikingly geometric, 35,000 square metre Museum of Islamic Art, designed by Chinese-American architect IM Pei, rising like a modern citadel on reclaimed land in Doha Bay.

Not far away along the coast, French architect Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar is the architectural opposite of its cuboid compatriot. Its exterior is built to mimic the petal-shaped crystals that form in the desert. It pays homage to its homeland both inside and out, with exhibits that tell the story of the development of the city state - from a dedicated pearl diving and trading hub, to the world’s wealthiest country on a per capita basis.

Another starchitect, Rem Koolhaas, has joined the party, with his 45,000 square metre Qatar National Library that resembles two pieces of folded paper. Terraces of marble shelves, containing one million volumes, run up to the roof and the glass walls in every direction. At the centre, carved into rock, are some of the oldest manuscripts and maps in the Arab world. Their delicate restoration is offset by the cutting-edge technology – books are automatically returned to the shelves using radio frequency tags and conveyor belts.

Can Egypt generate £10 billion through tourism?

The Gulf art scene is thriving and its success is infectious and spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. The 7,000 square metre, $1 billion5. Grand Egyptian Museum, designed in the shape of a chamfered triangle by Dublin-based architects Heneghan Peng, will open later this year. For the first time, visitors will be able to view in one place Tutankhamun’s tomb and all its contents - some 5,400 artefacts ranging from papyrus scrolls, to shoes, necklaces and even a loincloth. Also on display will be the gigantic 3,200-year-old statue of Ramesses II, previously the centrepiece of a traffic roundabout in Cairo, which has been restored after being lugged, all 83 tonnes of it, to its new home two kilometres from the Pyramids of Giza. 

What’s behind the Middle Eastern art boom? For Egypt, the new galleries are designed to boost the sputtering local economy. The Gulf leaders want tourists too, helping to diversify the local economy away from carbon. But there are cultural ambitions as well, and a desire to change the perceptions of Islam that some Western visitors might have. 

Cultural entrepreneurs or culture washers?

Like most big projects in the Gulf, Abu Dhabi’s push to promote culture over carbon has its critics. Detractors accuse Abu Dhabi and Qatar of “culture washing” – using artistic projects to distract from perceived human rights issues, notably the treatment of migrant construction workers. 

Is the Middle East about to open a new cultural chapter that will sustain for years to come? 

From the Romans to the Medici banking dynasty through the Renaissance, it is the richest benefactors, institutions and nations that have tended to call the tune in the art world, setting global tastes, anointing the next stars and establishing market trends. The Gulf states have deep pockets and they’re daring to dream big. So, in 50 years’ time, could Abu Dhabi be as important in global art and culture as London, New York and Paris? Why not? The burgeoning new arts and culture scene across the Middle East is going to be an enormous story and we are at the beginning of it. Cultural tourists should not ignore the tough issues. But now might just be the time to embark on a new grand tour of Arabia.  

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