On the sunbaked shores of the Arabian Gulf, a good spot to catch a breeze is under the 600-foot-wide metal dome that shades the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The surface of this giant, parasol-shaped roof is an intricate, 7,850-piece jigsaw of perforated aluminum and stainless-steel panels. Rays of light pierce through the gaps, falling like golden rain on the museum’s exterior walls. Inside, the 23 galleries are divided by narrow alleyways and plazas
to evoke the look and feel of a shady medina.
Squinting out from underneath this structure on a recent visit, I spied the concrete columns of another vast new museum: the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry. Scheduled to open in two years’ time, this building sits less than a mile away on Saadiyat Island, a sandy triangle just off the coast. 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. Also rising from Saadiyat’s dusty desert scrub are a multi-faith cultural center called the Abrahamic Family House, designed by David Adjaye, the British architect behind the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.; the Zayed National Museum, by London architects Foster & Partners; and two more cultural institutions to be unveiled next year.
These grand projects are at the heart of a program, said to be worth $12 billion, that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates hope will turn the largest and most oil-rich of the region’s sheikhdoms into a global center for the arts. The plans are designed to help diversify the economy away from oil and to draw more visitors. Thanks to the U.A.E.’s super-connector airlines, Emirates in Dubai and Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi, the Gulf has become one of the world’s preeminent transportation hubs, but its tourism offerings have so far been mostly limited to malls, theme parks, and headline-grabbing structures like the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
The new museums will also push the boundaries of taste in what remains a conservative society — as Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism, told me when I visited his all-white office overlooking the city’s sweeping corniche, which runs along the seafront from Saadiyat Island to the Emirates Palace Hotel.
These grand projects are at the heart of a program, said to be worth $12 billion, that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates hope will turn the largest and most oil-rich of the region’s sheikhdoms into a global center for the arts. The plans are designed to help diversify the economy away from oil and to draw more visitors.
“These artistic gifts will open hearts and minds,” he said as we sat down to chat, his white dishdasha riding up to reveal a pair of limited-edition Nike sneakers. “Culture is the backbone of any progressive society.”
On paper, the idea of spending $12 billion to make Abu Dhabi as artistically and culturally important as New York, London, and Paris might sound fanciful, but one look at the Louvre was enough to make even a deep skeptic think twice. The building rivals the Sydney Opera House in eye-popping originality. Art institutions all too often appear so intimidating and exclusive that they might as well have a sign out front saying “Only smart, rich people can enter.” But the Louvre appears, at first glance, to be a flying saucer that has crash-landed on the beach. And who wouldn’t want to take a peek inside that?
To try to appeal to everyone from liberal-minded Americans and Europeans to more conservative Saudis, the exhibits in the Louvre are not arranged by region, civilization, or era but instead by theme. Each one of 12 “chapters,” as the galleries are called, has a universal idea behind it. There’s the birth of civilization; motherhood; the portrayal of power; and representations of the divine, which include, unusually for a cultural institution in an Arab country, icons of Judaism, among them a 13th-century funerary stele and a 15th-century Yemenite Torah. “We’re putting civilizations and cultures next to each other to find a dialogue between them,” curator Mariam Al-Dhaheri explained as we crisscrossed floors made from a patchwork of dark Omani stone and camel leather. “We want to showcase that there’s much more in common between the peoples of the world than there are differences.”
The idea that diverse cultures have adopted a remarkably similar approach to the fundamental questions facing humanity is a strikingly open and egalitarian one — and one in keeping with modern thinking. It came through loud and clear from the moment I arrived. In the lobby, 16th-century paintings of scholars by Belgian artist Jacob de Backer were juxtaposed with a 21st-century sculpture made up of Arabic words cast in bronze by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer. Inside the galleries, a 14th-century French sculpture of Mary with Jesus by an unknown artist was exhibited alongside startlingly similar expressions of motherhood from Egypt and Congo. Political and religious leaders and philosophers from around the world and from different centuries, including Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, Mesopotamian ruler Gudea, Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius, were presented cheek by jowl. “They are all doing the same things. Asking questions. Why are we here? What is our destiny?” Al-Dhaheri said.
The exhibits in the Louvre are not arranged by region, civilization, or era but instead by theme. Each one of 12 “chapters,” as the galleries are called, has a universal idea behind it.
As she and I wandered through the space, we admired furniture, porcelain, carpets, and scientific instruments from France, India, Iran, and China that demonstrate how modern techniques of craftsmanship and scientific study developed during the earliest days of global trade. There were nudes on display, and I ordered — gasp! — a glass of wine in the café and another in the museum’s outpost of Fouquet’s, the renowned restaurant, where the steak tartare is mixed tableside, à la Parisienne. The dazzling architecture notwithstanding, it all felt a little tame, by Western standards at least. Paris, this ain’t. It was time to look for a little grit inside the Gulf oyster.
The next morning I left the Saadiyat Island Jumeirah hotel (to my mind the best bolt-hole in the city, because of its position on a secluded stretch of beach) and took a taxi down the road to meet Maya Allison, executive director of the Art Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi. NYU was the first big Western education and arts institution to partner with Abu Dhabi, opening a 38-acre campus on Saadiyat Island 12 years ago. Allison, a Californian and the former curator of the art gallery at Brown University, showed me a wonderfully iconoclastic and funny exhibition of the work of a collective of Iranian artists — Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian — who live in self-imposed exile in the U.A.E.
The centerpiece was a video tribute to Iran’s “King of Dance,” a man named Mohammad Khordadian. “He fled Iran after the revolution because dancing was no longer allowed, and he ended up in Los Angeles,” Allison explained. In the L.A. of the early 1980s Khordadian came across workout videos by Jane Fonda and created his own versions, which also referenced traditional Iranian dance styles. His East-meets-West workouts were smuggled back into Iran on VHS cassettes and became an underground sensation. They captivated the three artists, collectively known as Ramin Rokni Hesam, who in turn created their own mash-up tribute featuring both Khordadian himself and ordinary Iranians copying his moves. Their work challenges Tehran’s cultural strictures and feels timely, given the protests currently being led by women in the city. It also highlights a blurring of the boundaries of gender identity: many of the routines Khordadian created are based on dances that are traditionally performed by women, such as belly dancing. “It’s fun and light but also subversive,” Allison said. “It’s like a viral TikTok video but happening on VHS cassettes in the 1980s.”
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The next day I found challenging work of a different kind in a studio at the top of the glass-fronted Sama Tower, in downtown Abu Dhabi — a building that, from the outside, looks much like every other modern office block in the Gulf. Up on the 23rd floor, as the sun penetrated the morning desert haze below us, I walked into the paint-spattered flat where 33-year-old artist Maitha Abdalla lives and works — often at night, “when my feelings are strongest,” she explained. Abdalla is one of the U.A.E.’s most radical young artists. Her multimedia works play with deliberately provocative imagery to explore themes of sin, conflict, and forgiveness. Pigs are a recurrent theme. She told me that she sees the animal as “a metaphor for wrong, because in this region the pig is known as a sinful animal.” She showed me a scene from one of her videos, The Guest, in which she wears “the veil and the dress I wear to pray but I’m holding a pig’s-head mask and I put it on the table. I start offering the pig food and then eating with the pig. It’s all about confronting sin and fear.”
Abdalla’s work can be hard to understand, and in the context of what remains a traditional society, often feels confrontational. Indeed, her father once begged her to give up her work in favor of creating the generic sculptures of falcons and horses that typically adorn traffic circles in the U.A.E. Thank goodness she ignored him: she was one of three artists chosen to represent Abu Dhabi in a show at the Palazzo Franchetti during the 2022 Venice Biennale, she had a solo show during Frieze London this past fall, and her work is due to be shown during Art Basel 2023.
After the U.A.E. gained independence from the U.K. in 1971, its then-ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ordered that an entire block of the middle of the federal capital, Abu Dhabi, be spared skyscrapers and instead be made into a park and cultural center.
One of Abdalla’s closest friends, and a former studio-mate, prefers to work in an industrial space in the Mussafah area, on the outskirts of town, where halal butcher shops and small factories line the streets. Hashel Al Lamki’s choice of location struck me as surprising, since he depicts a different side of the emirate — one more closely connected to the natural world. The 36-year-old, who studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City, focuses on themes connected to sustainability, often painting the mountainscapes of his home near Al-Ain. “I’m nomadic in my soul and have a sense of connection with the earth and the environment,” he said. In his hands, the desert never looked more beautiful.
Where did the Abu Dhabi cultural story start, I wondered. To find out, I headed to one of the highlights of any trip to the city-state: the Cultural Foundation. After the U.A.E. gained independence from the U.K. in 1971, its then-ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ordered that an entire block of the middle of the federal capital, Abu Dhabi, be spared skyscrapers and instead be made into a park and cultural center. The building, completed in 1981, is a work of art in itself, with Brutalist concrete columns offset with geometric tiles in a mid-century palette of mustard and cerulean blue. The Bauhaus-meets–Middle East style is the result of a global competition held to choose a lead architect. The winner was the Architects Collaborative, one of whose cofounders was the influential Modernist Walter Gropius.
Rabi Georges and Zuhoor Al Sayegh, the foundation’s curators and arts programmers, welcomed me and introduced me to the work of Farah Al Qasimi, on display in the central hall. The 32-year-old, Yale-educated photographer, who now lives in Brooklyn, likes to catch audiences off guard with her images, many of which examine issues of vulnerability and power. Georges and Al Sayegh pointed out the portraits of Arab men that were shot to make them appear quite feminine — the opposite of the studied machismo that’s more the regional norm. They showed me how her portraits of Arab women question conventional ideas about beauty. (One image is retouched to show a woman with one blue eye and one brown.) Many of Al Qasimi’s works will be exhibited in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, as part of its permanent collection, when it opens.
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The latter-day answer to the Cultural Center is 421, a 12,000-square-foot converted warehouse space near the docks. It’s run by Faisal Al Hassan, whose role is to give young artists their first break — Hashel Al Lamki was one of the project’s beneficiaries. When I visited, 421’s main exhibit was devoted to Ammar Al Attar, a photographer and performance artist. Al Attar has a day job as a government office worker, which inspired “Out of Range,” a series of videos and photographs that encapsulate the sense of boredom and stagnation many people felt when working from home during the COVID lockdowns. In one video, Al Attar moves round and round, drawing the same circle in charcoal until either the charcoal runs out or he collapses from a combination of dizziness and exhaustion; in another, he stamps the same piece of paper over and over.
Like most big projects in the Gulf, Abu Dhabi’s push to promote culture over carbon has its critics. Detractors argue that, despite claims that it is using the arts to change local mores, old attitudes endure. They cite the example of Caitlin McNamara, the British woman hired to organize the first Hay Festival, a literary gathering, to be held in the emirate. In 2021 she accused Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the U.A.E.’s minister of tolerance, of sexually assaulting her at his villa. No charges have yet been brought against Al Nahyan, who denies the allegation; McNamara is pursuing a private prosecution.
Others accuse Abu Dhabi of “culture washing” — using artistic projects to distract from the country’s shaky human rights record, notably the treatment of migrant construction workers. The Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, an activist group, has urged artists to boycott Saadiyat’s new cultural institutions because of the poor working conditions endured by those who build them.
In his aerie on the corniche, Mubarak denied culture-washing. “We’re doing this to educate the future masses,” he said. He insisted that “massive policy changes” are improving working conditions for migrant laborers. An ancient practice called kafala, which prevented workers from moving jobs or returning home without their employer’s consent, has been scrapped. “Is it perfect? No. But when we spot problems, we come down with a hammer.”
As I walked out from under the steel dome of the Louvre at the end of my visit, I considered the advice I’d give culture geeks with air miles. Don’t ignore the less beautiful sides of the new museums and galleries, I’d say, but don’t let them put you off, either. A new, more socially liberal and inclusive Middle East is emerging, and Abu Dhabi is at its heart. Allison put it best: “You don’t invest as much in art, culture, or education as they are doing here just to make people like you,” she told me over coffee and dates. “You do it because you are serious about developing a population that can think and act originally and creatively.”
If your conscience is still cloudy, try this. When so much ancient culture has been destroyed in places like Syria and Afghanistan, and at a time when tourists have been attacked for visiting a museum in Tunisia, it’s more important than ever to promote cultural dialogue between East and West. That’s what Abu Dhabi is trying to do, with a little help from French and American cultural institutions — and tourists. I recommend becoming one of them.
A Cultural Tour of Abu Dhabi
How to Get There
Etihad Airways: Abu Dhabi’s sovereign airline offers nonstop flights from New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Book on the spacious Airbus A350 if you can.
Where to Stay
Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort: This property has 296 rooms, suites, and villas overlooking the Gulf. Staff and guests help to conserve marine life, including the turtles that nest on the beach.
What to Do
Cultural Foundation: Opened in 1981 as an arts center for the newly independent nation of
the U.A.E., it was intended to foster all forms of intellectual and creative activity.
421: The people who run this art gallery, in a converted warehouse near the docks, aim to give Middle Eastern artists their first break and provide interactive programs and activities for all ages.
Louvre Abu Dhabi: The first overseas outpost of the hallowed Paris museum showcases global art under a dome that weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower, but appears to float above the building.
NYUAD Art Gallery: Public programming and guided tours complement exhibitions by international and local artists on New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Fine Lines.”