A few weeks ago I gave a presentation to the local creative community, talking about ‘Abu Dhabi: art + architecture’. It was an opportunity to introduce Australians to the concept of the art + culture renaissance starting to bloom in the Middle East, and it took people’s breaths away.
And rightly so, the vision is utterly breathtaking.
Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates (Dubai is an hour down the road) and the largest emirate of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, is leading the way with plans to diversify its fossil-fuelled economy based on tourism, renewable energy and art + culture.
Yes folks, the people in the world with access to the most oil and gas and cash are diversifying their economy in rapid earnest….
The grand vision of Abu Dhabi is to establish a global cultural hub, the Saadiyat Cultural District, on the pristine and stunning natural Saadiyat Island (“the island of happiness”). This will be home to five world-class museums, an art gallery precinct, art exhibitions and festival spaces, as well as five-star beachfront hotels, a golf course, residential and business complexes and restaurants galore. It will be a destination within a destination.
First cab off the rank in this vision, is the French ‘starchitect’ Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is due to open at the end of 2015. Yes, that’s right – they are opening the first ever Louvre outside of France in Abu Dhabi. This will be a ‘universal museum’ in the Arab world, presenting major objects from the fields of archeology, fine arts and decorative arts. It will represent all regions and art periods, including contemporary art and the narrative of art history – reflecting the region’s role as a crossroads for civilisations.
Abu Dhabi was traditionally an economy based on trade and pearl-diving, with caravans from Oman carrying valuable Frankincense passing through on the ancient Silk Route on their way to Turkey, and ultimately Europe. So the vision is a return to the days of Abu Dhabi’s role as a crossroads for the exchange of culture and dialogue.
Next to open in the Saadiyat Cultural District is the Zayed National Musuem in 2016. Designed by UK architects, Foster + Partners, the building has been inspired by the dynamic flight and feathers of a falcon. This museum will tell the story of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, considered the Father of the Nation of the UAE. He is credited with unifying the previously separate seven emirates that now make up the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain) in 1971. The museum will also showcase the proud Emirati cultural heritage, including Sheikh Zayed’s love of the traditional art of falconry.
And then, in 2017 the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will throw its doors open to the world. Designed by internationally-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the museum will house its own major modern and contemporary art collection and present special exhibitions including works from the Guggenheim Foundation‘s extensive collection.
This will be the largest Guggenheim in the world (naturally…) and is aimed at creating an unprecedented vibrant cultural destination for visitors from across the globe.
So what’s there to see now? In the lead up to the opening of the Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu Dhabi has initiated a program of exhibitions and art festivals to encourage and foster a culture of appreciation for the arts.
The Manarat Al Saadiyat (“the place of enlightenment”) is an exhibition and gallery space featuring events all year round. Together with the UAE Pavilion, this is home to the annual Abu Dhabi Art contemporary art fair in November each year.
On Saadiyat Island itself it’s possible to stay at the five-star beachfront resorts of St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort and Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas. There’s an exclusive beach club with a plethora of restaurants at Monte Carlo Beach Club and the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
Impressive huh? Abu Dhabi’s close to my heart, and Saadiyat Island is one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I can’t wait to get back there and see how it’s transformed over the few years with the opening of the Saadiyat Cultural District.