Beyond the Canvas
Abu Dhabi's billions: Soft power and an ambitious foreign policy agenda.
According to the Financial Times, Abu Dhabi is planning to spend $6bn on various cultural projects to diversify from oil. This is not a new strategy. After the emergence of Dubai as the playground of the Middle East in the early 1990s, the Abu Dhabi government set out to develop a vision that would transform the UAE into a world-class cultural powerhouse. Culture is thus a tool in a long-term political-economic strategy that aims to diversify revenues and address concerns around the eventual depletion of oil reserves.
The objective of the Saadiyat Island project is to create and maintain a sustainable geopolitical connection with Europe and the United States. To this end, grandiose franchise museums of historical brands like the Louvre and the Guggenheim have been identified as a powerful platform that can facilitate the negotiation and expansion of this network. So this is more of a soft power re-branding exercise than a cultural endeavour per se.
But before we get too excited about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi finally breaking ground after years of delay, let us remind ourselves of the appalling working conditions of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. A report published in 2015 denounced the wide-spread practice of withholding wages, confiscating passports and providing sub-standard lodgings for the workers to live in. These underpaid labourers are locked in the stranglehold of the archaic Kafala system, and anyone daring to protest is reported to the police and expelled.
The issue of freedom of press should also be considered. In 2017, Swiss journalists filming the area where the labourers live were arrested, blindfolded, detained, interrogated and forced to sign a confession in Arabic. Culture can only go so far in supporting the UAE in their ambitions to become a major geopolitical player and the desired projection of a certain image of openness and tolerance continues to be marred by the endurance of a repressive regime.
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Workers building Jean Nouvel's famous latticed roof at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.