Move Over Paris, Bilbao: Here Comes Abu Dhabi

In five years you'll take a vacation in the Gulf Arab city of Abu Dhabi. You'll hit the beach, take a desert safari -- and tour the artistic treasures of the Louvre.

That's what Abu Dhabi is hoping and planning for the future of tourism in the Middle East. Travel brochures for the Persian Gulf city now feature water sports and Arabian adventures, but they will son feature a massive cultural district that is now under construction -- a complex of museums and pavilions crowned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a new Guggenheim Museum.

The cultural district's key buildings are designed by a cosmopolitan group of "starchitects" -- North American Frank Gehry, the Louvre by Swiss-French Jean Nouvel, a concert hall by Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid and a maritime museum by Japan's Tadao Ando.

"The cultural district is intended to create a cultural asset for the world, a gateway for cultural experience and exchange," Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority director general Mubarak Al Muhairi said.

"It will place the UAE capital, and the Emirates, firmly on the international cultural map," he said.

Abu Dhabi and its sister city of Dubai are on an unprecedented growth spurt of future attractions. While Dubai is building lavish hotels, the world's tallest building, a Universal Studios and a "Shrek" theme park, Abu Dhabi's investment in cultural tourism is generating a different kind of attention, excitement, and debate.

With the first museums set to open in 2012, the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island will send a large-scale message that Abu Dhabi has "arrived" on the world scene, Al Muhairi said. Tourism officials have not made public the total cost of the project, though press reports estimate a $27 billion price tag for the cultural complex.

With government revenue coming largely from state-owned oil companies, what Americans and others pay in high oil prices has provided surplus dollars -- or here, dirhams -- for this city to invest in raising its profile. It is a mix of philanthropy, public works and business plan.

"[Our objective is] to become a cultural destination -- a place that, by definition, people interested in culture ... must both visit more than once," said Al Muhairi, who also serves as managing director of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company.

"We are aiming for 500,000 overseas cultural tourists a year when the main assets of the Cultural District are open," he said. "Cultural tourists are important to us because, by and large, WTO research shows they spend more on a daily basis -- about 20 dollars a day more, than sun and sand tourists on average."

That means more revenue for Abu Dhabi, helping diversify its economy away from the oil sector. What it means for the average traveler is a unique experience in Middle Eastern travel.

Unlike the arguably more organic hubs of Arab culture such as Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Baghdad, what Abu Dhabi is openly and actively aiming for is an East-meets-West cultural identity, dominated by outside influences.

Al Muhairi said all the museum designs include some element of local heritage -- the jutting cubes and tubes of the Guggenheim, for example, are inspired by the wind towers of desert homes. But those traces are buried within abstraction, a cosmopolitanism that is placeless in its universality, he said.

Culture for Sale?

Critics of Abu Dhabi's cultural growth spurt accuse the city of trying to buy culture, importing institutional brand names rather than growing authentic expressions of local color.

City officials say they simply want best-in-class architectural design and artistic programming, something they recognize it takes experts from around the world to build.

"We are not so much 'buying' culture as investing in it, as many nations around the world have," Al Muhairi told ABC News.

"It should also be remembered that the assets on Saadiyat Island ... will also be monuments to the UAE and Arabian Gulf heritage. They will be catalysts for taking our own culture onto the world stage," he added.

Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that public works like the Louvre and the Guggenheim projects in Abu Dhabi are typical of emerging societies with the will and the resources to put themselves on the map.

"Rich societies that are developing as great powers show that power through architecture. There is a long [historical] tradition of importing great architects to show your strength," Saffron said.

Among the potential negative perceptions of Abu Dhabi's projects, however, is that they lack authenticity, she said.

"You're both excited and skeptical, because when you have unlimited funds you can build some amazing things. But are they just the designer handbag. It's like collecting trophies, as if these architects can drop in and make something relevant to the place," Saffron said.

A cultural district, Saffron argued, is not something easily imported or built from scratch.

"Culture just doesn't arise spontaneously. It has to be built on the intellectual foundation of the place, which provides the nucleus of people to sustain it," she said. "Just buying these buildings and buying these architects and buying these brands are not the same as generating a cultural life where people participate."

Cornerstone of a Cultural Renaissance

Others take the new museums as one of the centerpieces of an Arab cultural renaissance, both for the Gulf region and for the greater Middle East.

Art shows and galleries have been popping up around the United Arab Emirates -- notably in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the smaller Emirate of Sharjah -- with offerings that impress both locals and visitors.

"Abu Dhabi is doing something unbelievable in this region," London-based Professor Nasser Khalili told ABC News.

Khalili himself is a high-profile art collector who put more than 500 works of Islamic art on display in an exhibit at Abu Dhabi's 7-star Emirates Palace Hotel.

Though the pieces are often on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum in London, this is the collection's Middle East debut and is considered a step toward Abu Dhabi's ambition of becoming the region's culture capital.

"This is an opportunity for them," Khalili said. "They are grabbing this opportunity and they are doing their utmost to be the leaders for their own culture in the region."

Next door in Dubai, the art scene has grown up around less than a dozen galleries located in the city's Al Quoz industrial district. Sunny Rahbar, a 30-year-old who runs Dubai's Third Line Gallery, says it's a very young scene -- small, but growing fast.

Like Abu Dhabi's Cultural District, Dubai's is playing a role by becoming a platform, rather than by generating art itself.

"We do have a few locally based artists, not many who have been exported. At the moment it's mostly imported from Egypt, Lebanon or Jordan," Rahbar told ABC News.

What that means for today's visitor is a relative bargain on local and regional art. But local art dealers say that as Dubai and Abu Dhabi raise the profile of regional art they'll also be pumping up the price.

"This is the next art scene. It's definitely a good time to buy," Rahbar said.

Rahbar expects major galleries to move in within the year. Auction houses have already set up in Dubai. Christie's International opened a local office in 2005; last October it set a record for an Arab work sold at auction with Ahmed Mustapha's "Qu'ranic Polyptych of Nine Panels" at $657,000.

Assuming all goes well with their current construction Dubai and Abu Dhabi, dynamic cities less than two hours apart by car, could form a powerhouse duo of tourist delights.

"Abu Dhabi will be where we'll all go to see big world-class shows in the region," Rahbar said. "In terms of cultural tourism, what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao [Spain], that's what's going to happen for Abu Dhabi. It'll bring in a better quality of tourists."

That is Abu Dhabi's billion dollar-gamble and, city officials hope, your next family vacation.