Move Over Paris, Bilbao: Here Comes Abu Dhabi

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.

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