Abu Dhabi, journey into the culture of petrodollars

That 80% of the expatriate population that lives in Abu Dhabi – including King Juan Carlos and now also his grandson Froilán – is having an easier time not feeling out of place in the middle of a fiery piece of desert where skyscrapers do not stop growing.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 March 2023 Thursday 22:44
9 Reads
Abu Dhabi, journey into the culture of petrodollars

That 80% of the expatriate population that lives in Abu Dhabi – including King Juan Carlos and now also his grandson Froilán – is having an easier time not feeling out of place in the middle of a fiery piece of desert where skyscrapers do not stop growing. The bet that the Emirati capital makes – at the expense of a petrodollar – for “universal” culture means at this point a message in a bottle with the essences of good globalization: that “if you play and I sing” that, according to the song by Maria del Mar Bonet, “it means that we understand each other”.

Abu Dhabi, the second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates behind Dubai, is a luxurious city and, as such, seeks to go down. But not in a trivial way. A visit to the island of Saadiyat confirms right now that the idea of ​​a cultural district is completely serious: next to the magnificent Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel, the works of the imposing Guggenheim by Frank Ghery are advancing, and also those of the National Museum designed by Norman Foster.

The crests of the latter rise alongside the recently inaugurated Abrahamic Houses, three aesthetically familiar contemporary temples dedicated to the three monotheistic religions, yet equally appealing to a wide audience... for their cultural factor. Except, yes, in the hours of worship. "We live in Abu Dhabi, yes, but we are from India, we couldn't pretend that we came to pray," says a family who missed the shot and turned up on the day of the week that the houses are closed to tourism, laughing.

A fact: 50% of residents in Abu Dhabi come from East Asia. And when it comes to employing the service sector, the city competes well with neighboring Dubai, a business metropolis. "Ma'am, I have three daughters in the Philippines, you know, and in Dubai life is very expensive and the salaries are lower, that's why I had to come here," says the waitress at a restaurant where some elegant Emirati women give a taste of their hookahs (water pipes) while admiring the beach.

In theory, Abu Dhabi understands culture as a tool for bringing civilizations together, a universal language. In practice, he uses it as an amalgam that gives meaning to the coexistence of that million and a half people of 180 different nationalities who "coexist" in an economy based on the exploitation of oil and construction (a sector, this one, that causes trouble heads to Human Rights Watch for the living conditions of the labor force). The idea is that if expat professionals are happy here, they will not yearn to return to their countries and will contribute more of their experience and knowledge to the growth of the emirate.

It is suggested by the executive director of the Abu Dhabi Festival, the Lebanese Michel El Gemayel, who after directing this event with music and performing arts for 11 years, was claimed from the neighboring and brand new Muscat Opera House. Until last year, the founder of the contest and the first great patron of Emirati culture, Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo –a magician of collaborations with the main world music institutions, such as Paloma O'Shea and the Santander Festival–, she spoke to him like a mother and made him “come home”. “What is seen in this city, the entire world coexisting on an equal footing, cannot be seen in many parts. That is the future”, adds the director of the festival, which is already celebrating its 20th anniversary.

This edition started with Juan Diego Flórez, on March 1, at the iconic Emirates Palace (the hotel now run by Mandarin Oriental), and this weekend María Pagés and Gregory Porter performed in this auditorium on consecutive days: a flamenco music and a jazzman lifting up a diverse audience from their seats –more than 60 nationalities came together in that From Sheherazade to Yo, Carmen that the festival has co-produced with the Liceu in Barcelona–, although few were Emirati.

In these types of events, El Gemayel clarifies, the locals do not usually wear the national dress, the white tunic with a headdress [in black and framing the face, for women]. They become westernized according to what they are going to see and get confused – except for the color of their skin – with people like Edward, an African-American from Alabama, a communications professional, who explains that going from Munich to Kuwait he decided to make a stop... “to see the king of groove”.

The culture industry has its impact, it turns the wheel of business. But now that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has completed five years (and has accumulated 3.7 million visitors since 2017) it is time to consider, on the one hand, whether the city will really overcome the showcase culture model and, on the other, if its East-West cultural miscegenation is real –beyond specific shows like De Sheherazade... or like the concerts with music from the Silk Road that Jordi Savall gives there– or it falls into colonialism.

All in all, Abu Dhabi must be recognized for its ability to send the message that, in a world prone to fragmentation, it is possible to turn to art and its history to rethink the coexistence of civilizations. Leaving, in addition, the impression that Eurocentrism has a cure.

An example of this is the narrative of the particular permanent collection of his Louvre. The equipment does not aspire to have a Da Vinci –although right now one of its walls hangs, San Juan Bautista, loaned for two years from the Parisian mother house for the 5th anniversary of the branch–, but rather to combine pieces from all times to, chronologically, establish semblances and peculiarities between different civilizations. From his tribune of honor, this Leonardo thus contributes to relativize and reposition the axis of history. Something that 20% of the local population also needs.

The visual artist Azza al Qubaisi, educated in English in her own country and trained for five years in London, returned to Abu Dhabi two decades ago with a sense of loss: that of her own culture, language, food, clothing. “I need to know who I am, what it is to be an Emirati. The loss we have suffered with only two generations makes me work three times as hard to capture that. I don't want to make the same mistake with my children”, she explains in the Umm Al Emarat park, where the free part of the festival is held.

In one of the social activities, the sculptor contributes by initiating children in the discovery of palm wood: "Let them notice its lightness, its beauty, paint it and then take it home as a magnet for their fridge," she argues. In the background is the classical singer Ahmed Al Hosani, who is rehearsing for the evening concert in the open air: he sings Sinatra's My way in Arabic and Albinoni's Adagio, to which he has put lyrics!