Journey into the culture of petrodollars

That 80 percent of the expatriate population that lives in Abu Dhabi – including King Juan Carlos and now also his grandson Froilán – had it easier because they didn't feel out of place in the middle of a piece of desert where fires don't stop of growing skyscrapers.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 March 2023 Saturday 09:57
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Journey into the culture of petrodollars

That 80 percent of the expatriate population that lives in Abu Dhabi – including King Juan Carlos and now also his grandson Froilán – had it easier because they didn't feel out of place in the middle of a piece of desert where fires don't stop of growing skyscrapers. The bet that the Emirati capital is making - with petrodollars - for "universal" culture is now a message in a bottle with the essences of good globalization: this "if you touch and I sing" which, according to Maria del Mar Bonet's song, "means that we understand each other".

Abu Dhabi, the second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates after Dubai, is a luxurious city and as such seeks to amaze. But not in a futile way. A visit to Saadiyat Island confirms right now that the idea of ​​a cultural district is very serious: next to the wonderful Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel, the works of the Guggenheim by Frank Ghery and also those of the National Museum designed by Norman Foster. The ridges of the latter rise right next to the recently inaugurated Abrahamic Houses, three aesthetically familiar contemporary temples dedicated to the three monotheistic religions, although they attract all kinds of audiences for their cultural factor.

Except, of course, during the hours of worship... "Yes, well, we live in Abu Dhabi, but we come from India, we couldn't pretend we were coming to pray", laughs a family that missed the mark and has presented the only day of the week that is closed to tourism. A fact: 50% of the city's population comes from East Asia. And in the services sector, the city competes well with neighboring Dubai, the business metropolis. "Ma'am, I have three daughters in the Philippines, you know, and in Dubai life is very expensive and salaries are lower, that's why I had to come to Abu Dhabi", explains hours later the waitress of a restaurant, where elegant Emirati women smoke oriental water pipes (narguile) while admiring the beach.

Apparently, Abu Dhabi understands culture as a tool of rapprochement between civilizations, a universal language. In practice, he uses it as an amalgam that gives meaning to the coexistence of these one and a half million people of 180 different nationalities who "coexist" in this economy based on the exploitation of oil and construction (a sector that causes evil from head to Human Rights Watch). If expat professionals are happy here, they will not be in a hurry to return to their home countries and will contribute significantly with their experience and knowledge to the growth of the country.

This 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 fifteen years, was claimed from the neighboring and brand new Muscat Opera House. Until, last year, the founder of the contest and first great patron of Emirati culture, Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo - a magician of collaborations with the main world institutions of music, such as Paloma O'Shea and the Festival de Santander–, spoke to him like a mother and said: it's time to go home. "What you see in this city, the whole world coexisting in equality, you cannot see in many places. This is the future", adds the executive director of the festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with magnificence.

It started with Juan Diego Flórez, on the first of March, in the auditorium of the iconic Emirates Palace (the iconic hotel now managed by Mandarin Oriental), and this weekend María Pagés and also Gregory Porter performed: a flamenco and a jazzman making diverse audiences rise from their seats – 60 nationalities converged in this De Sheherezade a Jo, Carmen which the festival has co-produced with the Liceu de Barcelona – although few were Emiratis.

In this type of event, explains El Gemayel, the locals do not usually wear the national dress, the white tunic with headdress (in black and framing their face, for women). They westernize themselves according to what they will see and confuse themselves – except for the color of their skin – with people like Edward, an African-American from Alabama, a communications professional, who explains that on his way from Munich to Kuwait he decided to make a stop... "to see the king of the groove".

The culture industry does not stop turning the wheel of business or the prosperous economy of impact. But now that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is five years old, it is time to consider whether the city will really overcome the showcase culture model and whether its East-West cultural mix goes beyond specific shows. Like this Pagés in particular, or like the concerts with music from the Silk Road given by Jordi Savall. And in this sense, we must grant Abu Dhabi the ability to send the message that, in a world that tends to fragmentation, it is possible to turn to art and its history to rethink the coexistence of civilizations. Leaving, moreover, the impression that Eurocentrism cares.

An example of this is the narrative of the particular permanent collection of his Louvre. The equipment does not pretend to have a Leonardo Da Vinci - although right now it has a Saint John the Baptist hanging for two years, on loan from the Parisian mother house for the 5th anniversary of the branch - but to combine pieces from all times to, from chronologically, establish similarities and peculiarities between the various civilizations. And from his tribune of honor, this Leonardo contributes fundamentally to relativizing and resituating the axis of history.

All in all, the pairing of East and West is in this chaos a battle against cultural colonialism. The visual artist Azza al Qubaisi, educated in English in her country and trained for five years in London, returned two decades ago to Abu Dhabi 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 harder to capture this. I don't want to make the same mistake with my children", he explains during one of the Festival's activities in the Umm Al Emarat park. The sculptor involves the children in discovering the wood of the palm tree: "Let them notice its lightness, its beauty, paint it and then take it home as a fridge magnet", she argues. Classical singer Ahmed Al Hosani plays in the background as he rehearses for the night's outdoor concert: he sings My way in Arabic. And Albinoni's Adagio, to which he has set lyrics!