Dreams in the desert
B. N. Goswamy

The city of Baghdad. From a medieval illustrated manuscript (of the kind that Arab collections are so far rich in). 14th century.
The city of Baghdad. From a medieval illustrated manuscript (of the kind that Arab collections are so far rich in). 14th century.

There is commotion in the Middle East yet again, a flurry of activity. This time, however, of a different order, for it concerns the relatively quieter domains of art. Quite suddenly, many of the emirates and sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf area –Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, for instance – have made their minds up to re-invent themselves as it were, and turn the region into a great, bustling hub of the art world. Wonderful collections have long existed in the area, or have been in the process of being formed, but there are plans now also to build in the region some of the greatest museums of the world. Among the most celebrated of architects have been engaged — Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, with I.M.Pei also being mentioned — and great marvels are being planned: edifices that seem to float on the surface of water, glass and steel structures that are almost completely transparent, underwater museums in which as you are looking at objects, you will also be able to watch pearl-diving, and see Arab dhows floating above you. So many Sheikhs are out hunting for art; their representatives are all over art auction houses armed with shopping lists; unprecedented prices are being paid; in some areas of collecting the market is being cornered, as they say.

Slowly, one had started getting used to the idea of news coming in practically every other day of what has been acquired, and by which Sheikh. Or which principality was in negotiation with which designer or architect. Even the idea that a branch of New York’s famed Guggenheim Museum was going to open in Abu Dhabi in 2012 did not truly startle one considering that the Guggenheim had already spread its wings and opened in Europe. But there is something quite unprecedented in the daring move that the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi have made of late: to build a new Louvre — ‘the world’s premier shrine to art’ as it is often called; home of Mona Lisa — in Abu Dhabi. A deal with the French Government has been signed; the site has been finalised: the small man-made island, Saadiyat, off the coast of the emirate, currently uninhabited but soon to be turned into a multi-billion dollar cultural district; an architect has been appointed: the Frenchman Jean Nouvel. The ‘Louvre Abu Dhabi’ will open a few short years from now, perhaps as early as 2015.

There is something utterly fascinating about the details of the deal signed by the French with the ruling Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, for undreamt-of sums are involved. To start with, the French government will receive $525 million in return simply for allowing the use of the Louvre brand-name; for its first 10 years the Abu Dhabi museum will receive loans of art objects from the Louvre, Paris and other French museums like the Centre Pompidou, and pay the equivalent of $747 million for the loans and temporary shows; in addition, Sheikh Zayed will make a gift of $33 million for the renovation of a wing of the Paris Louvre which will be dedicated to Islamic art and named after him.

The cost of building the Abu Dhabi Louvre – the design envisaged is a white discus-shaped building with galleries illuminated by shafts of sunlight streaming through irregular-shaped windows in the roof – has yet to be calculated, and is likely to add hundreds of millions of dollars more to the cost, pushing the overall project close to $2 billion. Both parties – the French and the Abu Dhabi Sheikhs – are eager to position themselves in the eyes of the rest of the world on this staggering move. On the French side, the initiative is said to have come from the former French President, Jacques Chirac, himself, who has described the agreement as an important way of bridging what the "world considers a clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

At the Abu Dhabi end, this cultural coup is clearly aimed at bringing enormous prestige to the place, and the rulers of the emirate are speaking of the Louvre as the centrepiece of a cultural district expected to attract millions of well-heeled tourists to the emirate, and to diversify its oil-dominated economy.

With a story as big as this, questions are bound to be asked, and comments made. Abu Dhabi’s art conquest has become a subject of scandal and controversy among French elitists who believe the Republic’s cultural integrity is being sold off for petrodollars.

"My feeling is this is a project more determined by political than artistic considerations," Philippe R`E9gnier, editor of the French paper Journal des Arts, wrote. "It is about France’s presence in the region and its economic concerns. This isn’t a project piloted by the museum or its curators; it has been taken over by the ministry of culture." Then there are the voices in the media. At a recently held press conference, sharp questions were asked: one Arab reporter asked how the new museum would protect its visitors against ‘pornography’, meaning mostly nudity which is so much a part of French sculpture. A French journalist asked whether the museum had sufficient protection against "Islamic extremists" who might threaten the Louvre Abu Dhabi or its collection. A writer in the Guardian takes the view that, money and politics apart, the whole enterprise is fuelled by the young, western-educated members of the ruling families of the emirates "who want to impress jet-setting friends in the West with their sophistication. Their interest isn’t their fathers’ interest, which is to develop tourism. Their interest is to seem hip, to be able to say: "We too have conceptual art!" But he also adds, more earnestly, that there is a strangeness to the overall theme of the Louvre coming to Abu Dhabi. French art is being brought to "a land that has no natural connection to this culture."

There is something in all that is being said, but the fact remains that the deal is done. There will be a Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and perhaps some of our own young will be travelling to the place some day to see it. Or to be seen.