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The city of Abu Dhabi is both the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the capital of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate of the UAE. The city is the second largest city of the UAE after Dubai, its population expected to exceed a million soon.
After the onset of oil exploration during the 1960s, the transformation of Abu Dhabi from a mostly inconspicuous village into a center of commerce and administration took off. This growth took place under Sheikh Zayed ibn Sultan al Nahyan (c.1918 – 2004), who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 till 2004 and was president of the UAE from 1971 on. Sheikh Zayed is generally venerated for being the architect of the UAE‘s rise to prominence. His name lives on through numerous institutions and landmarks in the Emirates, including in the cultural and educational field as he is considered to have been the mentor in these areas too.
Abu Dhabi’s per capita income stands at over 235,000 Dh, 47,000 Euro per Emirati, one of the highest in the world. But in many respects the city does not feel that opulent, partly due to the more introvert lifestyle of its inhabitants. To the uninitiated visitor, Abu Dhabi may even appear somewhat disappointing at first sight. Until recently, for instance, the difference in ambiance and ambition between Abu Dhabi and Dubai could be well illustrated by observing their flagship hotels, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel, an ultramodern design (at least on the outside) compared to Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel, erected in a retro-Mughal style.
However, Abu Dhabi’s architectural horizon and, with it, its cultural and educational landscape is gradually changing, something to which current ambitious cultural initiatives contribute. This is shown by many projects in and around the city, not the least the future museums on Saadiyat Island.
Contemporary Art Scene
Abu Dhabi’s cultural life, contrary to that of its direct ‘rival’ Dubai, is heavily institutionalized and structured ‘top down’. For years the ADACH, the Abu Dhabi Arts and Cultural Heritage Authority, was the leading player, initiating the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, ‘Abu Dhabi Classics’ flying in prestigious symphonic orchestras, the WOMAD world music festival, the Sounds of Arabia festival and many other activities. WOMAD, organized on a stretch of beach along the Corniche, was a hugely popular manifestation, offered for free to the community and uniting all communities from all walks of life. Though WOMAD has been shelved, the Tropfest short-film festival is still following the same formula, of free admission in an accessible place for a large crowd, although this festival concentrates on Arabic short films and so mainly caters to Arabic speaking communities. In this, Abu Dhabi is or was the only city in the region to offer such events on such a scale.
The leading role has been taken over by the Cultural Department of the TDIC, the Tourist Development and Investment Company, which has fused with ADACH under the name Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority, ADTCA. That culture is seen as so intricately linked with tourism, is indicative of Abu Dhabi’s strategic view on culture.
Many members of the Emir’s family see it as their personal task to support arts and culture. The current Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, took over a leading role in developing cultural life from his father. Another omnipresent figure in Abu Dhabi’s world of culture and education is Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Higher Education, who plays an important role in various cultural organizations. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his wife Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan are said to be driving forces behind the Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District plans. The Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Foundation is a major player, supporting both projects around Abu Dhabi Art as well as arts education and community outreach projects, during and outside Abu Dhabi Art. Another highly visible person in the arts field is Mrs Hoda Kanoo, founder of the Abu Dhabi Arts and Music Foundation. As a catalyst for Abu Dhabi’s cultural expansion, the name of Zaki Nusseibeh should also be mentioned; a Palestinian intellectual from an influential ancient family, he was for over three decades Sheikh Zayed’s personal translator. Zaki Nusseibeh is still an active member of the boards of many cultural institutions in the UAE.
Just before the economic crisis of 2008, there seemed to be no limits to Abu Dhabi’s plans for grandiose museums, daring performance halls, gravity defying high-rises, or ‘impossible’ bridges like the Sheikh Zayed bridge designed by architect Zaha Hadidand built after long delays due to construction problems. Since then, a number of Abu Dhabi’s grand-scale projects have been put on hold, though the list of projects that are supposed to continue is still impressive. There is Jean Nouvel’s design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled to open in 2015, as well as Norman Foster’s Sheikh Zayed Museum and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, which are supposed to follow with intervals of about a year. During Abu Dhabi Art 2012, Nouvel, Gehry and Foster came to Abu Dhabi to confirm that things were moving ahead, but the planning for Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center and Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum remains less clear.
In contrast with these almost French- or antiquity-styled ‘grands travaux’, there are just three art galleries in the city, or in fact not even really three, as the Salwa Zeidan Gallery, the only commercial gallery for contemporary art, recently moved out of its gallery space and the owner for the moment continues activities from her home, while the Ghaf Gallery hosts mainly photography and calligraphy exhibitions, but also theme exhibitions on F1 races and deer hunting. The Barakat Gallery, located in the Emirates Palace, is an antiques gallery, although the owner is opening a contemporary art gallery in Dubai. The recently opened Abu Dhabi Art Hub has several exhibition spaces, including the Genuine Gallery. Other galleries that existed in recent years have closed down.
Recently, however, some new initiatives were set up that could contribute to a more ‘bottom-up’ structured cultural life in the city. Paradoxically, these are also embedded with municipal and governmental authorities, but they aim at creating a solid indigenous foundation for autonomous cultural life in the city. The ambitious twofour54 ‘media zone’, initiated by Abu Dhabi’s municipality, hosts an array of cultural and media enterprises, ranging from small independent companies in design, music or video-production, up to the Tropfest film festival, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the major music and events organization Flash; the last three institutions by the way provide culture that very much coincides with the taste of the communities in the city.
The Abu Dhabi Art Hub in Musaffar is a promising place that may lead to something resembling Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, even though it started with a somewhat bumpy ride, as is described in the chapter on this venue. In any case, the owner is planning more similar venues.
Abu Dhabi Art, an initiative heavily supported ‘from the top’ by the TDIC, and designed as a prestigious art fair that could be Abu Dhabi’s answer to the Art Dubai fair, meanwhile tries to connect with the local artists and public. It partly benefits from strong support by the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Foundation, although it does not yet bring the same vibrant mix of macro- and micro-art life to the town as Art Dubai does.
Of ADACH’s activities that were not shelved, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been adopted by twofour54, while the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and the Beit Al Oud live on successfully, waiting for a new parent, maybe the ADTCA.
The ADMAF’s Abu Dhabi Festival primarily focuses on performing arts, but recently the Abu Dhabi Festival has started commissioning visual-arts projects as well.
The former ADACH’s own performance and exhibition space next to the ancient Al Hosn castle was going to be pulled down as part of a drastic refurbishment. However, the place might reopen soon after a less radical makeover, soon providing the city again with a much-needed performance and exhibition space in the middle of Downtown.
Meanwhile in the music sphere, Abu Dhabi is home to remarkable individual musicians, like pop star Hussein Al Jazmi and rapper The Narcicyst. The Beit Al Oud music academy is of interest to Abu Dhabi’s music life. Plans for an Abu Dhabi or general Emirates symphonic orchestra have been on the books, but as of now there are no attempts to establish a UAE National Symphony Orchestra based in Abu Dhabi.
In the vacuum between all these major and budding institutions, the tiny Cafe Arabia is a welcome cultural refuge.
Some claim there is a somewhat high turnover of expatriate mid- and high-level employees in the cultural field, indicating ongoing ‘seismic activity’ in Abu Dhabi’s cultural infrastructure. However, there is also a just call for Emiratization in the middle and high organization levels, now that more and more qualified indigenous employees are becoming available. Arts and culture are fields where women have taken opportunities to reach executive positions, both for expatriate and for Emirati women.
Abu Dhabi has several national universities and has attracted prestigious universities from abroad, like New York University and the Sorbonne, which both are located in ambitiously designed new premises. All these universities contribute considerably to Abu Dhabi’s cultural life with curricular and special extracurricular activities.
Apart from the film festivals, the UAE including Abu Dhabi has a growing cinematographers’ scene, with, for instance, Abu Dhabi born Nawaf Al Janahi as an emerging name. For this see the page on the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi film climate.
Partly due to historical ties between Al Ain and the Al Nahyan family, who resided there regularly, the ties between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are close. Although it is much more rural, it has its own theater and a museum. The ADACH’s WOMAD Abu Dhabi festival and Abu Dhabi Classics successfully brought some of their programs to Al Ain. The Al Qattara Arts Centre in Al Ain’s fort still runs under the banner of ADACH.
Artistic exchange opportunities
There are many international experts in Abu Dhabi’s cultural institutional, most of the positions being filled by headhunters (not vacancies). In addition, Abu Dhabi increasingly is trying to become a place for artist-to-artist exchanges.
With its introvert character, Abu Dhabi may seem a less inviting place for foreign artists, architects and others, as Frank Gehry stated somewhat generalizing in a New York Times interview: “The fact that I had no context to play with, and that this was a very private culture, no-one was going to invite me for dinner in their home, so to speak, made it very difficult to figure them out.”
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival has set up projects to reach local communities in which foreigners can also tie in, especially international filmmakers with a Middle-East background. This also is the case regarding the Tropfest short-film festival.
The Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival also offers opportunities for foreigners to participate in projects.
The role of the local universities is promising too. The various conferences and other activities set up on an academic level, such as at the Higher Colleges of Technology, also provide opportunities.
At least for Western travelers, visas for the UAE are on entry and for free. Taxis from the airport to Hamdan Street and the Tourist Club area would cost around 75 UAE Dirham, which is about 15 Euro, and are metered. There are two bus lines, in fact regular city buses, costing 3 Dirham (75 Eurocent), bringing you from the airport all the way to the main bus station and after that to the Hamdan Street and Tourist Club areas, where many mid-range hotels and good affordable restaurants are located. Who said that Abu Dhabi needs to be expensive?
The airport on entrance and exit has tax-free shops where alcoholic beverages are on sale at regular prices. Most of the five-star hotels and some pubs serve (pricy) alcoholic beverages.
Al Ain can be easily reached. There are regular bus lines from and to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Written by: Neil