Abu Dhabi’s cultural policies are in many ways a mirror image of those of Dubai. Whereas Dubai’s rulers let things happen, Abu Dhabi’s rulers like to plan well ahead. While Dubai has become the icon of glitzy global capitalism, Abu Dhabi seems modest, almost sleepy at times. Dubai is fun, Abu Dhabi serious.
The ruling families of both emirates trace their ancestry to the same Bani Yas tribe and the same settlement, Liwa oasis in the far south of the UAE, on the northern border of the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali). The difference between both is best explained by accidents of (natural) history, namely the existence of large reserves of oil in Abu Dhabi, and of an incipient merchant community in Dubai. The disparate size of both emirates (Abu Dhabi covers 87% of the UAE, and Dubai only 5%, the other emirates being even smaller) explains why the Al Nayhan have for long been considered the primus inter pares among the tribes that ultimately created the UAE together.
Until the 1960s, the rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai sometimes resulted in armed clashes, but now cooperation within the federal structures of the UAE seems harmonious. Abu Dhabi retains the presidency of the UAE, and is the seat of federal government, and thus of the embassies, most international organizations, etc.
With about 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves for a population of about 500,000 Emiratis (and some 1.5 million migrant workers) the emirate basks in wealth. Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Wealth Investment fund is capitalized to the tune of 850 billion dollars, making it the richest in the world. But instead of laying back and enjoying their wealth, the Al Nayhan family has decided to build the infrastructure for a sustainable future of Emirati society.
Sheikh Zayed (bin Sultan Al Nayhan), in particular, is seen as the founder of the nation. Ruling from 1966 (i.e. before independence) to 2004, he set the tune for not only Abu Dhabi, but also the other Emirates. The core of his development policies was education and economical diversification. This policy is still the guiding one for not only Abu Dhabi, but for the other emirates too.
With local development policies well on track, Abu Dhabi plans on playing a larger regional and international role. A keyword in all the public relations documents spawned by the city’s project development agencies is ‘excellence’. The initiatives taken by planners to achieve excellence, affect the full range of development, from port facilities through industry to environmental programs. Hereafter, we mention a few that concern the cultural sector directly or indirectly.
Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to promote cultural development in the Emirate not only focus on the capital city. Al Ain, a historic city on the border with Oman – and the fourth largest city in the UAE after Sharjah – is not only the epicenter of the UAE’s archaeology and built cultural heritage; it is also home since 2011 to the Al Qattara arts center, which provides modern workshop facilities to artists, and educational programs for the public at large.