Welcome to the “Island of Happiness.”
Here, on a literal desert island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a young, oil-rich nation-state is seeking to rise above its neighbors and catapult itself into history. At the same time, the world’s most famous museum is looking to expand its empire and to line its coffers for decades to come. This is the story of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the long-awaited centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar complex slated to showcase some of the most powerful names in the Western cultural universe: the Guggenheim Museum, New York University and the Sorbonne, among others.
The Louvre project — which French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated Wednesday and which will open to the public Saturday — represents the first overseas expansion of what is perhaps Europe’s most venerable art institution. The opening brings to an end a decade of delays and bitter controversy.
In France, scores of industry professionals still decry what they see as a beloved museum selling out to the highest bidder, accepting $464 million from the UAE government for the use of its vaunted name. Globally, human rights watchdogs still accuse the Louvre and other institutions on the island of having exploited and abused migrant labor.
The French and UAE governments quickly christened the new Louvre as a universal museum “that will broadcast tolerance and acceptance.” But the real purpose of this gleaming ziggurat on the waterfront remains a matter of intense debate. It will feature works, loaned from a network of French museums, by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian. But is the Louvre Abu Dhabi really about the art? Or is it a pawn in a larger game of statecraft and geopolitics?
Inside the UAE, the new museum is seen primarily as a means of recasting the nation’s public image from a “playground in the desert” to a cultural powerhouse.
“This is a major statement,” Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an Emirati royal and prominent art collector, said in an interview. “This is saying that we’re not playing in the little leagues — we’re playing in the major leagues. It’s probably the greatest museum in the world, and it will have not just a small branch but a massive presence.”
The project also figures into internal competition among the UAE’s seven constituent kingdoms, each of which is seeking its own distinctive niche, said Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert on the history of the Persian Gulf states at Rice University. Dubai, he said, embraced business and infrastructure nearly 20 years before Abu Dhabi, the capital, which ultimately controls the lion’s share of the country’s oil reserves. The ambitions of the latter, flush with cash, continue to rise.
In France, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has long figured in discussions that have far transcended the realm of art for art’s sake.
“The objective was never aesthetic — it was political,” said Didier Rykner, a French art historian who is among the project’s most outspoken critics.
Authorized by a 2007 act of the French Parliament, the new museum is often considered a soft-power component of a broader strategic expansion into the gulf region, which included the installation of permanent military bases in Abu Dhabi in 2009, the French military’s first overseas expansion since decolonization began in the mid-1960s.
As Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then-president, said when he inaugurated those bases, they would “show the responsibility that France, as a global power, agrees to assume with its closest partners, in a region that is a fault line for the whole world.” This is a stance that Macron has maintained since his election in May, attempting to position France as a chief interlocutor on the world stage, especially in the Middle East on the question of Iran.
In the throes of Persian Gulf turmoil, however, there is also the threat of nearby Qatar, whose capital, Doha, has long established itself as a more open center of intellectual exchange in the region: It is home to the Al Jazeera media network, a satellite campus of the Brookings think tank and an acclaimed art museum of its own, designed by I.M. Pei. Doha’s skyline features a prominent skyscraper by the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, later commissioned to design the Louvre Abu Dhabi. As Nouvel said in an interview, “Now is not the time to talk about that.”
Ulrichsen said of UAE officials, “They’re trying to discredit Qatar’s attempt to build up a simple brand, and this will only help them to project an image of benevolent modernization.”
For critics, that “modernization” is little more than a desert mirage.
While notably more liberal than its neighbors in the region, the UAE still has repressive tendencies that severely limit freedom of expression, jail dissidents and allow certain offenses to be punished according to sharia law. There is also the lingering issue of how — and by whom — the glistening new landmarks on the Island of Happiness were built.
For years, journalists and rights advocates accused the development of abuse and exploitation — allegations that ultimately warranted the intervention of a European human rights panel in December 2013. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, the new Abu Dhabi project saw "some employers continue to withhold wages and benefits from workers, fail to reimburse recruiting fees, confiscate worker passports, and house workers in substandard accommodations."
In recent years, the UAE government has begun overhauling the “kafala” system of migrant labor, which exists in many gulf states and makes migrant laborers dependent on their employers for their visas. But the accusations remain, much to the chagrin of Louvre officials. “We have visited the workers and seen their conditions here. We have verified their conditions,” Nouvel said. “And I can assure you — I’m not sure it exists. It does not exist like that in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.”
But the Island of Happiness is only a literal island. It is not exempt from the law of the land, a reality that has led many to question whether prominent Western universities and museums are compromising their values by establishing satellites in Abu Dhabi. Some of these institutions have listened, going so far as to cancel their agreements. After two professors, both of Shiite origin, were denied security clearance to enter the UAE, New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute decided last week to end its relationship with the university's Abu Dhabi campus.
Similar critiques have been levied against the Louvre, mostly over its appearing to censor potentially sensitive artworks of a political or sexual nature in Abu Dhabi.
"Of course, we can say: 'Why should we be here? Why should we be doing this?' " said Olivier Gabet, the director of Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Gabet served for several years on the new museum's planning committee and taught in the art history program at the Sorbonne's Abu Dhabi campus, which trains local students to enter the museum profession. "But we could say the same in reverse. By the same token, why wouldn't we want to be there, in the midst of a social, educational and cultural transformation like this?"
Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, the director of Abu Dhabi’s culture department, said much the same. In an interview, he highlighted one particular gallery as the essence of the entire museum — a small, dark room that displays a medieval Koran, a medieval Bible and a medieval Torah.
This might appear an unusual presentation in Abu Dhabi, where there are clear efforts to discourage religious and political symbols of Judaism. There are no synagogues in the UAE, which allows a limited number of other non-Islamic places of worship such as churches and Hindu temples. The Israeli flag has been banned from many international sporting competitions.
“One of the most beautiful books we have is the Yemeni Torah,” Mubarak said, referring to the item on display, dated from 1498. “The message of balance and acceptance will be broadcast from this particular gallery.”
Said Gabet: "The museum carries with it the finest tradition of French universalism and tolerance. By putting it in Abu Dhabi, one of the new hearts of the Middle East, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its French and Emirati partners are showing that the Arab world is not confined to obscurantism. Moreover, it's a form of optimism. We have to believe in that. We have to work for it."
For now, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is almost entirely a French operation, although museum officials say that roughly half its employees are UAE citizens. Its chief curator is a French man, while its deputy is an Emirati woman. Furthermore, it was a consortium of French public museums that procured the majority of the initial works to be displayed, and it is this same group, known as Agence France Muséums, that will coordinate the facility’s major exhibitions for the next several years.
Asked whether an Emirati may one day take the helm, Mubarak put it this way: “When the time is right.”