The UAE: No Longer a Cultural Desert

The UAE: No Longer a Cultural Desert

On a recent visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I was surprised by the opportunities in the cultural and creative industries. I watched my first Abu Dhabi-made film and heard talk about the imminent opening of the Etihad Museum in Dubai and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The Guggenheim is also planning a museum in Abu Dhabi. In August this year, the 2000-seat Dubai Opera opened. The venue will host a variety of performances, not just opera and ballet. The governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are funding this investment in culture and the arts. The long standing rivalry between the two largest emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) leads to one-upmanship. Dubai plans to open its Etihad Museum (a name meaning “union” and usually associated with Abu Dhabi) on national day, 2 December, beating Abu Dhabi to the first ribbon cutting. Louvre Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2017.

There is a more serious intent behind this cultural flowering on the edge of the Arabian desert. Both cities want to maintain their attraction as tourist destinations and compete with more established cultural centres. Authorities in both cities have recognised the need to offer more than landmark hotels, golf courses, beaches and shopping malls. Surveys of visitors to Dubai have highlighted the demand for cultural attractions to enhance a stay in the city. Dubai has planned for an opera house and museum for a decade but plans were put on hold by the financial crash. In the case of Abu Dhabi, there is also the need to diversify away from an oil-based economy. In the past, there has also been a nervousness about encouraging the arts, especially imported Western arts, due to the challenge to traditional values from such factors as expression of radical ideas through to men and women mixing in public.


This clash between cultural imports and tradition is the main theme in the Abu Dhabi-produced film I saw during my visit. Abdullah was financed by the Abu Dhabi government, stars Abu Dhabi actors and was produced and directed by Abu Dhabi citizens. Abdullah, a native of Abu Dhabi (played by Abu Dhabi actor Mohammed Ahmed) is growing up in a traditional household where his father’s word is law. Abdullah starts a love affair with music. In his youth, Abdullah turns to the traditional Arab instrument the lute-like oud but his efforts to master it lead to confrontation. After giving up on a dead end job, he flees the family home and moves into a flat accompanied by a piano and portraits of European composers. While ostensibly a personal journey, there is no hiding the political message of the film. As Abdullah struggles to earn a living as a film score composer in a society which remains wary of such foreign cultural imports as Western classical music and film, he discovers that the national anthem tune was written by a foreigner. He battles to persuade “The Ministry” to adopt his composition or even to allow it to be played in public. Abdullah is a cautious exploration of tensions in Abu Dhabi society: young Emiratis fretting at the need to conform to tradition, the perceived threat to those traditions from foreign culture and the reliance of Abu Dhabi on foreign expertise.

Film-making in the region remains small but is growing. The Dubai International Film Festival will have its 13th outing in December and has become a fixture in the international film festival circuit. The festival will feature about a dozen films made in the region. While talent and skills do exist in the region, as Abdullah highlights, they are in short supply and film producers still rely on outside help. While some of the crew on Abdullah were Emirati, many were foreigners and some of the lead actors had learnt their craft at foreign film and drama schools. As film making grows, there will also be opportunities for the associated services such as special effects creation, costumes and post production services. The museum sector will also create demand for specialist goods and services as it grows. The UAE is not renowned as a cultural centre but is establishing itself with government investment in the sector attracting big names and creating demand for companies who offer relevant goods and services.

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