Critical remarks on Art Institutions in the UAE

Keywords: cultural colonialism/ mega museums/ starchitects/ cultural identity/ historical loss

The article is intended to unfold the dialogue between national initiatives and architects and how it affects planning decisions, architectural vocabulary, and overall urban relationships. The opportunity for coexistence between the conventional city center and modern construction does not occur in many Middle Eastern cities, where heritage preservation is limited or non-existent. In certain cases, the geographical background is approached in a tabula rasa manner. The real estate value of strategically situated sites is realized by stripping them naked and preparing them for generic types of high-density construction.

The United Arab Emirates, known as the Emirates or the UAE, is an Arab nation situated on the Persian Gulf on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, neighboring Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south, and sharing sea boundaries with Qatar and Iran. In 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formed as a coalition of seven emirates. Few countries on the planet have seen as many transitions as the United Arab Emirates has during the last few decades. This union of seven Emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ajman, and Fujairah – is not only the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, but also the world’s wealthiest state per resident, and the Middle East’s newest commercial center.

A standardized application of towers on podiums (especially in Dubai) eliminates the granular structure that once prevailed instead of the conventional urban center. On the other side, simply retaining these traditional sites and converting them into picture props for tourist use creates a new problem: the replication of history as an asset.

The political interventions

The political intervention of the USA and the French government in the Arab emirates reflect on the cultural face of the non-nation base state.  2007 is an important year for middle eastern countries in Dubai and Qatar; many art galleries popped up. International city branding and prestige projects of the Louvre and Guggenheim in Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi started like that. It seems like the museums bring progressive development to these conservative countries, which have strict censorship.

Indeed what is interesting here, to observe the timing relation between military base settlement and museum agreements.  There is a question to ask if the Gulf leaders and Western institutions have different motivations to do these deals. Did Western institutions see as an opportunity in culture as other sectors?

Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority declared:

“Saadiyat Island demonstrates the vision of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, to further establish Abu Dhabi’s position as a destination of international standing. The aim of Saadiyat Island must be to create a cultural asset for the world. A gateway and beacon for cultural experience and exchange. Culture crosses all boundaries, and therefore Saadiyat will belong to the people of the UAE, the greater Middle East and the world at large.”

It can be considered as proof of how ambitious their vision. Saadiyat Island has individual fragmented museums; each has a vast cultural and economic impact per se. The architects dedicated to the cultural district all have a strong visual identity and self-branding. These famous architect selections are also quite diversified, which plays a role in making the island globally well-adapted. It can be said that the thematic approach is based on the marriage between architectural branding and museum branding.

Art in UAE - Critical remarks on Art Institutions
Starchitects’ museum projects in Abu Dabi Culture Island

Art marketing in the middle east

If we look at the wide perspective to understand today’s art marketing in the middle east in the last decade, trying to understand the megaprojects is the best place to start with. The inauguration of the art fairs in the UAE, Art Dubai (2006) and Abu Dhabi Art (2008), and massive investments, such as Louvre and Guggenheim,  on art and culture in Abu Dhabi, is not only the result of an increase gradual curatorial interest in the middle east but also results of changings of the political dynamics in the Gulf.

The very initial project declared in 2007 was consist of four worldwide star architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid,  museum and a performing arts center commissioned by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company, that would place the UAE capital’s Saadiyat Island, which resides outside the emirate, as a historical and cultural hub. However, we will look at here two symbolically strong ones, Guggenheim and Louvre.

Tradition refers to the aspect of history that is passed down through the generations.  A society’s culture is focused in part on its cultural roots. Tradition in the Arab world is a multi-layered complex, not a mere layer of past cultural manifestation. Traditional architecture has the most scope for the creation of a sustainable contemporary provincialism of a continuously high standard, capable of accommodating a wide range of old and modern building styles. Through centuries of continuous growth, the possible diversity derived from the sheer wealth of the heritage diversified. As a result, architecture is a practice that may embody a variety of cultural influences. In the UAE and the Arab World, relying on imported architectural designs may be attributed to a loss of faith in conventional practices, which are seen as indicators of poverty and retardation.

Images are just one part of a tale, and UAE’s promoters have used narrative desire in a much broader manner to promote the city: the limited and revisionist creation, replication, and distribution of myths about the area. Before delving into the case of Abu Dhabi, it’s worth taking a look back at the past of position branding with a quick overview of the extensive literature on the matter. Architecture and urban planning, especially in the case of UAE, Dubai, and Qatar play a significant role in the grand formula of position marketing. A few iconic “signature” or “trophy” buildings or frameworks built by world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, or Zaha Hadid count for a lot, particularly in cities competing for global interest and investment.

Consequently, the sale of specific urban lifestyles has turned the city into a performance venue. The speculative nature of the urban picture is so essential to the modern urban economy that cities all over the world are being transformed into entertainment centers on a regular basis.

The ‘‘commodification” of the location has been criticized as a result of such community marketing; the city is marketed and marketed as a commodity, much as every other consumable product. This commodification could include the exploitation of cultural artifacts for profit, or the marketing of reimagined heritage and culture to attract new buyers and visitors.

*UPC: Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council

**Estidiama: an Arabic word used for sustainability. also is a building planning framework for more environmentally friendly construction and operation of structures and cities. Correspondence of LEED in Europe.


Ajana, Btihaj. “Branding, legitimation and the power of museums: The case of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.” Museum and Society [Online], 13.3 (2015): 316-335.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt: With a New Preface. University of California Press, 1988

John Biln and Mohamed El Amrousi, Dubai’s Museum Types: A Structural Analytic, Museum World, Volume 2, Issue 1 pg. 99-112, 01 Jul 2014

Diana Nemiroff, Ed by: Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W.Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, A critical history of exhibitions of First Nations art: Modernism, Nationalism and beyond,1996, London

Paco Barragan interview with Nat Muller, ART PULSE No:19, Vol.5, 2014


Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, 1992, London

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Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) official website: