Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Gulf Petrodollars – Buying More than Banks and Football Clubs!

It requires more than cash to create a lively arts scene. Few, however, will deny that money helps to kick start the process. That is exactly what the Gulf countries are attempting to do.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are spending large amounts of cash in an attempt to establish themselves as regional arts hubs. It is unclear whether either or both will succeed.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE (and often overshadowed by its glamorous neighbour Dubai), has ambitious plans. The city entered into a 30 year agreement with the French Louvre museum in 2007. Under the terms of the deal Abu Dhabi is reputed to have agreed to pay approximately USD 1.2 for the exclusive use of the Louvre name, borrowing art works and management advice from the Paris museum.
Construction of Abu Dhabi's 24,000 square metres Louvre Museum began in May 2009. The museum is expected to open in 2012. Once the building is complete, the final cost is estimated to be in the range of USD 150 million.
The museum is part of Abu Dhabi's master plan to develop itself as a cultural and tourism center. The USD 27 billion plan includes other museums and attractions, including the Guggenheim Museum and an annual Abu Dhabi International Film Festival.
Abu Dhabi is not alone is channelling its petrodollars into 'buying' culture. Qatar made a splash on the scene last year with the inauguration of its Museum of Islamic Art. The museum has an area of 45,000 square metres and was designed by architect Leoh Ming Pei to be an iconic structure. The museum sits on the edge of Doha's harbour.

The Corniche in Doha (Qatar) with the Museum of Islamic Art building on the left

Like Abu Dhabi, Doha has also put itself forward for hosting an annual film festival. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival hosts the premier of the film Amelia on October 29. The 2009 Doha Festival is testing the waters with some fairly aggressive films, in the Gulf context. They include films about underground Iranian rock stars and frustrated Jewish men.
The Gulf countries have been successful in buying various forms of physical infrastructure in the last few decades. They are still building – the new Dubai metro was inaugurated only a few months ago. Whether culture and the arts are something one can purchase 'off the shelf' is a question yet to be answered.
It is unclear how the national conscience in the two countries will react to artists pushing the boundaries of free speech, especially where religious sensitivities are concerned. The question of a museum displaying nude portraits is just one among a host of other obvious ones.
Singapore started its journey down the arts road more than a decade ago. The effort includes the Esplanade, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and a gradual loosening of the government's strict social mores in a conservative society. Even today Singapore's arts scene remains very much a work in progress.
Permitting homosexual themed plays and a performing centre (the Esplanade) are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a flourishing artistic sub-culture.
Many centuries ago a Moorish kingdom in Spain's Granada was a global cultural and artistic leader amongst its contemporaries. One can only hope that the petrodollars now flowing into the Gulf kingdoms will precipitate a similar cultural revival within the Islamic world.

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