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Saadiyat Island

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, anticipated completion 2017. Rendering.

THE CONVERGENCE of cultural capital on the lone and level sands of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island—where sumptuous outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, as well as a new institution, the Zayed National Museum, are being built near a New York University branch campus—may seem sui generis, but in fact it has several precursors. It is tempting to trace this museum cluster’s line of descent back to Berlin’s Museumsinsel. After all, the Prussian planners and architects who developed that Spree River island were aiming to create a grand ensemble of institutions that would burnish the status of their royal patrons and house their imperial plunder. The result was a historical prototype for the museum quarters and cultural districts that would become a keystone of urban revitalization in the late twentieth century. Depending on your preferred periodization, then, the Saadiyat plan is either the crescendo of a now-anachronistic Enlightenment project or the turbocharged finale of the museum-building boom that began in the go-go 1990s.

Either way, this vast cultural-architectural enterprise is reaching a crescendo of its own. Over the past year, a series of reports from Human Rights Watch, the law firm Nardello & Co., and the Gulf Labor Coalition, of which I am a founding member, has shown that despite ongoing efforts to pressure Saadiyat’s cultural institutions into guaranteeing fair labor conditions, worker protections are simply not being enforced. Meanwhile, the government of the United Arab Emirates has stepped up its crackdown on labor advocates, denying entry to Gulf Labor activists and artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad in May. (I was barred two months earlier.) As the Guggenheim and Louvre projects enter their final phases of construction, it is more urgent than ever to question the role they are playing in Saadiyat’s creation.

This is how Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s former empire builder, recounts his conception of the Saadiyat cluster:

I spent a few days flying around in a helicopter around the site, and I got a meeting with the Crown Prince . . . [who said] “What would you do?” And so I did a drawing on a napkin at the hotel where we met. I said, “Here’s the Guggenheim; here’s the Louvre; here’s the maritime museum; here’s the national museum; here’s the opera house.” . . . He took the drawing and said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do. Who are the architects?” And so I said “Frank Gehry for the opera house, Zaha Hadid for the museum, Jean Nouvel for the Louvre, Tadao Ando for the maritime museum, and Santiago Calatrava for the national museum.” He disagreed. He wanted Frank Gehry for the museum and Zaha for the opera house. . . . And then we proposed a biennale, and we hired fourteen other architects to design pavilions around the canal.

Let’s imagine this is how deals are typically made in the upper echelons of the art world, between artistic directors and wealthy patrons. We seldom get an account quite as cocky as Krens’s, or with a detail quite as cheesy as the napkin, but the project pitch and its green-lighting are not so far from Hollywood. Crass? Perhaps, but no more so than any number of dubious arrangements that fill the annals of art patronage. Nor is the acquisitive impulse of Abu Dhabi’s rulers—their drive to buy the institutional brands, the starchitects, and the art collections to fill the buildings—any more mercenary than the zeal with which Prussian kings or American robber barons amassed their own now-canonized hoards.

So what’s so different about Saadiyat? And why has it attracted so much notoriety? To answer the first question, Saadiyat is being developed as a chunk of luxury real estate—it is promoted as “a premier island destination.” The museums are merely part of the draw—just another amenity for residents who have everything else that money can buy. The website of Saadiyat’s developer makes this crystal clear, noting that the villas “have been built around natural beauty, cultural experiences, architectural splendors, and vast business potential.” Here, access to culture is just another item on a list of selling points, a lifestyle enhancement. Yet so far, at least, this aspect of the plan for the museums has not garnered much attention, let alone criticism.

The issues that have raised the alarm about Saadiyat—and rightly so—are the specter of human rights abuse perpetuated upon the island’s migrant workforce and the prospect of restricted rights of expression for artists and curators. For five years now, Gulf Labor has been at the forefront of spotlighting the worker exploitation. We have used a variety of tactics to pressure the Guggenheim in particular: a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, occupations of museum branches (through our direct-action spin-off G.U.L.F.–the Global Ultra Luxury Faction) in New York and Venice (where we participated in the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale), and agitprop artwork (through our 52 Weeks campaign). Several NGOs and human rights–advocacy groups are also focused on worker conditions in the UAE and Qatar, but Gulf Labor has been able to say and do things that the more official organizations could not. As artists, writers, and educators, our position as coordinators of cultural value requires that government officials pay at least a modicum of attention, if only because the strenuous project of nation building in the Gulf States demands a degree of openness to practitioners of high culture and the liberal arts.

But only the most deluded could imagine that the openness was unlimited. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Emirati repression of dissent—which intensified after the Arab Spring, resulting in the jailing of dozens of pro-democracy advocates—would encroach on the free-speech zones tacitly extended to the liberal Western institutions recruited for Saadiyat duty. Earlier this year, as Gulf Labor stepped up its investigative fieldwork in Abu Dhabi labor camps, a series of travel bans (“for security reasons”) fell into place. Raad, Sukumaran, and I joined the growing list of labor investigators—journalists and NGO monitors—who have been deported from, or banned from traveling to, the UAE.

The embargo did not surprise us—we were tailed during our last visit to Abu Dhabi—and the resulting media coverage helped to publicize the campaign. Professional organizations in the academy and the art world (e.g., the American Association of University Professors, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) issued statements of support. Leading museum directors and curators condemned the bans, while administrators at NYU and the Guggenheim were left to contemplate how and why their Emirati partners had allowed them to be embarrassed in such a public manner. Cynics who had opined, from the outset, that Saadiyat’s cultural zone was simply window dressing for an authoritarian society took some pleasure in seeing their views vindicated.

For Gulf Labor, the ban on some of our members was a setback. Ours is a solidarity campaign, so any kind of restricted access hampers our capacity to build cross-class relations with Gulf workers. Even so, the clampdown helps illustrate a key principle of our campaign—that the rights of artistic expression and academic freedom are inextricable from the rights of those who build museums and classrooms. It is on the basis of that principle that we have begun a dialogue with the Guggenheim trustees about how to realize the three demands of our campaign: a debt-settlement fund to reimburse workers for their heavy recruitment fees, a living wage, and the right to worker representation. And it was to amplify those demands on a larger art-world stage that we accepted the invitation to participate in the Venice Biennale this past summer.

No cultural institution can afford to be associated with censorship or human rights abuse, so it is obvious why Saadiyat has become a moral quagmire for the administrators tasked with satisfying the Emirati authorities who bought their brands and are footing all the bills. Public outcry over reports about the often desperate circumstances faced by UAE’s migrant workers has been loud and clear. Outrage over these conditions is warranted, but it is worth asking why there has been no comparable hand-wringing over the brash use of the cultural institutions to sell deluxe housing and bookings in five-star hotels. No one seems to think it improper that the world’s premier art institutions have been folded so neatly into a real estate proposition master-planned to “maximize return on investment,” in the words of the Tourism Development & Investment Company, the state agency responsible for delivering the Saadiyat project. While museums and arts districts have long been promoted as vehicles of economic development for depressed neighborhoods, cities, and regions (the much-contested “Bilbao effect”), Saadiyat represents a new chapter in the expedient utilization of culture. TDIC’s deployment of the Louvre and the Guggenheim as a sales pitch for swanky homes (some of the island’s villas are currently on the market for more than eight million dollars in “cash”) sets a new milestone in the race to completely subsume the art world within the realm of market speculation.

This is surely why Krens’s story about the origin of the Saadiyat cultural district, with its heroic cast of starchitects and crown princes, is a fairy tale. Not because it didn’t happen (to him, at least), but because the arts cluster is not an island unto itself, nor was it ever meant to be. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of the construction workforce is bad enough (and sadly all too routine in the design profession). But to unplug the heady élan of the museum plan from its life support among the high-roller homeowners and residents of the nearby St. Regis hotel is to perpetuate the discredited but enduring art-world myth about the stand-alone realm of aesthetics. In that regard, Saadiyat may have less kinship with the Museumsinsel and more in common with the freeports—those tax-free storage facilities that have mushroomed around airports in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore, and elsewhere, where ultraexpensive art acquisitions can be privately exhibited by dealers and collectors for resale to other members of the 1 percent club.

Andrew Ross is professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, author of many books, and editor of The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (Or Books, 2015).