Abu Dhabi's Vision

By Highet, Juliet | The Middle East, August-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Abu Dhabi's Vision


Highet, Juliet, The Middle East


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ABU DHABI IS on its way to becoming a global cultural destination, certainly a magnet for visitors to the Middle East, seeking more than to fry themselves on the beaches of Dubai--or shopping. As part of this initiative, The Khalili Family Trust offered a selection of over 500 breathtaking pieces from the Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, the world's largest and most comprehensive Islamic collection. It is the first time these museum-quality artefacts were on show to the public in the Middle East; the selection includes a number of works never previously exhibited, such as an amazingly detailed panoramic watercolour of Mecca, painted in 1843, the earliest visual record of the Holy City.

The exhibition, titled The Arts of Islam: Treasures from the Nasser D Khalili Collection, was presented by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). Its chair, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, said: "This is an exhibition of international acclaim and its staging is in line with our ambition of establishing the UAE capital as a global cultural hub. The staging of this exhibition, and others to follow in the months and years to come, will assist in raising regional awareness of the fine arts and nurturing a cultural psyche which will culminate in the creation in Abu Dhabi of the world's largest cluster of cultural assets."

One of TDIC's signature developments is the creation of the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, one of the most ambitious urban and cultural developments ever conceived. It will be achieved by building a series of permanent institutions--the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi contemporary arts museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi universal museum, a performing arts centre, a cluster of Festival Park arts pavilions, as well as a Maritime Museum.

TDIC is empowered to manage the tourism investment zones, supporting the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's (ADTA's) mission to assist UAE economic diversification through tourism development. And as sentient tourism authorities are sooner or later forced to acknowledge there is life beyond the pool-lounger. Dubai, or Crane City as it is commonly known, is desperately trying to recover its heritage, almost demolished in the pell-mell rush to 'progress' of the last few decades. And, as other progressive governments have also been obliged to recognise, resources such as oil and natural gas are finite. Therefore "economic diversification" is the name of the game.

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But it is not just for tourists that heritage and contemporary culture are now being played as trump cards for the future of the region. It is for the enjoyment and enlightenment of its citizens. The chair of TDIC and ADTA, Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, is also chair of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADCH). In the foreword to the weighty 400-page 'catalogue' to the Al Khalili exhibition, with its gilded end papers, and wealth of full-page details of artefacts, he writes: "We chose to hold this exhibition in Abu Dhabi because it relates directly to our heritage, and it sheds light on the universal, humane and aesthetical dimension in Islam, in an interesting and accessible way. Thus as well as being culturally relevant to Abu Dhabi, this exhibition, and accompanying educational and outreach programmes, perfectly fulfil our wider cultural and educational strategy for Abu Dhabi.

"Abu Dhabi's vision is to bring culture and the arts closer to education and public life. Thus we have embarked on the production and presentation of an extensive programme of heritage, art and culture-oriented events and initiatives, which include an art fair, exhibitions, conferences and festivals among many other formats."

This remarkable exhibition, The Arts of Islam, presented both their religious and secular aspects, through a series of themes including the development of the arts associated with manuscripts of the Holy Koran, especially calligraphy.

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