Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

UAE's Dynamic and Modern Cultural Foundation Just Keeps on Growing

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

UAE's Dynamic and Modern Cultural Foundation Just Keeps on Growing

Article excerpt

UAE's Dynamic and Modern Cultural Foundation Just Keeps on Growing

The growth of the Cultural Foundation of the United Arab Emirates mirrors the phenomenal growth of the city in which it is situated, Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, which is one of the modern miracles of the Middle East. From the time fresh water was discovered in 1760 on this previously uninhabited island in the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi slowly evolved first into a station for sea-borne merchants and fishermen and then into the political base for the Al Nahyan rulers of Abu Dhabi emirate.

Other than its picturesque fort, built in 1793 both as a residence and administrative headquarters for the ruler, there was little to distinguish Abu Dhabi from other ports along the Gulf. This was particularly true since some rulers of Abu Dhabi divided their time between their coastal base and the inland oases of the area. One of those oases, at the base of the Jebal Hafit mountain, is the storied Buraimi Oasis, which presently is divided between the Omani town of Al Buraimi and Al Ain (The Spring), second largest city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

After abundant oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in the 1950s, the island city began the expansion that, starting in the 1970s, became an explosion of construction. Because Abu Dhabi's ruler since 1966, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who also has served since December 1971 as president of the United Arab Emirates, has a passion for greenery, trees and shrubs were planted along every major road in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and other settled areas of the Emirate. The trees also extend in continuous belts flanking the highways connecting Abu Dhabi's settled areas, in extensive agricultural areas reclaimed from the desert, and in parks along what has become a spectacular, wooded "corniche" built along Abu Dhabi's highrise-lined seafront.

Early on, Sheikh Zayed became concerned that the historic landmarks of his capital could easily become lost among the modem buildings spreading from the seafront across much of the island and even onto additional land being reclaimed from the sea. However, from the beginning of the construction boom, the city's many old mosques were protected from the demolition that made way for high-rise office and apartment buildings. Land around the mosques also was left open, allowing them to modernize to keep pace with the beautification of the city, and to expand to keep up with the booming population growth.

The same concern for historic preservation also was applied to the old fort, whose walls of pebbles and coral rock had been expanded considerably from their original 1793 outlines, and which had continued to serve as the seat of government until 1966. Again, with a remarkable prescience exhibited as the construction frenzy continued, the area around the fort was kept clear, so that the highrises to come would not dwarf what had for more than 150 years been the major building on the island.

The entire complex is testimony to a strong sense of history by Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheikh Zayed.

In the parts of the fort vacated when Sheikh Zayed moved his administrative offices to the Al Manhal Palace, a Center for Documentation and Research was founded in 1968. In 1982, after restoration of all wings of the old fort was completed, the Center for Documention and Research occupied all of the building.

Two years later, the Center was attached to Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation, which since then has moved into a spectacular modem building, constructed in part of the large open area surrounding the Old Fort. In keeping with the low-lying architecture of the Old Fort and Abu Dhabi's nearby Grand Mosque, the Foundation's Cultural Center, though almost the equivalent of a city block in size, is housed in a four-story building, much of it completely surrounding a large atrium which serves as an exhibition hall.

The building features characteristics of Islamic architecture including multiple arches and arcades with lofty pillars. …

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