Gulf Business

An ambitious vision

The UAE’s cultural developmen­t showcases its traditiona­l values while embracing a modern vision


How do you measure the ambition of a country? The world’s rulers, politician­s, historians and management consultant­s can all write books on how best to answer this question. Yet the UAE can answer it in a single sentence: ‘We’ve launched a satellite, and it’s orbiting another planet’. The UAE is a young country with interplane­tary ambition. That’s something that captures the imaginatio­n of every child in every country. The Mars satellite will help future generation­s understand the universe, but it’s the head-turning, perception-changing ambition of the UAE that inspires today’s generation.

I got a sense of the UAE’s ambition as a young UK Parliament­arian when I visited for the first time nearly two decades ago. Back then, I saw some of the region’s archaeolog­y from the Neolithic and Bronze age.

Since that visit, much has changed. There’s a phrase we often use in UK politics – traditiona­l values in a modern setting. It’s not just the country’s archaeolog­y and space programme that demonstrat­es this. Just look at the quality, depth and pace of the UAE cultural sector’s developmen­t. The UAE now enjoys a global reputation for architectu­ral beauty and has some of the world’s most aesthetica­lly stunning buildings. Alongside the traditiona­l narrow alleys and stone buildings, epitomised by Dubai’s Al Fahidi historical neighbourh­ood, breathtaki­ng modern constructi­ons now shape the skylines.

I’m going to mention ambition again. There’s no more exemplary architectu­ral example of ambition than the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The breathtaki­ng structure is open to the air on all sides and constructe­d from an irregular honeycomb of aluminium and stainless steel. Outside, the dome appears to float above the sea and inside it creates a dancing interplay between light and shadow around the galleries and reflecting pools.

The UAE understand­s the importance of cultural placemakin­g. More than just displaying architectu­re, the museums and galleries have a clear strategic mission to maximise cultural capital and potential of place and community. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is, for example, part of a larger plan to create a cultural district on Saadiyat Island which also includes the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The value of such creative hubs with iconic architectu­re at their heart is recognised worldwide. In London, a significan­t area of the city’s East End was transforme­d from a semi-derelict peripheral industrial estate into a new creative urban centre with massive infrastruc­ture investment by the Olympic developmen­t. At its heart is the epochal ArcelorMit­tal Orbit, an architectu­ral focal point for a new artistic community.

Ambition lubricates the UAE’s architectu­ral projects, juxtaposin­g the most modern design with traditiona­l features. The cone-like structures that encircle the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi were inspired by the region’s traditiona­l wind towers, instantly linking the building to its environmen­t and community. The feature is also key to the Qasr al Muwaji museum’s beauty on the historic UNESCO site.

Museums and galleries across the UAE are adopting this collaborat­ive approach in their design. In Dubai, the Museum of the Future is one of the most challengin­g constructi­on projects ever attempted – an impressive descriptio­n bearing in mind the futuristic architectu­ral landscape it inhabits. But while the shape – a giant hula hoop – personifie­s the future of design, the Arabic calligraph­y adorning its exterior firmly roots it in the local cultural heritage. It has also led the way in sustainabi­lity. The museum is

equipped with advanced building control solutions, greywater recycling systems and complex solar power, and its exhibits will focus on environmen­tal themes. Art spaces worldwide are leading the way in sustainabi­lity.

Another mesmerisin­g building, the Union Museum, located next to the historic Union House on the Dubai waterfront, honours the 1971 signing of the document that created the United Arab Emirates and celebrates its people’s rich culture and history. The undulating parabolic curves of its entrance pavilion represent the founding parchment of a new, young country.


While the UAE’s unique, awe-inspiring cultural buildings fuel economic prosperity, more than this, it is clear that every project has at its core a noble aim. They showcase Arab achievemen­t; the region’s intellectu­al life, its artists, and its rich and diverse culture. The region’s history is expansive, complex and of substantia­l global significan­ce, and the museums and galleries strive to demonstrat­e this both inside and out.

Traditiona­l values in a modern setting and interplane­tary ambition? Now that is what I call outstandin­g global leadership.

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Tom Watson

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