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Can Culture Be Bought In the Gulf?

February 5, 2007
The New York Sun

The United Arab Emirates has made a splash by announcing plans to build four museums at a cost of $27 billion to transform its capital, Abu Dhabi, into what one effusive writer referred to as a "latter-day Xanadu."

If only it were so easy. Even the fabulously oil-rich cannot buy that yearning of the mind and soul called culture with a fistful of dollars.

For years now, Gulf Arabs have confused modernity with tall buildings, sophistication with the ability to trade on the New York Stock Exchange, and true education with the construction of gleaming, albeit vacuous, campuses.

True, in the past four decades Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Bahrainis, Emiratis, and other oil-rich Arabs have grown accustomed to buying anything. They have bagged whole foreign governments, a few former American presidents, Western businessmen, the best consumer technologies, yachts and palaces, and an entire expatriate workforce to run their countries.

But whenever they have encountered gray matter — questions of taste and the arts — their mercantile approach has crumbled.

One memorable example is the famed $3.62 billion UAE deal with France, struck in 1993, to supply 463 sophisticated Leclerc battle tanks to a country with barely 5 million people, just 10% of them native Arabs. When not enough UAE citizens could be found to man the tanks, they ended up rusting in the desert. Across the Gulf, tens of billions of dollars of modern warplanes, super-duper missile systems, computer centers, and other accoutrements of "modernity" are suffering a similar fate.

Abu Dhabi's attempt this past week to extend this "rent concept" to culture is likely to see the same outcome.

The deal, sealed by UAE sheiks, is indeed awesome in size and design: a 670-acre cultural district of four museums, a performing arts center, and 19 art pavilions, all conceived by celebrated architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel. It comes with a package of "leading cultural lights of the West, from the Guggenheim to the Louvre to Yale University," according to news reports.

What the spin artists have failed to explain is whether an audience exists in the UAE for what could end up as more expensive white elephants. It is going to be tough to find art lovers in a country in which the height of sophistication consists of chatting on cell phones in movie theaters at shopping malls.

Amazingly, UAE public relations specialists have managed to slip in, unquestioned, the notion that in "the next decade" Abu Dhabi will rival Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran, where centuries of heritage have created some of the world's greatest museums and enough natives who are true fans. Apologists for Gulf Arabs argue that they never get praised for their good deeds. Fair enough, but spending billions to reform an educational system that produces illiterates would go further toward creating the kind of audience that in the future will decide what museums it needs, instead of just aping the Louvre.

Indeed, reviving the Bedouin cultural heritage should take precedence, especially since the most ignorant act of aggression by Gulf Arab potentates over the past five decades has been erasing all of their ancestors' mud villages. The oldest building in Dubai, the super-modern rival city of the UAE, is the World Trade Center — built in 1979. Looking for anything authentic is next to impossible in Saudi Arabia. Native culture has been erased, and foreigners have been rented to design a future.

A good example of what can happen when modernity is faked can be found in Qatar, where a pretentious emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, and one of his even more pretentious spouses, Sheikha Mozza, became enamored with the idea of creating a Harvard-like educational atmosphere in a land that is a desert of thought and culture and a center of Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalism. Their billion-dollar ventures with Weill Cornell Medical College, the Rand Corporation, Texas A&M University, and Carnegie Mellon University stand today as an embarrassment. Nowhere near enough qualified Qatari or Gulf Arab students have been found, nor have foreigners, even when offered full scholarships, joined what in effect are gated communities in a society living in the 18th century.

As the Arab proverb says, "He who lacks something cannot give it."




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