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Thu 8 Feb 2007 12:53 PM

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The island of culture

Abu Dhabi’s flagship Saadiyat Island development will revolutionise the Middle East’s art scene.

For someone who is bringing names such as the Guggenheim and, possibly, the Louvre and British Museum to the region, Lee Tabler makes a surprising remark.

"There is no place on planet earth where museums are created to make money," says the CEO of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the master developer of the emirate's new ‘Culture Zone', Saadiyat Island.

In a way, he's right. An entry ticket to Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum will set you back US$13.65 and you'd pay a princely US$11 for access to the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Admission to London's British Museum is free and always has been.

Compare this with the artworks on display, and the ticket prices look cheap. The Mona Lisa - held at the Louvre - is priceless and will probably never be sold; items at the Guggenheim are worth millions; let's not get into the value of the Elgin Marbles, under the disputed ownership of the British Museum.

So, art is expensive - but visiting museums isn't. But actually, this shouldn't be much of a concern to the government of Abu Dhabi, despite its plans for five major museums at the new Saadiyat cultural zone.

There are other ways to make, say, Islamic art (of which the Louvre has a collection), or (less likely) the latest work by Tracey Emin, pay.

Saadiyat - which translates from Arabic as ‘Island of Happiness' - is 500 metres off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is half the size of Bermuda, and is set to be the UAE's only ‘Culture Zone'. The cost of its "infrastructure and superstructure" is estimated at US$27bn by the TDIC.

The island is currently entirely funded by the Abu Dhabi government. And support is certainly more than just financial: Just before Arabian Business spoke to him, Lee Tabler was in a meeting with HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, to discuss the emirate's ambitious plans for economic diversification.

The island - due for final completion in 2018 - will be key in attracting tourists who crave more than sun, sand and ‘seven star' hotels.

The museums, scheduled to open in phased stages from 2012, are at the heart of the development. They include the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, an outpost of the Louvre (subject to a deal with the French government) and a maritime museum. There will also be a performing arts centre, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, devoted to the history of Abu Dhabi and its late ruler.

The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, at 320,000 sq ft including 130,000 sq ft of exhibition space, will be larger than operations in New York and Bilbao - and will dwarf the museum at Peggy Guggenheim's former home in Venice. Costing US$400m, according to the TDIC, it will certainly be more expensive. At Bilbao ticket prices, you'd need nearly 30 million people through the door just to break even.

It will be the art that hits the tourist radar, but museum entry charges are really an irrelevance when it comes to Saadiyat. It will be the surrounding developments that will determine whether the ‘Culture Zone' is financially viable.

"Museums do not [make a profit]. But hotels and marinas and homes are commercial and generally have a positive cash flow," says Tabler. The benefits of the wider Saadiyat development, he says, include increased trade, tourism, hotel bookings, and spend per person.

And, looking at the Saadiyat plans, you'll certainly be able to spend a lot of money there. There will be seaview apartments, elite villas and three state-of-the-art marinas.

The ‘masterplan' envisages six districts with a population of 150,000 people - more than live in Oxford or in Hollywood. There will be 29 hotels - including a ‘seven star' Burj al Arab-style operation - two golf courses and other leisure facilities.

The TDIC will not, and could not, develop the entire island itself. What will happen is that parts of it will be portioned off and sold to sub-developers, with the TDIC using the cash to develop other areas of the island and pay for the cultural attractions.

The core cultural district will contain ‘urban hotels' that are "orientated towards contemporary art," he says. "Most of the major hotel groups already have agreements with the sub-developers."

Outside the island's main culture district, building work will be "very low density - we have about a 40% development coverage for the entire island."

The fact that Abu Dhabi can afford a more leisurely pace in this development is an advantage, says Tabler. "We have the time to plan properly - traffic solutions and integration with [Abu Dhabi city]. It's not a purely commercial enterprise - we don't need to make a quick buck."

Abu Dhabi's plans do look a considerable gamble in terms of the eventual size and constitution of the development.

Part of the reason for this is that the creation of such a large-scale cultural zone has never been undertaken before, and that Saadiyat's growth - albeit projected to span over ten years - is not organic. "Generally, most places approach cultural tourism by planning one museum or one biennale, and growing that organically," explains Tabler carefully.

"Our initial plans were based on one museum - the Guggenheim - and our thoughts started expanding from contemporary art to include a Classical Museum, a Sheikh Zayed National Museum, and the Maritime Museum. And we believe that a performing arts centre will complete it."

But the fact that the five museums will be built within a decade, which one can hardly call organic, means that the timescale, budget, and masterplan for the island can not be set in stone. Tabler faces the tricky job of overseeing a development that may, or may not, be completed in 2018, and handling a budget that may, or may not, be in the region of US$27bn.

"We don't know how long it will take - it could be 12 years, it could be 20 years," admits Tabler. "And is that a fixed budget? No - it's an estimate. It may be US$20bn, it may be US$40bn. One cannot start with ‘this is how much money you'll give me, what can I buy?'."

In 2018, adds Tabler, the development "may or may not include all of the elements [under the current Saadiyat plans]. But that doesn't mean they'll be eliminated."

Just as what is included in the plans is fluid, the number of tourists that are predicted to visit Saadiyat are similarly arbitrary: Tabler says that he expects between one million and two million visitors a year by 2012.

However, despite this large range, you cannot help agree with Tabler when he calls Abu Dhabi's entire projected annual tourist influx of three million by 2015 as "very conservative" by comparison.

Given the media interest in the Saadiyat project - the island was flagged on the front page of the New York Times at the beginning of this month, and was the lead story in the Arts section - it is easy to imagine two million people visiting Saadiyat, especially given other attractions set for Abu Dhabi, such as the arrival of Formula One in 2009.

Because who knows, Abu Dhabi could one day display (temporarily, of course) Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting in the world. Could it be?

"Only the [French] Minister of Culture or the director of the Louvre can answer that," is Tabler's response. And yet, given the astonishing vision behind Saadiyat Island, perhaps we would be foolish to rule it out. The Emirates will truly be a capital of culture.

Saadiyat museums

1. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Designed by Frank Gehry, who was also behind the Bilbao building, the museum will resemble a jumble of boxes, cones, and other less definable shapes. It will be the Middle East’s only — and the world’s largest — Guggenheim, which specialises in contemporary art.

2. Classical Museum

A large dome covers this museum building, which was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Shapes cut out of it let in streams of sunlight. The TDIC recently told Arabian Business that this is where the Louvre museum would be situated, were an (estimated) US$800m-US$1bn deal with the French government to be agreed.

3. Performing Arts Centre

Designed by Iraqi-born, British educated architect Zaha Hadid, this centre will present music, theatre and dance performances. Who’d have thought a building that vaguely resembles a cycling helmet could look so good?

4. Maritime Museum

Japan’s Tadao Ando’s building will reflect the rich maritime history of the UAE and the Arabian Gulf. Its ship-like interior will have floating decks that will guide visitors through the exhibition space.

5. Sheikh Zayed National Museum

This museum will be devoted to the history and traditions of Abu Dhabi and the legacy of its much-admired late ruler, HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. An international competition for its design will be launched in the near future.

“Our initial plans were based on the Guggenheim — and our thoughts expanded from there”

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Mara Haseltine 13 years ago

Will there be a space for site specific installtions outside the permaters of the museum?