One lesser known aspect of the UAE's economic development, which I recently covered for Your Middle East, is the emergence of community libraries in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Their unofficial motto: if the people won't come to the books, we take the books to the people.
In the article, I argue that the rebranding of books as desirable objects, libraries as creative hangouts and reading as an aspirational activity is not accidental. It is a sign that grand cultural strategies are beginning to trickle down to street level.
When I moved to Abu Dhabi about three years ago, I was intrigued by the ruling sheikhs' choice to put petrodollars into art, film and literature rather than more straightforward money-making ventures. Of course, from a cynical perspective, plans for star-architect designed opera houses and museums can still seem like just another outlandish scheme to prop up the country's tourism and property sectors, which are essential for the nation's future beyond oil.
In milder terms, such investments could be seen as part of an unconventional economic strategy in which local human development and global arts patronage are welcome effects. Since 2009, I have watched cultural projects large and small, public and private, mushrooming in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, buoyed by both public and private spending. There are clear signals that a.) the government's support for the arts is beginning to affect public awareness and b.) that private individuals are embracing the arts, whether as creators, collectors or simply as admiring audiences, like never before.