Most days I drive past this billboard on Saadiyat Island, showing Jean Nouvel’s design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi under the slogan “Closer than you think” and “Opening 2015”, and I can’t help feeling a pang of irritation. This somewhat cringe-worthy attempt to be coy about the delay of the first museum opening on Saadiyat reminds me of how easily reality can throw a spanner in the works of even the most grandiose of urban developments. The billboard could be seen as one of many examples of the often strange, usually opaque communications culture of a society – and an economy – in transition.
Following a long period of intense speculation, the completion dates of the museums, at one point slated for 2014, were finally officially moved back: the Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster, will now open in 2016; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, by Frank Gehry, is scheduled for 2017; as is The District, the island's mall. No date has been set for the performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid and the maritime museum, a creation by Tadao Ando, has been quietly removed from all communications. Even so, it looks unlikely that a previous deadline to complete the entire district by 2020 will be met.
But so what, one might ask? Even with extended deadlines, the pace of construction remains unprecedented and with a project of such epic proportions, delays are only to be expected. As are high levels of secrecy and erratic communications. Still, impatience is mounting. I have been watching the developments on Saadiyat closely for more than three years now and by that I don’t just mean in the news; my flat actually overlooks the site and I can clearly see how little has been happening on the plots of the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the performing arts centre. Other billboards on Saadiyat currently herald “investment opportunities” and “show villas”, making me wonder why, unlike the museums, Saadiyat’s hotels, villas and golf courses somehow managed to open on time?
Of course, when the $ 27 billion master plan for Saadiyat was unveiled in 2007, nobody could have foreseen the twin historic upheavals of the global debt crisis or the Arab Spring. In equal measure, the Pritzker-Prize-winning architects' high-concept designs pose infinitely more complex challenges to construction firms, than the usual hotels and golf courses. Despite this, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. After all, my being in this city has something to do with this grand cultural vision and somehow I take the delay of its realisation more personal than I probably should.
When I was still living in London and trying to figure out where to go next, part of the reason I chose Abu Dhabi rather than Dubai was this: while Dubai was building malls and manmade islands, Abu Dhabi was dreaming up museums and universities. Abu Dhabi struck me as Dubai’s traditionalist older sibling who surprises everybody by falling in love with a stunning young artist. In 2007, the New York Times described Saadiyat as a “daring cultural Xanadu” and Abu Dhabi as “a kingdom of culture”.
My relocation plans began to take shape in late 2008, following a slew of project announcements including Masdar City, twofour54 and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Outlandish as they were, Abu Dhabi’s megaprojects pointed to a very different and, to me, far more appealing future than the scenarios painted 150 kilometres up the coast. I was sufficiently intrigued to decide to write my postgraduate thesis about Abu Dhabi, which also conveniently gave me the opportunity to visit the emirate before making a final decision on moving there.
What I encountered in Abu Dhabi back then was neither the burgeoning hotbed of world-class creativity described by its advocates nor the commercialist nightmare lamented by its critics – it still is neither of those things. Instead, I found Abu Dhabi to be one huge building site, both literally and metaphorically.
In this young state of extreme wealth, a new generation of leaders had implanted culture as a central cog in the economic diversification engine, which, it was hoped, could one day be partly fuelled by art, film, literature and all manner of creative endeavour. The emirate was prepared to spend its way onto the global cultural circuit and at the same time provide its people with educational, cultural and civilizational revitalisation. This still strikes me as one of the smartest, most commendable ways to spend petrodollars than many of the schemes eschewed by some of Abu Dhabi’s regional neighbours. Not to mention the lifeline it throws to cash-strapped cultural institutions in the West and the way it goes against some of the more negative stereotypes of this part of the world.
So while I do feel miffed about potentially missing some of Saadiyat’s grand openings and while I don’t appreciate being told something is “closer than you think” when it clearly isn’t, I remain as intrigued as ever by the emirate’s cultural wager and more than glad to be able to witness at least some of the steps along the way to Abu Dhabi's rise as "the cultural capital of the Middle East". This billboard, whether I like it or not, is part of that process.