For years, major sporting events have been hosted in the superbly wealthy Gulf States. Now, renowned Western cultural institutions are following suit. But these high-minded museums and cultural organizations are encountering a familiar problem.

In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the French Louvre, the American Guggenheim and other branches of imported high culture are envisioned as a massive hub of Western refinement on Saadiyat Island, also known as “Happiness Island.”

But the construction workers are living like slaves, sometimes forced to toil for an entire year to pay off their “employment fee.” Their passports are seized, and they live involuntarily in unsanitary conditions, fearing deportation at the slightest sign of dissatisfaction. 

This is far from being a new phenomenon in the Gulf States, where foreign workers are normally subject to the principle of sponsorship and stripped of all their rights. Two years ago, artists were already threatening to boycott the new exhibition spaces in Abu Dhabi, refusing to display their work in buildings constructed by an exploited labor force. The Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad said that anyone working with bricks and mortar deserves the same level of respect as someone working with a camera or paintbrush. 

A model of Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So what does the future hold for Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi? The museum, with its unique design reminiscent of the rubble from a giant tower, is the largest Guggenheim in the world with 30,000 square meters (98,000 square feet) of space allowing it to host exhibits that would be too large for other museums. Its opening date has been pushed back, as has that of Jean Nouvel’s Louvre. The future looks equally uncertain for Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum and Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center. 

It has been reported that local museum employees have rebelled against Western interference and that funds have been slashed. But the museums say that the delay will give them time to develop their “identity on the local and international stage.” The controversy over the conditions of construction workers demonstrates that achieving the high-minded goals of cultural exchange and dialogue between the East and West is far from simple. 

The creative temptation of dictatorship

Architects who design buildings for countries with questionable human rights records tend to take great pains to point out that their work contributes to opening up the region. As if a glass façade could eradicate censorship. 

Model of Saadiyat Island — Photo: Kennedy Fabrications/GNUFDL

Like all artists, architects are susceptible to the creative temptation of dictatorships. The suffering of foreign workers on Gehry’s and Nouvel’s construction sites in Abu Dhabi is merely the logical consequence of this temptation. Feudal societies function according to their own laws, and in Abu Dhabi these do not protect migrant workers. 

The Western museums and universities that are flocking to Abu Dhabi sell a brand, a reputation, a promise of civilization. The oil and gas billionaires in Abu Dhabi or Doha invest their wealth in reinvigorating an ossified Western cultural landscape and hope that in return they will attract waves of tourists who are interested in more than paragliding and camel rides. 

In principle there is no problem with this exchange, as long as it remains within the scope of marketing. But we must be realistic about the true extent of its democratizing effect. The workers on Happiness Island will tell you it doesn’t reach that far.