"The Gulf Art War" by Negar Azimi, The New Yorker, December 19 and 26, 2016.
As anyone knows, the Arab World is currently in the middle of an economic spotlight. Globalized trade of the oil market on a massive scale has poured wealth into the Arabian Peninsula, and Emirati rulers and royals want to expand this economic spotlight to a cultural one as well. In the mid-2000s, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates met with the director of the Guggenheim Museum to discuss plans for a $27 billion “island of happiness” in the middle of Abu Dhabi, with a cultural district as its centerpiece. A Guggenheim Abu Dhabi began the process of becoming reality, but artists realized harsh labor conditions faced by immigrant workers coming from the Indian subcontinent. With circumstances similar to 17th-century indentured servitude, with sponsored passage across the Gulf, human rights violations of the laborers rose to the forefront of the conversation about the new museum. Artists as part of the Gulf Labor arctivist coalition protested the conditions of the museum’s construction and withheld their art from the new collection.
I view this as an important resistance to the notion, seemingly widely prevalent in the Arab World recently, that enough money can make anything happen: a World Cup, a UCI World Championship, a Guggenheim Museum… seemingly endless purchase of entertainment for oil moguls and royal families. Cultural evolution has to occur willfully, if not naturally, and cannot be forced on the world to take place in the desert--especially on the backs of unfair labor. However, I do recognize the importance of efforts to bring young countries like the UAE into the global marketplace of ideas, especially while trying to combat the spread of terrorism in the region. Hopefully, modernization and cultural advancement will eventually spawn the Emirates’ own cultural identity beyond that of purchasing a Western one.