The grand dream of the emir of Abu Dhabi exists only as a set of architectural models with blinking lights inside a small visitors’ centre on the island of Saadiyat, some distance from Abu Dhabi’s downtown area.
But one day, the island is intended to become a prestigious centre of culture in the Gulf.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the futuristically designed Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi containing modern art are to be erected on the island under a master plan approved by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
“The Louvre and Guggenheim will be attractions that everyone will wants to have seen at least once in their lifetime,” tour guide Georgette Farrugia declares. She takes visitors through the small centre where the illuminated models of the future buildings can be admired.
Georgette herself is not an Emirati, but is from Malta.
If the future shapes up the way the rulers of Abu Dhabi hope and the slump in world oil prices does not wreck the Gulf economies, she will be one of many foreigners contributing to a colourful world metropolis of the arts and culture.
If the plans are realised, Saadiyat will become a top destination on the world tourism map. In the long run, 145,000 people are to move in to apartments on the island, with Abu Dhabi’s overall population projected to double by the year 2030.
Abu Dhabi will entice the affluent with promises of tax-free living, security, advanced education and a good healthcare system. Some foreigners will stay for good, others will spend at least a few weeks of every year in their Saadiyat condo.
For tourists, there are already the first luxury-class hotels on Saadiyat, plus a golf course and, naturally, a beach. Abu Dhabi wants to attract senior citizens and families with children who desire a sunny lifestyle such as that in Miami or Los Angeles.
It will be a super-modern Arab setting, where the men casually stroll through air-conditioned shopping malls in white robes.
“We are going to become a bridge between the Arab and Western world,” Farrugia says.
When her tour through the cool visitors’ centre is over, the dry heat outside hits you in the face. Saadiyat is still a nondescript piece of parched, mostly bare coastal sand and desert.
But silhouettes against a reddening sky of the construction cranes at the building site of the new Louvre attest to the effort being applied to make the pulsating future a reality.
The Abu Dhabi Louvre is a prestige project in every aspect.
Its designer is French architect Jean Nouvel. In contrast with the original in Paris, this new museum will not have any glass pyramids, but rather a white dome. The sunlight will shine in through the roof, the way it does through the crowns of trees in the forest.
At the end of next year, the museum’s section of classical art is scheduled to open with 300 works on loan from French museums.
In the long run, Abu Dhabi aims to build up its own art collection.
In order to use the Louvre name for 30 years, the emirate paid the French government 400 million euros ($A567 million).
Also next year, the Zayed National Museum is to scheduled to open. It will dutifully vaunt the late emir, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the “Father of the Nation”. British architect Sir Norman Foster delivered the design.
Rounding out the trio of buildings will be a Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art set to open in 2017.
“Make Saadiyat into your Saadiyat” is the slogan on a wall in the visitors centre. If the emir’s vision becomes reality, then 27sqkm Saadiyat – the “island of the blissful” – should live up to its name.
The idea is an ambitious one – labour is to be imported from Asia, tourists from the West, and culture from all corners of the globe.
Mixed together, they will create something unique. Maybe it’s a foreshadowing of how 21st-century tourism will look.