Abu Dhabi’s five-year culture plan: short on detail, long on tradition

Coming soon: the Zayed National Museum

The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi has unveiled a five-year Culture Sector Strategy that has the aim of “strengthening the foundations and infrastructure of Abu Dhabi’s cultural ecosystem”. It also aims to produce 45,000 jobs by 2024 and a contribution of AED 28 billion to GDP in that year.

The Strategy is a tad light on detail for the future, though some specifics are included: the Zayed National Museum is the big one,  there will be a new Maritime Heritage Festival, and there are hints that the Guggenheim may finally get under way. There will be a new measurement system to assess the ongoing value of the sector, too. Several existing or nascent programmes will be beefed up, notably in spotting and developing talent and culture-specific skills.

Otherwise it’s more of the same, and that’s probably no bad thing.

There are five strategic objectives in the Cultural Strategy (and if the list was produced in order of perceived importance, the direction of travel is clear; but then DCT Abu Dhabi’s brief has always been on the conservative side – its overarching brief is “promoting and preserving the emirate’s distinctive heritage and culture”):

  • Preserve and sustain Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage
  • Increase awareness of, and engagement with, cultural heritage and the arts
  • Stimulate creativity as a driver for education and social change
  • Build and enable capacity in Abu Dhabi’s culture sector
  • Contribute to economic growth and diversification

Of course, it can be tricky to get it right – to provide Abu Dhabi with mechanisms to maintain the cultural heritage and create traditions while at the same time giving tourists more reasons to visit (and spend). At least a few specific targets are provided in the strategy documents.

The major visible achievement of the last few years is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a clever piece of positioning that places Abu Dhabi at a cultural crossroads and conferred instant international status.

The Louvre doesn’t do much for preserving and sustaining the specifics of Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage, though. Those goals do seem to have been achieved in the Cultural Foundation’s makeover, an undoubted success, and the increased attention that Al Ain is receiving as the principal repository of tradition within the emirate.

And the upcoming Zayed National Museum – which at last seems to be under construction – will provide the jewel in the heritage crown, situated within a spectacular Norman Foster building that itself will be a good reason for visiting Abu Dhabi.

Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, says he sees the Zayed National Museum as “a complementary counterpoint to Louvre Abu Dhabi”; the two institutions “will illuminate our country’s heritage and history and emphasise our connections with nations around the world, defining our place within a global network of exchange and cross-cultural understanding”.

Saif Saeed Ghobash, Undersecretary of DCT Abu Dhabi and effectively its director, describes Abu Dhabi’s cultural strategy as dovetailing with plans for the emirate’s economic diversification. That oil won’t last for ever, and for several years now Abu Dhabi has been cannily developing replacement income streams that include a cultural offering as “a world-class, international hub for arts and heritage”.

The successful redevelopment of the Qasr al Hosn site in downtown Abu Dhabi included the Cultural Foundation

He also said: “the coming years will be exciting and significant ones for Abu Dhabi, as we continue to monitor and measure the social and economic impact of our cultural policies and initiatives”. You couldn’t disagree with that; and DCT Abu Dhabi reckons that “many of the ambitious targets and goals set across these objectives have been achieved or are on track to be realised in the near future”.

1. Preserving Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage

“Major efforts have been made to protect and activate both the emirate’s Intangible Heritage and its Historic Environment, while at the same time positioning Abu Dhabi as a global city through cutting-edge modern cultural projects” says DCT Abu Dhabi. These projects include …

  • Eight elements of UAE tradition have been added to the UNESCO Lists of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the work for the emirate of Abu Dhabi led six of these. They include al Sadu (weaving), the al Ayyala dance, and al Gahwa coffee.
  • “Significant progress” has been made in recording oral histories and domestic traditions of the UAE, not least through support for programmes by other cultural institutions such as the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and its ‘Lest We Forget’ initiative. Bait Al Gahwa and House of Artisans were established recently for the rituals of Arabic coffee and traditional Emirati crafts respectively. DCT Abu Dhabi runs Al Ain’s annual Traditional Handicrafts Festival and supports other heritage events; a new Maritime Heritage Festival will start next year.
  • A number of historic sites in Al Ain have joined the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and there’s been extra progress at Abu Dhabi’s significant archaeological sites and historic pre-oil buildings. DCT Abu Dhabi also oversees the UNESCO World Heritage Site Management Plan “and implements a values-based approach for the conservation of its archaeological sites, historic buildings and cultural landscapes”.
  • The modern built landscape is finally getting some attention, with a new initiative to assess Abu Dhabi’s post-oil heritage and to develop a consistent approach to the recent history of urban development in the emirate (and especially the modernist buildings in Abu Dhabi city).
Not to everyone’s taste: 1970s prestressed concrete at its finest in Abu Dhabi’s bus station
  • Then there are the high-profile additions – Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017 drew more than a million visitors in its first year of operation, the redevelopment of the Al Hosn site in downtown Abu Dhabi with the Cultural Foundation currently attracting more than 5,000 visitors a week. The much-delayed and apparently stalled Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is included in the list of “projects in progress”, so there may indeed be some movement there.

2. Increasing engagement

DCT Abu Dhabi has a broad portfolio of programmes it runs and initiatives it supports – Abu Dhabi Classics, Bait Al Oud, Umsiyat, the busy Manarat Al Saadiyat and active Cultural Foundation calendar, and numerous festivals and other events like Al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi Art, CultureSummit Abu Dhabi and the Archaeology Conference.

3. Stimulating creativity as a driver for social change

It can be difficult to measure the long-term effects of any efforts designed to promote social change, but it’s true that there are many education and outreach initiatives across the emirate.

DCT Abu Dhabi itself has projects like the Talent Development Programme, which identifies artistically gifted students. New policies and strategies are planned, with cultural research and strategic partnerships, publications, the development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collections, the adoption of UNESCO World Heritage Site development guidelines, and the registration of Modern Heritage (as above).

And DCT Abu Dhabi has been active internationally, notably via strategic partnerships with key cultural institutions around the world – the inter-governmental agreement with France that resulted in Louvre Abu Dhabi, hosting the Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage in Conflict Areas summit which lead to the establishment of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage (ALIPH), and CultureSummit Abu Dhabi, which is organised DCT Abu Dhabi with five international cultural partners and aims to identify ways in which culture can promote positive change. (magpie is somewhat suspicious of this much-vaunted endeavour, which looks like a lot of fun for the 400-plus invited participants and probably helps cement Abu Dhabi’s soft power goals but doesn’t seem to produce much in the way of specific insights or wider inspiration.)

4. Building capacity

Capacity building in the sector is covered by new education programmes, strategic research partnerships, a new cultural grant programme, and “cross-government policies in social and economic development” (aka joined-up thinking, which is the least you could hope for from any government but is sadly lacking in most).

The planned Abu Dhabi Cultural Statistics Programme will be the first in the region, promising “rigorous, scientifically developed data to assess the sector and determine its economic, social and cultural impacts”. That could well be one of the most significant long term benefits of the plans; without benchmarks and measurement tools, it’s all just words …

DCT Abu Dhabi introduced its five-year cultural strategy with an exhibition at the Manarat al Saadiyat

5. Economic growth

At base, DCT Abu Dhabi’s interests are economic; it is “focused on growing a sustainable culture sector that contributes to economic growth and diversification” says the press release, and it aims “to further nurture the market, create a lasting social and economic impact, and extend the culture value chain to include the dissemination and transfer of knowledge, capacity building and strong cultural partnerships …”

In short, “the execution of the Culture Sector Strategy will not only position Abu Dhabi as a global cultural capital but as a key driver of economic change”. The change in question must refer to reducing the emirate’s dependence on oil revenues by increasing the numbers of tourists and how much they spend when they’re here.

The net effect: a contribution of AED 28 billion to GDP in 2024, with 45,000 jobs in the cultural and arts sector.

Hopefully the side effect will be a richer arts and cultural environment for the rest of us. Based on the infrastructure and the programmes already in place, the omens are good.


Some targets in the Culture Sector Strategy20192024
Heritage activities and events2080
Heritage festival attendees4.2m6m
Licensed heritage practitionersn/s2,000
Trained master artisansn/s900
Traditional handicrafts salesAED 12mAED 41m
Collections, conservation artefacts, loans40,20596,000
Trainings for arts educatorsn/s2.250
Talent Development Programme attendees5083,000
Jobs in the sectorn/s45,000
Contribution to GDPn/sAED 28bn

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