Jewels in the crown: A collection of major cultural institutions is taking shape in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District


The much-anticipated opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi will anchor one of the emirate’s most important recent projects – Saadiyat Island Cultural District. With the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum, a Performing Arts Centre and the Maritime Museum to come, the district’s cultural collection will be significant.

A Key Goal

The island will help realise one of the principal goals of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, as well as the broader 2016 Abu Dhabi Plan. These plans emphasise the role of tourism in economic diversification, even as they recognise the contribution of the emirate’s cultural heritage in building the sector.

Saadiyat will also help with one of the Abu Dhabi Plan’s specific new goals – that of making the emirate an “original and attractive tourism destination”. The Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) is keen to stress the fundamental interrelation between tourism and culture. Saadiyat Cultural District’s sites are likely to act as magnets for visitors and locals alike, with the island already becoming a centre for new hotels. It is also home to a New York University campus.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi started out in 2007 with an inter-governmental agreement between the emirate and the French government. A new institution, Agence France-Muséums, was charged with gathering and structuring the expertise from the 12 French cultural institutions involved in the project. These include the Musée du Louvre itself, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay and many others. The expertise was channelled together with that of TCA Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company, Saadiyat’s main developer.

Aiming to be a universal museum, with its artefacts taken from countries as far apart as China and France, and from periods stretching back to the dynasties of Ancient Egypt, the museum also intends to be firmly rooted in the culture of today’s Abu Dhabi and Gulf. It is keen to establish itself as a centre for education and international conferences. A December 2016 gathering saw a $100m fund established by France and the UAE to protect cultural heritage in war zones, and TCA Abu Dhabi has been working with the education authorities to bring students and teachers into the museum.

New Institutions

Close to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum remains in the planning stages. This institution will narrate the life and times of the UAE’s founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and tell the story of the country itself. The building, which echoes the wingtips of the falcon in a series of curving towers, was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, and uses natural ventilation and light, along with solar panels and heat exchangers, to establish a new standard in green building.

The cultural district will then see the construction of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which will focus on contemporary art and have 13,000 sq metres of gallery space. In addition, 11 cone-like structures, echoing traditional Gulf wind towers, will provide more exhibition areas. An educational centre and a 350-seat auditorium complete the complex, designed by Frank Gehry. The museum has acquired works by international figures such as Ai Weiwei, Emiratis such as Hassan Sharif and regional artists including Iran’s Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.

Saadiyat will also feature a major new Performing Arts Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid. The space houses several theatres and concert halls, along with experimental performance areas. Saadiyat Cultural District will be completed by a Maritime Museum. The museum, designed by Japan’s Tadao Ando in the form of the classic dhow sail, will use reflective surfaces to visually merge the sea, sky and land.

Given the range and complexity of the cultural district, opening dates for many of these institutions remain unfixed, although the Louvre Abu Dhabi looks on course for opening during 2017. As of early 2017 contracts had yet to be awarded for the construction of the other four projects, while Louvre Abu Dhabi was undergoing testing and final building works.