Like most of the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s population is largely made up of expatriate employees and foreign workers. As of 2011, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, non-nationals accounted for 80% of the emirate’s total population, according to the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi (SCAD). While this number has grown slightly since the UAE achieved independence in 1971 – from around 74% in 1975, for example, to 76% in 1995 – in general it has remained fairly consistent, even as the overall population has expanded from 211,812 in 1975 to 1.97m in mid-2010.

While foreign workers have played a vital role in the UAE’s economic expansion over the past four decades, their growing presence throughout the country has also given rise to a number of challenges. Perhaps most importantly, as the nation has become an increasingly cosmopolitan society, the government has worked to preserve the local identity upon which it was built. Maintaining the UAE’s distinct cultural heritage has been a cornerstone of the government’s development policy for years. Indeed, the country has invested heavily in a variety of heritage-related development and preservation projects in recent years.

Abu Dhabi has been one of the most active emirates in this respect. In addition to overseeing numerous museums, festivals and archaeological activities, the local government is working to turn the emirate into a regional centre for cultural activity and education. The emirate is overseeing the construction of a handful of major museum and university projects, currently in various states of completion. As these developments come on-line over the course of the coming decade, Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a major cultural destination in the Middle East is expected to continue to grow.

OVERSIGHT & REGULATION: Several local and federal authorities are involved in the protection and expansion of Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage. In February 2012 the government launched the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), a new organisation that was created by combining the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA). The formation of TCA is indicative of the growing importance of culture and heritage in the emirate’s long-term development plans – bringing together the culture and heritage authority and the tourism authority under one roof is expected to result in increased collaboration and, eventually, new benefits on both sides.

While TCA replaces ADACH and ADTA, both former authorities will continue to function as semi-independent departments under the new entity. Prior to the launch of TCA in early 2012, ADACH, which was created in 2005, had a mandate to turn the emirate into a cultural centre in the region and promote local culture and traditions around the world. ADACH oversaw a wide range of institutions and proceedings, including various archaeological sites, historic buildings and neighbourhoods, natural and cultural landscapes, museums, and numerous festivals and conferences. Additionally, ADACH worked to protect and preserve Abu Dhabi’s intangible heritage, including oral literature and folklore, customs and beliefs, games and sports, and the performing arts, all of which are considered to be vital parts of the emirate’s rich history.

As of early 2012, these areas fall under the umbrella of TCA. In addition to the new authority, a number of other organisations are involved in preserving the emirate’s culture and heritage, including the state’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the federal Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, and the federal National Council for Tourism and Antiquities (NCTA).

HISTORICAL SITES: Abu Dhabi boasts a plethora of historical ruins and other sites. The cultural sites of Al Ain, which include the Bida Bint Saud, Hili, Hafit and Oases areas, achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011 and are among the emirate’s most impressive heritage assets. Al Ain is home to a number of structures (stone tombs, wells and adobe buildings and towers) that date back to 2500 BCE. Hili, one of the most important sites in the UAE, also features an extensive and well-preserved aflaj (ancient irrigation) network from the Iron Age.

In 2012 the NCTA submitted a list of six other sites in the UAE to UNESCO for consideration as World Heritage sites, including one – the ancient settlement and cemetery of Umm An Nar Island – in Abu Dhabi. The Umm An Nar archaeological sites, which are located on a small island in what is now Abu Dhabi City, include remnants of an ancient trading and maritime civilisation that was active in the third century BCE. The government has invested heavily in archaeological and restoration work at Al Ain and Umm An Nar over the past few decades, and work is ongoing today.

MUSEUMS & EDUCATION: Abu Dhabi’s government operates a number of museums and other cultural preservation centres throughout the emirate. The Al Ain National Museum, for example, houses a wide variety of historical artefacts and structures, including a well-preserved fort built in 1910. The Al Ain Palace Museum, meanwhile, is the former home of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE and the former ruler of Abu Dhabi. The building is home to a large collection of documents and other ephemera related to Sheikh Zayed’s life and rule. Other heritage sites in Abu Dhabi include Al Jahili Fort, Sheikh Zayed’s birthplace; the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Library; the Zayed Centre in Abu Dhabi City; the Al Qattara Arts Centre, which includes galleries, classrooms and performance spaces; the Hili Archaeological Gardens; a heritage theme park in Al Ain; a heritage village in Abu Dhabi City; and the UAE University Natural History Museum.

In addition to these physical destinations, the government has invested in preserving the emirate’s intangible history, primarily through a handful of education initiatives and a variety of festivals and other gatherings. The Arabic language, which is seen as a cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s Arab heritage, is taught in the school system from an early age, for example. At university and post-graduate levels, meanwhile, the government offers both fellowships and other funding for students and faculty members involved in the study of the emirate’s cultural history. The government also supports a number of annual festivals, including the Abu Dhabi Film Festival; the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair; the Al Dhafra Festival, which highlights the emirate’s history as a centre for purebred camel breeding and trading; and the Prince of Poets Festival, which promotes classical Arabic poetry.

AN EXPANDED FOCUS: Over the past decade Abu Dhabi has taken an ambitious approach to cultural development, launching several large-scale museum and education projects. These include the Zayed National Museum, due to open in 2016; the Louvre Abu Dhabi (2015); the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (2017); New York University Abu Dhabi (2010); the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (2011), which is linked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US; and the Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi (2007). Together, these initiatives have the potential to turn the emirate into a centre for culture and higher education in the Middle East. Most of these institutions will eventually be based on Saadiyat Island – located next to Abu Dhabi City – which is being master-planned by TDIC. Other projects currently under way on the island include a performing arts centre designed by the Iraqi-American architect Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum, and a number of art, museum and performance spaces.

The Zayed National Museum, which was designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is being developed in conjunction with the British Museum. The museum will house seven permanent galleries, one of which will focus on the life and achievements of Sheikh Zayed, with the other seven highlighting key cultural topics, including falconry, conservation, science and Islam.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, will be the first Louvre-branded museum outside Paris. A collaboration between the French museum and the government of Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will show fine art from around the word, with a focus on both Arab artists and artwork from the Middle East and North Africa region.

Similarly, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which was designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, is a collaboration between the New York-based Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and the government of Abu Dhabi. At around 30,000 sq metres, it will be the largest Guggenheim museum in the world upon its completion. The facility will show primarily international modern and contemporary art.

These new cultural facilities are representative of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious and complex development agenda for the coming years. By opening local branches of two of the world’s widely known museums the government is both shoring up the emirate’s status as a centre for international culture and confirming that there is plenty of room for foreign cultural expression in Arab society. Indeed, a key goal of the development of Saadiyat Island as a cultural tourism destination is to highlight the ways in which Abu Dhabi’s own cultural traditions have both inspired and drawn upon other cultures from elsewhere in the region and around the world.