State of the art: Abu Dhabi is leveraging its wide portfolio of arts and culture to attract visitors year-round


With a range of museums and heritage sites at its disposal, Abu Dhabi has a tourism offering with a strong cultural element. This underpins the emirate’s appeal as a destination and provides cultural attractions for the UAE’s domestic population. The sector is set for continued growth, as the emirate launched a fiveyear Culture Sector Strategy in November 2019, put together by a variety of stakeholders and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi). The strategy – which views tourism through a socio-economic as well as financial lens – sets out not only to preserve and sustain Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage, but to stimulate creativity as a driver for education and social change. By increasing engagement with cultural heritage and the arts, the strategy hopes to achieve further economic growth and diversification. To gauge progress in this regard, DCT Abu Dhabi is devising a way to measure and evaluate the impact of culture on the emirate’s economy and quality of life. The hope is that this high-tech approach will enable a targeted strategy that benefits not only the tourism sector, but also wider Emirati society.

Diverse Portfolio

Abu Dhabi has a wealth of cultural activities and sites, some of which are part of the culture of the Gulf and the UAE, but others are unique to the emirate. DCT Abu Dhabi has been anxious to protect these. One of its strategies has been to register them on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, and it has been successful in adding eight cultural elements so far: falconry, Al Sadu weaving, Gahwa Arabic coffee, Majlis council gatherings, Al Azi and Al Razfa traditional performing arts, Al Taghrooda poetry, and Al Ayallah traditional group performances. In addition, several important historic sites in Al Ain have been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. These include Jebel Hafit Tombs, Hili and Bida Bint Saud, as well as the six Al Ain oases. Abu Dhabi’s major archaeological sites, including those at Sir Bani Yas Island, Marawah Island and Baynunah, among many others, have been excavated, documented and protected.

Several historical sites that were previously off-limits to visitors were recently opened to tours, such as Qasr Al Watan, the presidential palace in Abu Dhabi, which began hosting tour groups in early 2019. The palace, on the Ras Al Akhdar peninsula, is the official meeting place for the UAE Cabinet and the site of official state visits. The authorities opened access to halls that are typically reserved for official summits, as well as entry to the library, where books on the UAE’s political, social and cultural history are kept. The House of Knowledge, which holds a collection of artefacts and rare manuscripts, was also accessible on the tour. However, as across much of the world, entry to such sites has been temporarily suspended due to public health restrictions that were put in place regarding Covid-19.

The city’s first permanent structure, Qasr Al Hosn, opened as a museum in 2018. In Qasr Al Hosn’s Inner Fort, which was constructed in 1795, sits a watchtower that overlooked the island’s growing settlement. Over time, Qasr Al Hosn served as the ruling family’s home, the seat of government and a national archive. The complex now displays Abu Dhabi’s development, with artefacts and archival materials dating back to around 6000 BCE. Under a new initiative to ensure the conservation of the emirate’s modern heritage, DCT Abu Dhabi is assessing the emirate’s post-oil culture, and will make recommendations and develop incentives to protect and maintain it.

Visual & Performing Arts

In 2017 Louvre Abu Dhabi – a partnership between the UAE and France, and overseen by DCT Abu Dhabi, in conjunction with Agence France-Muséums – opened to the public. It is located on Saadiyat Island in the Cultural District. Some 2m visitors have visited since, making it the most-visited museum in the Arab world. Two more major museums are in the pipeline. All three will be located within the Cultural District. The next institution scheduled to open is Zayed National Museum in 2021. This was designed by architects Foster + Partners and will combine contemporary and traditional Arabic design, topped by towers resembling the wings of falcons – the UAE’s national symbol. The museum, which is intended to be a repository for the region’s history and a guide to its worldwide cultural connections, is dedicated to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE. Spanning some 44,000 sq metres, the museum will incorporate a centre for archaeological and heritage research, as well as educational programmes.

The much-anticipated project to build a satellite of New York’s Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi – the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – was reportedly on track and within budget, according to the director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and Museum in an April 2019 interview. While construction delays have put off its original 2017 opening date, the museum’s acquisition process has continued, encompassing art in all media produced around the world from the 1960s to the present day. Frank Gehry’s design for the museum includes natural cooling ventilation based on traditional wind towers. With so many significant museum projects on its doorstep, there is increasing demand for the training and qualification of staff. As a result, the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi now offers a Master’s degree in history of art and museum studies.

Leveraging the emirate’s numerous art galleries, Abu Dhabi Art is a year-round programme of events that sees galleries from around the world meet in the emirate to showcase artworks and sell to collectors. Its events now attract more than 75,000 participants and 12,000 visitors each year.

On the performing arts side, the local branch of Boston’s Berklee College of Music – Berklee Abu Dhabi – is the latest arrival in the emirate, opening in February 2020. The centre will host workshops, masterclasses, courses, ensembles and labs, as well as present annual performances. Berklee’s agreement with DCT Abu Dhabi includes a $5m fellowship fund, the largest scholarship programme in Berklee’s history. Abu Dhabi has long been a venue for music, dance and opera events, with many troupes and orchestras performing at the annual Abu Dhabi Festival.

Common Ground

A feature of Louvre Abu Dhabi is its advocacy of a global approach to arts and culture, with the museum grouping exhibits thematically, rather than nationally, or even chronologically. This demonstrates what is shared between cultures, rather than emphasising differences. This is also the philosophy behind Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic Family House, which was set up after a meeting between Pope Francis and Ahmed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar in 2019. This took place while the global head of the Catholic church was visiting Abu Dhabi to perform of the firstever papal mass on the Arabian Peninsula and sign the historic “Document on Human Fraternity” with Al Tayeb.

Following these events, plans for the Family House, a multi-faith space consisting of a mosque, a church and a synagogue, were announced. The aim of the facility, which will be located on Saadiyat Island, is to encourage peaceful co-existence and understanding between the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The complex, which is set to be opened in 2022, will feature three buildings with a central garden, a museum and an educational centre. Another example of the emirate’s approach to culture, history and faith, the UAE’s only known ancient Christian site was opened to the public in June 2019. Discovered in the 1990s, the site on Sir Bani Yas Island dates back to the 7th and 8th century BCE. The site includes a church and monastery, as well as artefacts that serve as evidence of trade across the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Cultural Transformation

Every year DCT Abu Dhabi sponsors Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, a forum for art world leaders to meet with partners to discuss how culture can transform society. The 2019 Culture Summit welcomed over 480 participants from 90 countries. The 2020 event, cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was slated to see cultural leaders, artists and performers come together with international arts, technology and media organisations to exchange knowledge and discuss policy developments, with the ultimate stated goal of identifying cultural approaches to help solve global issues.

Evaluating the measurable impact of cultural events is a goal of DCT Abu Dhabi. At Louvre Abu Dhabi, for example, it performed the first economic modelling of its museums to measure the socio-economic value of a museum. Surveys were conducted, which asked visitors to place, if they could, a monetary value on their visit. Similar studies are ongoing at other artistic and cultural events and museums.

Musical events have also been surveyed, with DCT Abu Dhabi finding that these have a particularly high multiplier effect, in that they create significant economic value for the emirate on top of direct spending on tickets and other performance-related sales. This data is being used to produce data-led economic calculations that support investment in cultural events.