The United Arab Emirates Spectacle Menagerie: Saadiyat Island

The bubble of journalistic interest in the United Arab Emirates that grew perilously large in the past few years seems to have popped pretty abruptly. Since Dubai generated most of the interest (most of it puritan disapproval mixed with veiled envy), their recent economic decline spelled the end of glossy spreads in the New York Times Magazine. After indulging in a little schadenfreude, most architecture enthusiasts moved on to newer and wackier spectacles (like the 2010 Shanghai World Expo!! Mark your calendars!)

However, Dubai is not the only dreamworld on the Gulf, and now wealthier Abu Dhabi is poised for the spotlight. Saadiyat Island is slated to become a fantasy extravaganza, agglomerating the world’s most powerful cultural institutions and architectural divas into a highbrow amusement park. Since Dubai cornered the market on capricious luxury, Abu Dhabi seeks to distinguish itself from its flashy little sister by cultivating a more sophisticated brand identity that appeals to a cultured audience.

However mercenary the impulse, the island will represent an unprecedented transfer of cultural capital to the Middle East. The effect it will have on the art world is difficult to gauge, but Abu Dhabi’s ambition is nothing less than to establish a new capital of taste and influence. I.M. Pei’s new Islamic Museum of Art in Doha and the Sharjah Biennial put the region on the art world’s radar, but the global art establishment is still grounded in the major Western museums. Saadiyat Island will upset this order by importing these museums and housing them in spectacular buildings.

Saadiyat Guggenheim by Frank Gehry

Performing Arts Center by Zaha Hadid

Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel

Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando

Among the planned projects are a new Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, a branch of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, The Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster, and a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid. This all-star line-up outdoes any past entry in the international museum-as-status-object competition initiated by Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Like with Dubai, it’s difficult to gauge how many of these projects will ever see the light of day. All construction in Dubai has been halted due to the economic crisis, and while Abu Dhabi is much more financially secure, it’s hard to imagine a project of this magnitude being completed in today’s climate. According to their website, the Louvre will open in 2013, but who knows?

There’s something unsettling about the excess of deconstructivist opulence on display in these images. Real photos of the UAE are difficult to distinguish from computer generated images, as every surface gleams with the same silvery-blue sheen. As cracks appear in Dubai’s facade, Saadiyat Island beigns to look like a preemptive monument to early-oughts hubris.