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Deep inside Abu Dhabi's colossal Emirates Palace hotel lies an exhibition. Not just any exhibition, but one that drives home with breathtaking clarity the emirate's lofty ambition to become one of the great cultural centres of the world. Amid the array of images, models and words explaining the development of Saadiyat Island's Cultural District are designs by four of the world's leading architects for four of the most ambitious cultural projects ever seen in the Middle East.
There's Frank Gehry's abstract Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; Zaha Hadld's futuristic Performing Arts Centre; French architect Jean Nouvel's dome-covered Louvre Abu Dhabi; and Tadao Ando's Maritime Museum, which utilises a reflective surface to create an illusion of sea merging with land.
It's impressive stuff, and when you consider the quantities of cash involved it seems even more impressive. Money, it would appear, is no object to Abu Dhabi and its vision to position itself as a cultural tourist destination and in the process move away from its dependence on oil revenues. What's more, the architectural feats don't end there. Thirteen of the world's top architectural practices have entered an international design competition to create an inspirational design for the Cultural District's Sheikh Zayed National Museum.
The development of Saadiyat Island--which lies 500 metres off Abu Dhabi island--is the government's flagship project and will cost the Tourism Development & Investment Company UDIC) $1.5 billion in infrastructure costs alone. The island is being developed in three phases and will include six individual districts, 29 hotels (including an iconic 'seven-star' property), three manias, two golf courses, civic and leisure facilities and sea-view apartments and elite villas. Its final completion date is scheduled for 2018.
Yet it is the Cultural District--the centrepiece of the project that has grabbed the world's attention and has helped prove that, for the time being at least, Abu Dhabi's strategy is spot on. With big cultural developments comes international attention. And with international attention will come high-spending tourists.
"The Cultural District is intended to create a cultural asset for the world," says His Excellency Mubarak Al Muhairi, Director General of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and Managing Director of the TDIC. "It will be a gateway for cultural experience and exchange. We firmly believe that culture truly does cross all boundaries and therefore, the Saadiyat Cultural District will belong to the people of the UAE, the greater Middle East and the world."
The district has been developed, says Al Muhairi, to meet the government's overall criteria of creating an upscale, world-class destination that will attract a substantial and highly sustainable, local regional and international visitor base with a propensity towards repeat tourism. So has the strategy been successful so far?
"Extremely successful in terms of creating awareness of Abu Dhabi and its long term plans," acknowledges Al Muhairi. "We have received tremendous feedback from literally all parts of the globe. The Cultural District and all of its assets have received international media coverage in mainstream publications, specialist art publications, on TV and radio, from the US to Australia."
In monetary terms, the 30-year cultural accord between the governments of Abu Dhabi and France to create the Louvre Abu Dhabi is costing the emirate an estimated $1.3 billion. In exchange for dollars, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will receive …