How The Louvre Abu Dhabi Became The Cultural Jewel Of The Middle East

By Maria Bregman

On November 11, 2023, a new star was born in the Middle East. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first universal museum in the Arab world, opened its doors to the public, after a decade of construction and delays. The museum, which cost $1 billion to build, is a stunning architectural and artistic achievement, as well as a bold cultural and diplomatic venture.

The museum is the result of a 30-year agreement between France and the United Arab Emirates, signed in 2007, which involved the transfer of expertise, loans, and branding from the Louvre in Paris and other French institutions, such as the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, and the Musée du Quai Branly. In exchange, the UAE paid France $525 million for the use of the Louvre name, $747 million for the management and curatorial services, and $332 million for the loans of artworks.

The museum, designed by the renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, is located on Saadiyat Island, a cultural district that will also host the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum, and a performing arts center. The museum covers an area of 97,000 square meters, of which 24,000 square meters are dedicated to the permanent galleries and 2,000 square meters to the temporary exhibitions.

The museum’s most striking feature is its dome, which spans 180 meters and weighs 7,500 tons. The dome is composed of eight layers of steel and aluminum, perforated with geometric patterns that create a “rain of light” effect, inspired by the traditional mashrabiya windows of the region. The dome also serves as a climate control system, providing shade and ventilation to the museum and the plaza below.

The museum’s collection consists of more than 600 artworks and artifacts, ranging from prehistoric to contemporary, from different civilizations and cultures, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, Islam, Europe, Africa, and America. The museum displays the works in a chronological and thematic order, highlighting the connections and influences among them, rather than separating them by geography or religion.

The museum also features 300 loans from 13 French institutions, which will rotate every six months to 18 months, depending on the agreement. The loans include masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol, among others. The museum also showcases works by regional and local artists, such as Hassan Sharif, Ali Banisadr, and Zoulikha Bouabdellah, reflecting the diversity and dynamism of the contemporary art scene in the Middle East.

The museum aims to promote dialogue, tolerance, and diversity, as well as to attract tourists and boost the economy of Abu Dhabi, which seeks to diversify its sources of income beyond oil. The museum’s director, Manuel Rabaté, said: “The Louvre Abu Dhabi is not a copy of the Louvre in Paris. It is a new museum, with a new vision, a new message, a new mission. It is a museum that celebrates the universal values of humanity, that shows the commonalities and the differences among cultures, that fosters understanding and respect.”

The museum’s opening was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as well as other dignitaries and celebrities. The opening was also marked by a series of events and activities, such as concerts, performances, workshops, and lectures.

The museum has received rave reviews from critics and visitors, who praised its architecture, collection, and curation. The museum has also generated controversy, especially regarding the labor conditions of the workers who built it, the censorship of some artworks, and the political implications of the partnership between France and the UAE.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a landmark project that showcases the ambition and vision of Abu Dhabi, as well as the cooperation and friendship between France and the UAE. It is a museum that transcends boundaries and categories, that bridges the past and the present, that connects the East and the West. It is a museum that invites us to see the world in a new light, and to discover the beauty and diversity of human creativity.