Contemporary media artist Walid Raad came today and gave us an introduction to understanding the social stratification in the Middle East and his own biography. Growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Raad is very interested in the history “lived but not experienced” in cities like Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East. He explained that when one spends much of their time in an environment of conflict, one’s memories of traumatic events must be re-experienced in order to heal. Much of his research and work is grounded on the way people experience trauma and remember these moments. In turn this type of thinking is relevant in a region of war and conflict and how it affects culture and tradition.
Raad gave this historical background in order to later tackle the complexity of cities like Abu Dhabi, and their interest in investing heavily in the arts and culture. Due to the great amount of oil wealth in countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the government has been able to accelerate cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi from fishing villages 30 years ago, to the metropolises that they are today. To create large art hubs, the UAE has bought a license to use brand name culture giants like the Guggenheim and Louvre for the next 30 years. Raad himself has been sought out to represent emerging Middle Eastern artists and to help recommend curators for the new Guggenheim Museum in the city.
Moreover, the UAE government’s buying power is also helping them build their new NYU Dubai campus. If art is a reflection of the times, how will government officials control critique of the UAE as they foster an environment for art, culture, and education? Any major change to how the United Emirates functions will depend on the young citizen youth who will get the right education and be able to change the city. Otherwise, everyone will just be a tourist passing by and critiquing the UAE way of life but will not be able to do anything about it since the country is controlled by such a small population. Imagine a country where most of the population are tourists. It is the perfect plan in their eyes.
When it comes to culture, the development officials of the UAE have a firm belief in the growth model “If you build it, they will come.” This motto relates to the government’s massive efforts to create a large tourism industry that will sustain their economy once their large oil reserves deplete, and thus have started to diversify their economy. Thus in respect to culture, development officials are “buying the chicken first, while they hatch the egg.”
The United Arab Emirates history to the international world will be a constructed fiction paired with the realities of the immoral hardships it took foreign workers to build such a fiction. It becomes a hard reality to swallow when these rich countries begin to hyper-manufacture every imaginable tourism structure because it is fueled by bonded labor workers who were promised a better life than in their mother country. When a city is built on the shoulders of slaves, we’ve learned that as unfair as it is, time will just sweep these practices under the rug, leaving just the architecture.
In response to the labor practices by the UAE, Raad helped form the Gulf Labor Coalition along with a group sought out by the Guggenheim. The Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) demanded that the workers building the Guggenheim would work under the most progressive labor rights in the world and thus completely change the view of how one sees the UAE. I was really interested in how the GLC could create a power shift. In a way, these artists’ reputations and cultural significance could leverage the chances of passing better labor rights in the country in a very real way. Minutes after I heard Raad’s explanation of this power shift, he explained why it wasn’t as effective as it could have been. In order to avoid stricter labor policies, Abu Dhabi Guggenheim would instead purchase GLC’s artwork from collectors and galleries without the artists’ permission. Development officials do not seem interested in setting an example, but instead see the development of the UAE as unemotional economics.
I hope that eventually the interest of the United Emirates to hyper-inject culture in their cities will ultimately make them an example of a development project that can be admired for steering in the right direction. As previous speaker Vali Nasr mentioned, the success of Dubai is an important cornerstone in modernizing the Middle East without compromising Islamic culture and tradition. Even though now there might be social problems, religious conflicts and a plastic global microcosm, the seed of culture and education can change the United Emirates landscape for the better.