How the UAE has shaped its technological ambition and retained its cultural heritage
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How the UAE has shaped its technological ambition and retained its cultural heritage

How the UAE has shaped its technological ambition and retained its cultural heritage

The UAE’s cultural development showcases its traditional values while embracing a modern vision

Tom Watson Counterculture

How do you measure the ambition of a country?

The world’s rulers, politicians, historians and management consultants can all write books on how best to answer this question.

Yet the UAE can answer it in a single sentence: ‘We’ve launched a satellite, and it’s orbiting another planet’. The UAE is a young country with interplanetary ambition. That’s something that captures the imagination of every child in every country.

The Mars satellite will help future generations understand the universe, but it’s the head-turning, perception-changing ambition of the UAE that inspires today’s generation. I got a sense of the UAE’s ambition as a young UK Parliamentarian when I visited for the first time nearly two decades ago. Back then, I saw some of the region’s archaeology from the Neolithic and Bronze age.

Since that visit, much has changed. There’s a phrase we often use in UK politics – traditional values in a modern setting. It’s not just the country’s archaeology and space programme that  demonstrates this. Just look at the quality, depth and pace of the UAE cultural sector’s development. The UAE now enjoys a global reputation for architectural beauty and has some of the world’s most aesthetically stunning buildings.

Alongside the traditional narrow alleys and stone buildings, epitomised by Dubai’s Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood, breathtaking modern constructions now shape the skylines.

I’m going to mention ambition again. There’s no more exemplary architectural example of ambition than the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The breathtaking structure is open to the air on all sides and constructed from an irregular honeycomb of aluminium and stainless steel. Outside, the dome appears to float above the sea and inside it creates a dancing interplay between light and shadow around the galleries and reflecting pools.

The UAE understands the importance of cultural placemaking. More than just displaying architecture, the museums and galleries have a clear strategic mission to maximise cultural capital and potential of place and community. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is, for example, part of a larger plan to create a cultural district on Saadiyat Island which also includes the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The value of such creative hubs with iconic architecture at their heart is recognised worldwide.

In London, a significant area of the city’s East End was transformed from a semi-derelict peripheral industrial estate into a new creative urban centre with massive infrastructure investment by the Olympic development. At its heart is the epochal ArcelorMittal Orbit, an architectural focal point for a new artistic community.

Ambition lubricates the UAE’s architectural projects, juxtaposing the most modern design with traditional features. The cone-like structures that encircle the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi were inspired by the region’s traditional wind towers, instantly linking the building to its environment and community. The feature is also key to the Qasr al Muwaji museum’s beauty on the historic UNESCO site.

Museums and galleries across the UAE are adopting this collaborative approach in their design. In Dubai, the Museum of the Future is one of the most challenging construction projects ever attempted – an impressive description bearing in mind the futuristic architectural landscape it inhabits.

But while the shape – a giant hula hoop – personifies the future of design, the Arabic calligraphy adorning its exterior firmly roots it in the local cultural heritage. It has also led the way in sustainability. The museum is equipped with advanced building control solutions, greywater recycling systems and complex solar power, and its exhibits will focus on environmental themes. Art spaces worldwide are leading the way in sustainability.

Another mesmerising building, the Union Museum, located next to the historic Union House on the Dubai waterfront, honours the 1971 signing of the document that created the United Arab Emirates and celebrates its people’s rich culture and history. The undulating parabolic curves of its entrance pavilion represent the founding parchment of a new, young country.

While the UAE’s unique, awe-inspiring cultural buildings fuel economic prosperity, more than this, it is clear that every project has at its core a noble aim. They showcase Arab achievement; the region’s intellectual life, its artists, and its rich and diverse culture. The region’s history is expansive, complex and of substantial global significance, and the museums and galleries strive to demonstrate this both inside and out.

Traditional values in a modern setting and interplanetary ambition? Now that is what I call outstanding global leadership.

Tom Watson is president of Counterculture and former UK Labour Deputy Leader

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