Macron hails power of beauty as Louvre opens in Abu Dhabi
The French president, , has hailed the new as an example of how beauty can “fight against the discourses of hatred”, as the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates inaugurated its elaborate new cultural showpiece at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East.
After 10 years of controversy and delays – including in the Gulf state – the vast museum project, created in collaboration with France and designed by Paris’s star architect , opened under a giant silver dome that gently filters the blazing sunlight of a desert island intended to be dedicated to culture and art.
The museum is one of the biggest cultural image-building exercises undertaken by Abu Dhabi and marks the region’s move to diversify into culture and tourism and use art for political leverage as it overhauls its military and flexes its muscles on foreign policy.
But the rooms of priceless art and artefacts are also an example of France’s eagerness to use its own “soft power” of art, culture and education to cement its own foreign policy.
The emotional inauguration by Macron and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Zayad Al Nahyan showed how art – from ancient sculpture to Van Gogh paintings – could be called upon by pressured leaders to attempt to smooth over difficult diplomacy.
Macron’s first visit to Abu Dhabi this week comes at a time of major challenges in the region – from the crisis between Qatar and other Gulf states, to the escalating brinkmanship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the war in Yemen. With tensions mounting in Lebanon after the resignation of the prime minister Saad Hariri and an attempted ballistic by Houthi rebels in Yemen, Macron warned – before even setting foot in the Louvre – about an escalation.
Once inside the corridors of the museum, Macron referenced the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, urging that “beauty can save the world”. He promised that this unprecedented museum’s links between and the Arab world would help fight against “idiocy” and the “lies” of “obscurantism”.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi – which will show hundreds of works from every culture and era, half on loan from France’s most prestigious museum collections – had long been billed as the first “universal museum” in the Arab world. If it had sometimes been dismissed by Paris commentators as Abu Dhabi brashly buying social and cultural legitimacy by spending a fortune to use the Louvre brand, it is clear that has always equally sought to gain from it.
The project has been dubbed “the first museum to be born out of a diplomatic agreement”. Ten years ago France and the UAE agreed to a 30-year partnership worth $1.27bn, including $520m just for Abu Dhabi to use the Louvre name.
Under the former president Jacques Chirac, France sought to stamp its influence on the Emirates city’s quest to reinvent itself as the cultural capital of the Gulf. The deal, funded by Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, was of great financial interest to France at a time when museum funding in Paris has been increasingly under pressure.
In the French art world, the deal at first sparked controversy with some senior figures in the museum world warning France risked “selling its soul”, and others questioning Abu Dhabi’s record on labour rights, human rights and open government.
From the outset the deal was political. France has other important outposts in the area, namely the first international offshoot of the prestigious Sorbonne university. And when the former president Nicolas Sarkozy laid the first stone for the Louvre building works in 2009, he also opened France’s – France’s Abu Dhabi military base was the first foreign military installation built by France for 50 years and its first ever base outside French or African soil.
Chirac once described the Louvre Abu Dhabi project as a desire for greater understanding between east and west – a reverse of the tide of cultural treasures that have for the last four centuries travelled from east to west.
Macron called the museum the “Louvre of the desert and light” and said it represented a struggle to “defend beauty, universality, creativity, reason and fraternity”. This set the bar high for his own diplomatic challenges in the region as he begins a two-day visit to Abu Dhabi, which he called a “trusted partner” in his much-vaunted fight against terrorism.