Treasure Island


Saadiyat Island is set to become one of the world's great cultural centers, as an epic development program for franchises of the Louvre and Guggenheim nears its completion.

By 2020, Saadiyat Island will have an awful lot to show for a mere 27 sqkm of sand. The island’s Cultural District alone will soon be home to the Zayed National Museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, each one an architectural—not to mention international—venture of epic proportions. Alongside will be a Performing Arts Center and Maritime Museum, as well as luxury villas, business and retail parks, and 29 state-of-the-art hotels.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open its doors in 2015, followed by the Zayed National Museum in 2016 and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2017. Work on a 168,000 sqm ritzy shopping mall linking the three museums started in 2014 and is due to be completed in 2017.

The Tourism and Development Investment Company (TDIC), the local developer behind this transformation, is the main investor in the Saadiyat project, and issued bonds and a sukuk worth $1 billion each at the project’s outset in 2009, according to The National. The entire development is set to cost a cool $27 billion by the time the island is fully open in 2020.


Of the three main museum projects, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is perhaps the most ambitious, and is scheduled to open its doors later in 2015. Construction is estimated to cost a little over $108 million. A floor space of 24,000 sqm will host a revolving program of art exhibitions and loans from, or in collaboration with, the Louvre in Paris, as part of a 30-year agreement between the governments of France and the UAE worth $747 million. Abu Dhabi paid an estimated $525 million to acquire the Louvre name. The museum itself, bathed in light, is designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, who describes his vast “floating” dome as “an island on an island.”

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, opened to a select few in 2014, and is a world-class contemporary museum. Site-specific installations and exhibitions generate scholarship-supported education on modern art from around the world. Beneath the wind tower-shaped cones, evoking traditional Gulf architecture, the November exhibition, “Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection,” featured pieces by 19 international artists from the 1960s to the present day, including works by Larry Bell, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, and Arab artists Mona Hatoum, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Samia Halaby, and Y.Z. Kami. The largest of the Guggenheim museums (the others are in New York, Venice, and Bilbao), Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has a floor space of 41,800 sqm and the museum’s inauguration is scheduled for 2017.

The island’s Cultural District will also be home to the Zayed National Museum, built to reflect the late ruler’s cultural vision and showcasing the history of the UAE before the oil-age: the culture, science, and learning of the Islamic world, faith, falconry, as well as the fauna and flora of the UAE. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was a visionary when it came to managing and building upon the oil riches of his small country—and an avid environmentalist with a passion for falconry, which is reflected in the Norman Foster-designed building, whose 125-meter steel spires splay like the feathers of a giant falcon into the sky. The Maritime Museum and the Museum of Performing Arts will also form part of this complex.

Such a cultural and architectural undertaking is all but unprecedented in recent history, and certainly since the building of the great American museums in the 1770s. Those early institutions marked the beginning of an era of publicly accessible collections that has lasted to this day and arguably has changed the very concept of education in the West. The new museums of Abu Dhabi harbor no less an ambition, and are set to do the same for the Middle East region. Expect to see a lot more treasure—and people—on this island.