It was billed as an unprecedented cluster of cultural glory that would transform Abu Dhabi into the Paris of the Middle East: three centrepiece museums, including the world’s largest Guggenheim and a branch of the Louvre, designed by “starchitects” to rise up among a complex of five-star beach resorts and luxury villas on Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi.
But six years after the project was unveiled, while several five-star resorts have opened, the only visible signs of the complex are an illuminated model in an exhibition centre near a windswept desert construction site.
Repeated delays and financial concerns have diminished the impact of the scheme, say project insiders and art experts, and some now believe the emirate has no option but to scale back its grandiose plans, possibly even scrapping the Guggenheim museum.
Those concerns have been compounded by reports of the mistreatment of migrant workers labouring on the £17bn Saadiyat island complex and worries about whether the art ultimately put on display will be subjected to censorship by the conservatives who hold sway in this part of the world.
Verena Formanek, senior project manager for the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, admitted it was still a distant prospect. “The light’s on the horizon when the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens. I think that’s the first time I will really feel more secure because then I will see a museum is really open here and this will change a lot.”
But she added: “Really, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is far away.”