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Abu Dhabi scales cultural heights

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Abu Dhabi

Polo pony in stable
Abu Dhabi's polo facilities are world renowned

The new season is fast approaching at the al-Ghantoot Polo and Racing Club.

An hour's drive from Abu Dhabi, it is home to 200 pampered ponies that live in air-conditioned stables, their feed shipped in from Kentucky, their grooms from Argentina.

This is a club that plays host to kings and queens and no expense is spared.

From barren, arid desert, the royal family has created four of the finest polo fields, watered every morning with hundreds of gallons of water.

At 6am, before the blistering heat descends, the ponies are put through their paces in the training ring.

"Everything here is state of the art," says Tariq Mansoor, the club's events manager.

The whole intention is to make Abu Dhabi the hub of culture in the Middle East
Nashwa al-Ruwaini
Film festival director
"We have 150 centrally air-conditioned stables. One of the princes is now a keen polo player," he adds.

Horses have long fascinated the Arab world, but now there is much more.

In Abu Dhabi the national stable of cultural and sporting assets is expanding at an extraordinary rate.

Speed merchants

Arriving on the grid in November 2009 is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

This month plans were announced for a $40bn racing track, complete with the world's first trackside hotel.

For the Lewis Hamiltons of this world it is hardly the ideal setting - temperatures in the car will rise to some 60 degrees centigrade.

Jonny Herbert
Johnny Herbert (l) is a regular at Abu Dhabi's motor circuits
But no-one can fail to be impressed by the scale of the ambitions.

Britain's Johnny Herbert, the winner of three Formula One Grand Prix races and the Le Mans 24-hour race, was also champion of last year's Dubai Speedcar Series - a weekend festival of motor racing.

Recently he was testing cars in the Emirates.

"It's not just about motorsport, it's golf, cricket, soccer. The building that's going on here is very diverse in what it's trying to achieve".

"It started from nothing. It's a very big, bold thing to do but the possibilities are endless," he added.

Cultural hub

Away from the screaming F1 engines, the mood is somewhat quieter inside the plush Emirates Palace.

The five-star hotel which overlooks the Gulf in Abu Dhabi has just hosted the second Middle East International Film Festival - a relative newcomer to the film calendar but attracting, nonetheless, some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Shimmying down the red carpet this year were the likes of Antonio Banderas, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan and Catherine Deneuve. Abu Dhabi does nothing by halves.

Already the sheikhs have sealed a $1bn deal with Hollywood giant Warner Bros and are offering the same amount for investment in film financing.

Nashwa al-Ruwaini is the film festival's director.

The idea of bringing the Guggenheim and the Louvre here is all part of the cultural vision
Hamid Kano
Art gallery director

"The whole intention is to make Abu Dhabi the hub of culture in the Middle East, and a cultural destination for the world. It's going brilliantly," she says.

"The people who are the mega cinema players, they've started making deals with us because they see we mean business."

One positive result of the investment is the leverage to improve the image of Islam on the silver screen.

Chip Johannessen is a screenwriter for the American primetime crime show 24, which has been accused of casting a Muslim "bad guy" almost every other series.

At the film festival, he took part in a round-table discussion that focused on the portrayal of Islam and the impact that this new investment could have on screenwriting in Hollywood.

Is he worried that the new Arab investors will be calling the shots?

"We do commercial television, is the fact of the matter, and it would not be the first occasion that people can put a product [into the script] basically by buying time," he says.

"I don't know that it's conceptually so much different to come in with a lot of money and say, 'I'm going to put my message out.' If your interests were compatible, it would work out," he adds.

Artistic ambitions

Aside from the film festival, Abu Dhabi will soon be hosting a branch of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums: it has even attracted an outpost of the Sorbonne, the famous Paris university.

Years of western culture and tradition are being transplanted to the desert, where the Emiratis are greedily slaking their thirst for these new experiences.

Hamid Kano is director of the Ghaf Gallery, the first and only commercial art gallery in Abu Dhabi.

People at an art gallery
Art is becoming a major draw in the Emirates

He recently held a private view for a collection of abstract painting and sculpture from Mexico. Mr Kano thinks attitudes are changing to western art - but slowly.

"It's going to be great to be here in Abu Dhabi in four or five years," he argues.

"Art is new. There are a lot of folk who buy work they are comfortable with, perhaps traditional work of the desert. I hate to say that because we're trying to break that stereotype, we're trying to bring in contemporary art."

"The idea of bringing the Guggenheim and the Louvre here is all part of the cultural vision," according to Mr Kano.

"In the last century a lot of European collections migrated to America - this is the 21st Century equivalent. We have to make sure it is a two-way thing. Our door is open for art from the west - but [we also want] to get our art into the Guggenheim system," he adds.

There's so much money around, so much appetite to bring new things to the Middle East that it can't be long before Abu Dhabi rivals Paris, Venice or Los Angeles - certainly that is the ambition.

The Emiratis are open to all sorts of ideas - though as Mr Kano points out there are some things that might just have to wait.

"Having nudes here is something we're not yet ready for. This is still a conservative society, I don't think we would get the right response from the public here - however we have had some deconstructed nudes at the Picasso exhibition," he says.

"I don't think a lot of people knew what it was, I certainly didn't. Somebody explained it to me - then I saw itů and I looked away. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."



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Country profile: United Arab Emirates
07 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

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