Abu Dhabi’s artsy ambitions have hit a snag lately. The emirate announced yesterday that its constellation of big-name museums will not open for several more years – and could be postponed until as late as 2017.
One of Abu Dhabi’s major projects is a cultural district located on Saadiyat Island, just off the main city island. Leaders there hired a team of international “starchitects” to design each of the four cultural buildings, one more iconic-looking than the next. Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Paris, is designing the Louvre, which resembles a giant mushroom cap. Gehry Partners, Los Angeles, is the architect for the Guggenheim outpost, which features a mix of oversized and seemingly randomly placed geometric shapes. Foster + Partners, London, has the commission for the Zayed National Museum. The Zayed galleries will be housed in five soaring forms designed to resemble the feathers of a falcon—a favorite of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, for whom the museum is named—but functioning as solar thermal towers. Zaha Hadid Architects, London, has conceived the Performing Arts Centre, the design of which evokes the lines and shape of a bicycle helmet. Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Tokyo, has the commission for the Maritime Museum, which is designed to resemble a modernistic sail to symbolize the close relationship the U.A.E. has to the Persian Gulf.
The Guggenheim, Louvre and Zayed museums were to open in 2013 and 2014 – which itself is a year later than originally planned.
The news comes on the heels of Abu Dhabi announcing it was withdrawing a major tender for construction work at the Guggeheim site, prompting speculation that the global downturn is taking a bite out of the emirate’s ambitions.
“They want to put the brakes on a little bit and look at the project more strategically,” said one contractor who has bid for work on the museums, according to a recent Financial Times article. “They don’t want people to think they’re stopping for financial reasons.”
The Tourism and Development Company, which is the government entity that is managing the Saadiyat Island district, denies this, according to reports in local newspapers. But in an interview with Bloomberg recently, Gehry said work on the 450,000-square-foot Guggenheim had completely halted because the emirate is scaling back on plans amid the economic slowdown. “The Abu Dhabi building we’ve been working on in the last five to six years has been stopped, and that’s painful,” Gehry said in an interview in Los Angeles, Bloomberg reported.
Despite its significant oil wealth, Abu Dhabi has made a number of moves that suggests it is rearranging its priorities in what has become a less rosy economic environment as the Arab Spring has made Gulf leaders dole out additional welfare packages to residents. The emirate already had to step in and provide funds to the real estate developers building some of its key projects, as I wrote in TIME last January. The emirate has committed billions on projects it hopes will it diversify its economy away from oil. These include the Saadiyat culture and tourism hub and Yas Island, home to its Formula 1 track and Ferrari World.