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In Focus n° 2: Producing Cultural Heritage: The Neoliberalization of Arts & Cultural Spaces in Abu Dhabi’s Souk and Sa‛diyāt Island

Focus n° 2 : La création d’un patrimoine culturel: néolibéralisation des arts et des espaces culturels dans le souk d'Abu Dhabi et sur l'île de Sa‛diyāt
Beth Harrington


La restructuration néolibérale actuelle du domaine « des arts et de la culture » à Abu Dhabi, à travers le projet culturel de l'île de Sa‛diyât, est caractérisée par deux phénomènes majeurs : la commodification du passé et la ségrégation de certains types de consommateurs. En premier lieu, des images ou des styles, jugés indésirables ou non-modernes, sont remplacés par d'autres, cosmopolites et plus actuels et. Dans ce projet, cela est d’abord visible dans la construction d'une généalogie culturelle raffinée et civilisée de la ville d'Abu Dhabi et dans l'appropriation de styles architecturaux typiques du pays, tandis qu’est laissé le soin à des architectes occidentaux de modifier et d’incorporer des styles locaux afin de placer la ville sur une grille cosmopolite tout en ancrant ces espaces culturels dans la tradition arabe du Golfe. Ensuite, l'organisation spatiale des espaces culturels et de consommation de Sa‛diyât est conçue pour faciliter le flux vers des zones spécifiques et distinctes de consommation, séparer les classes de consommateurs, et rendre ces inégalités invisibles.

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  • 1 El Sheshtawy, 2008, p. 277‑278.

“Entering [the souk] was like encountering a different world… composed of small, informal shops, populated by low‑income migrant workers, a sense of chaos contrasting sharply with the ordered appearance of its immediate context. It projected an air of provinciality and informality. Ironically, in Abu Dhabi this was the only place that conveyed some sense of history and tradition even though the market was built in the early 1970s.”1

  • 2 In this paper, I use “modern” to mean contemporary, rather than to refer to an architectural era or (...)

1Abu Dhabi’s souk was demolished and rebuilt in a newer, modern iteration,2 a recasting that is emblematic of the broader reframing of artistic and cultural heritage spaces in Abu Dhabi today. Artistic and cultural heritage has historically been an important arena for negotiating and performing power, wealth and prestige. According to Timothy Mitchell,

  • 3 Mitchell, 2002, p. 191.

“Groups must be included by first declaring them excluded for their lack of civilization, villages must be destroyed in order to preserve them, pasts declared lost so that they may be recovered.”3

2It is critical not to lose sight of the violence and erasures that can accompany the construction of cultural heritage. While the physical demolition of the old souk materializes the violence and erasure of the enterprise, the construction on Saadiyat (Sa’diyāt) Island is oriented towards building a cultural hotspot and attaining prestige. However, Saadiyat’s neoliberal inspiration simultaneously masks components of segregation and deletion in the project. This study focuses on the Saadiyat project, referencing the souk selectively where relevant.

  • 4 Here I use the phrase to mean spaces of art practice and consumption as well as socializing and lei (...)

3 The massive restructuring of the “arts and cultural”4 sphere currently occurring in Abu Dhabi demonstrates several key tenets of neoliberalism, in particular increased consumption, commodification, and flows of trade and capital unencumbered by regulation. This restructuring, overseen by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (formerly Abu Dhabi Authority for Arts and Culture), thereby linking commercial and cultural heritage projects, is characterized by two major phenomena. First, initiatives such as the souk’s rehabilitation and the Saadiyat Island project are marked by a commodification and elision of the past, replacing undesirable or non‑modern images and styles with updated, cosmopolitan ones. This appears most prominently in the project’s articulation of a distinguished and civilized cultural genealogy for Abu Dhabi, constructed through appropriating architectural vernaculars, among other methods. Secondly, in the particular case of Saadiyat Island, the spatial organization of these new cultural institutions is designed to facilitate flow to specific and distinct zones of consumption, segregate classes of consumers from one another by inhibiting movement between the zones, and render invisible these inequalities.

Commodification of the Past through Vernacular Citation

  • 5 Davidson, 2009, p. 72.
  • 6 Foster+Partners, “Projects: AlDar”, accessed 4/26/2010, (...)

4The first phenomenon, the commodification and elision of the past, featured prominently in Abu Dhabi’s souk project. As many older spaces in Abu Dhabi are being replaced, the old souk, described by Yasser Elsheshtawy above, was rebuilt as a modern, Western‑style mall and luxury residential development.5 This property was not viewed as heritage, possibly because it catered to and served as a space for lower classes to mingle. Foster + Partners’ website describes the “revitalization” project as “a reinterpretation of the traditional market place and a new civic heart for Abu Dhabi,” one including high‑end Western retail.6 This substantially elevated the economic class of the souk’s customers. Whereas it had been a meeting place for the lower classes, particularly migrant workers, this space was destroyed and replaced with a site of global consumerism. Demolishing the old souk also erased the presence of the mostly migrant worker clientele from the city center. The souk’s air of the provincial and haphazard (rather than global and smooth) did not align with the new, modern, cosmopolitan Abu Dhabi, and thus was recast into a preferred version.

Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.

Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.

Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.

Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.
  • 7 TDIC, “Where is Saadiyat Island?”, accessed 2/9/2010,

5These themes are evident in the Saadiyat Island project. Saadiyat Island is part of Abu Dhabi’s reconfiguration and promotion of itself as a cosmopolitan, urban cultural space with a distinguished history. The Saadiyat project offers residential and luxury tourist lodging, satellite branches of important Western museums (the Guggenheim and the Louvre), and a New York University campus. It competitively surpasses other cultural undertakings in the Gulf and seeks to establish Abu Dhabi as the premier urban cultural hotspot in the Middle East. Maps from the project’s promotional website show Saadiyat in relation to Abu Dhabi and within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), targeted toward an audience with little knowledge of UAE geography. Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC)’s marketing materials are aimed towards wealthy Gulf residents and higher class Europeans and Americans. The text accompanying the promotional thumbnails states, “The city lives up to the expectations of an international business and political centre [of] a stately, global capital. Age‑old Bedouin hospitality merges with iconic buildings and innovative architecture and design to form a cultural and commercial model for the Gulf7 (italics mine). In this framing, Abu Dhabi is a global capital with distinctive architectural icons and an established history. The text draws on a highly romanticized trope of Bedouin life while reiterating modern global, commercial, and capitalistic norms. Saadiyat purports to offer the best of both worlds.

6To transform these spaces into commodities, many architects have deployed “local” architectural vernaculars so the spaces can be understood and consumed as distinctively Arab products. Just as the advertisement for Saadiyat highlighted a modern business capital and Bedouin hospitality, architects incorporate nods to Abu Dhabi’s specificity. Frank Gehry noted:

  • 8 Gehry, 2005, p. 1.

“[The Guggenheim] Abu Dhabis going to be… a take on a traditional, spread out, organic Arab village or town. Not literally, but itll have the equivalent of streets and alleys, souk‑like spaces and plazas, some shaded and others covered…well be bringing in cooling air through a modern take on traditional Middle Eastern wind towers.”8

  • 9 While Iran is often considered part of the Middle East, Arabs and Iranians or Persians do not consi (...)

7The wind tower is an architectural feature doubling as a passive cooling system that originated in Iran, and Gehry’s invocation of the Arab souk draws on a long genealogy of Euro‑American tropes of Arab cities. Here he takes what he perceives to be traditional local architecture9 and adds air conditioning and other modern urban signifiers. Gehry attempts to integrate a sanitized version of something Arab, presumably recognizable across the Arab world, but in a smoother, globalized, and apolitical modern form. This architectural method, which I call vernacular citation, demonstrates a desire to project a particular cultural or national identity while also claiming a space on the international grid of global cities. As Christopher Parker has pointed out, neoliberalism appeals to the global; this facilitates open and easy trade and transfer of goods and ideas.

  • 10 TDIC, “Louvre Abu Dhabi”, accessed 3/28/2012,‑abu‑dhabi1. (...)

8Jean Nouvel also employed vernacular citation in his designs for the new Louvre, linking the building to a lengthy Arabian history. The descriptive text on the Saadiyat website reads, “Ever aware of context, Nouvel has a falaj‑inspired water system running through the museum, inspired by ancient Arabian engineering. Louvre Abu Dhabi’s geometric lace dome was inspired by the interlaced palm leaves traditionally used as roofing material and results in an enchanting rain of light.”10 Falaj systems, also called qanât, are water management systems originating in the Gulf. Other sources, such as the Agence‑France Musées, locate the ceiling’s inspiration in mashrabiya, carved wooden window coverings common across the Middle East. Mashrabiya, which initially served to block sand from entering open windows, later evolved into ornate carvings. Thus the design’s global appeal stems from its vague evocation of perceived ancient and historical local traditional forms combined with recognizably modern, neoliberal, capitalist projects and edifices. These design choices reveal how the architects promote a particular vision of Abu Dhabi as a city with an extended culture and history, actively working against the notion that the Gulf has little history or established culture, to ensure the city a spot on the global grid.

Zoning, Segregation and Consumption

  • 11 Harvey, 2005, p. 2.

9Constructing a consumable image of hospitality also obscures the violence the Saadiyat project performs, including, among other things, the ways in which visitors are segregated and insulated from one another. This distinctive spatial organization, the second primary characteristic of neoliberal cultural reshaping, is marked by: facilitation of flow to zones of consumption, segregation of consumers, and concealment of this segregation. David Harvey defines neoliberalism as a theory of political economic practices oriented towards “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”11 The vision of Saadiyat clearly exemplifies these tenets: there are multiple residential investment properties for Emiratis as well as foreigners on the island, and Saadiyat operates as a free trade zone, wherein institutions benefit from less stringent regulations than elsewhere in the UAE: business owners typically retain full ownership of their enterprises and are not subject to Emirati corporate taxes.

View of Louvre Abu Dhabi from freeway, as of July 2013. Photo by Author.

View of Louvre Abu Dhabi from freeway, as of July 2013. Photo by Author.
  • 12 Parker, 2009, p. 112.
  • 13 Parker, 2009, p. 116.
  • 14 TDIC, “District Map”, accessed 2/9/2010,‑map.html.
  • 15 TDIC, “About Saadiyat”, accessed 3/5/2013,
  • 16 TDIC, “About Saadiyat”, accessed 3/5/2013,

10In addition, the island’s layout is designed to facilitate the flows of goods to ease and speed up commercial exchange, as well as the quick turnover of visitors, separated according to different socio‑economic classes, in order to enable easy consumption of one’s desired luxuries and recreation, including high culture. Here, flow is critical as it allows for quicker capital accumulation, trade and consumption. As Parker notes, speed of flow “provides a metric against which the varying capabilities of populations can be distinguished,” the populations differentiated and sorted by their ability to consume.12 Thus, understanding the neoliberal arrangement of Saadiyat requires recognizing both the role and speed of flow as means of neoliberal spatial structuring by dividing populations according to consumption preferences and satisfying them quickly. TDIC planners have created a “one‑stop‑shop” for tourists, centrally locating every product or leisure experience and making them available for speedy consumption. As Parker writes, “The notion of ‘one‑stop‑shop’… reveals much about... neoliberalism... [as it] premises development on the capacity to consume.”13 Saadiyat offers several styles of ready‑made consumption, functioning as a ‘one‑stop‑shop’: the Cultural District, the Marina, the Beach, the Retreat, the Lagoons, the Reserve, and the Promenade.14 Each area has a clearly outlined audience: the western half of the island is designed for “cosmopolitan” visitors while the eastern half offers “natural” environments that are private, family‑oriented, and exclusive. While offering multiple types of leisure experiences, and thereby appearing to be cosmopolitan and tolerant, these zones remain firmly delineated and visitors are divided accordingly, discreetly reproducing patterns of segregation, such as that between family and bachelors, common throughout the Gulf, which are aimed at protecting the local culture from external influences. To access these discrete zones, the visitor is whisked down one of two major freeway bridges that connect Saadiyat to the mainland. Developers have planned a “state‑of‑the‑art communication network” to keep residents connected with the outside world, but only three “inter‑island bridges.”15 Flow is oriented unidirectionally, to channel from Abu Dhabi to one’s desired consumption zone on Saadiyat. Additional promotional text highlights Saadiyat’s proximity, as “a five‑minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi, 20 minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport and one hour from Dubai.”16 While it is easy to reach one’s desired zone, this infrastructure is not oriented towards travel or flow between zones to ensure that different classes and types of visitors do not mingle.

TDIC Marketing on Saadiyat, December 2012. Photo by Author.

TDIC Marketing on Saadiyat, December 2012. Photo by Author.
  • 17 Katz, 2001, p. 93.
  • 18 Harvey, 2005, p. 16.

11The highway infrastructure physically and distinctly separates these zones and renders these discrete spheres invisible to one another. Geographer Cindi Katz has noted that neoliberal urban planning hides the uneven social categories it creates, and the Saadiyat project demonstrates that this unevenness extends to cultural categories.17 Harvey writes that “redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalism as to be regarded as structural to the whole project.”18 While the island is designed to appeal to upper class consumers, it is also designed to retain differences and separation between these classes such that cosmopolitan marina visitors need not interact with those coming for a private family retreat. Furthermore, the island’s design has ignored lower‑class visitors or workers as they are not members of the consumption groups targeted on Saadiyat. There is no consumption zone or space allocated for the lower class nor for their “popular” culture; they have been erased from the landscape. This neoliberal space‑shaping reinforces and widens existing social and class disparities while simultaneously hiding them from view. The invisibility of this segregation is also necessary to maintain the advertised image of Arabian hospitality.

12In conclusion, the neoliberal structuring of Saadiyat reveals itself in the way it only targets those who can afford particular consumptions, differentiates them according to class and consumption preferences and then channels them into distinct areas, facilitating speedy flows and quick turnover. Furthermore, architects promote the consumption of cultural heritage through vernacular citation, a process that simultaneously historicizes the city while locating it on a global grid of cosmopolitan cities characterized by massive flows of capital and trade. Spaces in the city that project a different past of poverty and lack of contemporaneity must be excised and reshaped for modern culture and a “neater” iteration of heritage and history: one that evokes a noble heritage and nods to the specificity of place so these spaces are ‘sellable’ in a neoliberal globalist vision.

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Davidson, C., “Abu Dhabi’s New Economy: Oil, Investment, and Domestic Development”, Middle East Policy XVI (No 2, Summer), 2009, p. 59‑79.

Fattah, H., “Celebrity Architects Reveal Daring Cultural Xanadu for Arab World”, New York Times, Feb. 1, 2007. (accessed 3/15/2010).

Foster+Partners, “Projects: AlDar”, Foster+Partners. (accessed 4/26/2010).

Fuccaro, N., “Visions of the City: Urban Studies on the Gulf”, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin (Winter), 2001, p. 175.

Gehry, F., “My Abu Dhabi Adventure”, The Guardian, March 2005. (accessed 4/20/2010).

Harvey, D., A Brief History of Neoliberalism, London, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kanna, A. with A Keshavarzian, “The UAE’s Space Race: Sheikhs and Starchitects Envision the Future”, Middle East Report 248 (Fall), 2008, p. 34‑39.

Katz, C., “Hiding the Target: Social Reproduction in the Privatized Urban Environment”, Postmodern Geography: Theory & Praxis, ed. Claudio Minca, Oxford, Blackwell, 2001, p. 93‑110.

Krieger, Z., “The Emir of NYU”, New York Magazine, April 13, 2008, (accessed 2/22/2010).

Mitchell, T., Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Parker, C., “Tunnel‑bypasses and minarets of capitalism: Amman as neoliberal assemblage”, Political Geography 28 (2009), p. 110‑120.

Elsheshtawy, Y., “Cities of Sand and Fog,” The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity, and Urban Development, London, Routledge, 2008.

TDIC, “Saadiyat Island: Cultural District”, TDIC, (accessed 2/10/2010).

TDIC, “District Map,” TDIC, (accessed 2/9/2010).

TDIC, “Marina Overview”, TDIC, (accessed 4/25/2010).

TDIC, “Reserve Overview”, TDIC, (accessed 4/25/2010).

TDIC, “Retreat Overview”, TDIC, (accessed 4/25/2010).

TDIC, “Beach Overview”, TDIC, (accessed 4/25/2010).

TDIC, “Where is Saadiyat Island?”, TDIC., accessed 2/9/2010.

TDIC, “About Saadiyat Island”, TDIC, (accessed 2/9/2010, 3/5/2013).

TDIC, “Saadiyat Island Press Release: Zayed National Museum to be Developed”, TDIC (accessed 2/9/2010).

TDIC, “Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) CSR Report 2009”, TDIC, Abu Dhabi, 2009.

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1 El Sheshtawy, 2008, p. 277‑278.

2 In this paper, I use “modern” to mean contemporary, rather than to refer to an architectural era or discuss claims of modernity. Thanks to Hannah Feldman for this point.

3 Mitchell, 2002, p. 191.

4 Here I use the phrase to mean spaces of art practice and consumption as well as socializing and leisure spaces.

5 Davidson, 2009, p. 72.

6 Foster+Partners, “Projects: AlDar”, accessed 4/26/2010,‑central‑market/.

7 TDIC, “Where is Saadiyat Island?”, accessed 2/9/2010,

8 Gehry, 2005, p. 1.

9 While Iran is often considered part of the Middle East, Arabs and Iranians or Persians do not consider themselves to be of the same culture. This distinction is often elided by Westerners, as Gehry does here.

10 TDIC, “Louvre Abu Dhabi”, accessed 3/28/2012,‑abu‑dhabi1.html.

11 Harvey, 2005, p. 2.

12 Parker, 2009, p. 112.

13 Parker, 2009, p. 116.

14 TDIC, “District Map”, accessed 2/9/2010,‑map.html.

15 TDIC, “About Saadiyat”, accessed 3/5/2013,

16 TDIC, “About Saadiyat”, accessed 3/5/2013,

17 Katz, 2001, p. 93.

18 Harvey, 2005, p. 16.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.
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Titre Abu Dhabi’s Souk, July 2012. Photo by Author.
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Titre View of Louvre Abu Dhabi from freeway, as of July 2013. Photo by Author.
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Titre TDIC Marketing on Saadiyat, December 2012. Photo by Author.
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Beth Harrington, « In Focus n° 2: Producing Cultural Heritage: The Neoliberalization of Arts & Cultural Spaces in Abu Dhabi’s Souk and Sa‛diyāt Island », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 17 novembre 2013, consulté le 28 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Beth Harrington

Northwestern University

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