Is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi drawing nearer? The director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation has told a European news outlet that construction on a long-planned and much-delayed outpost in the United Arab Emirates is “on track.”
“We’re on budget and we’re looking forward to the commencement of the building construction soon,” Richard Armstrong, the director, said earlier this month in an interview with Euronews during an event called Culture Summit Abu Dhabi.
Sarah Eaton, the Guggenheim’s chief spokeswoman, said Thursday that the museum does not have a specific timeline for building.
Delays to the Guggenheim project have made it a high-profile test of the attempts by the Persian Gulf monarchies to diversify their economies away from petroleum. The U.A.E. has been at the forefront of that effort, and Abu Dhabi announced the Guggenheim project in 2007 as a cornerstone of its bid to attract western tourists to the city.
The Emirate’s quest for international cultural cachet, however, has collided with Western human rights concerns, and the construction of the museum has been delayed as artists and academics have protested the treatment of the legions of foreign migrant laborers that the U.A.E. is relying on to build both the museum and the luxury developments around it.
The Guggenheim said in 2007 that its 450,000-square-foot satellite designed by Frank Gehry would be part of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, a square-mile complex just off the shore of Abu Dhabi island. The district also includes the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel.
About 85 percent of the roughly 10 million residents of the U.A.E. are foreigners, most of whom are migrant laborers, usually from Southeast Asia, working for the Emirati minority. Critics of working conditions in Abu Dhabi say laborers must pay large recruitment and transit fees, and there have been reports that some employers or contractors have seized the workers’ passports, housed them in substandard conditions and paid them less than expected, all while enforcing demanding work schedules. The laborers usually live in giant, men-only barracks on the outskirts of the city, and they are ferried to and from their work cites in employer-run buses.
Over the years some people concerned with the plight of the workers held protests inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Museum officials have said that they were working closely with partners in Abu Dhabi to improve the welfare of workers. It was unclear, though, how much influence the museum might wield in a project that is being led by the Emirates’ government.
Ms. Eaton, the Guggenheim spokeswoman, referred questions about the museum’s construction to an official with the Emirates culture and tourism authority, the agency responsible for building the museum. That official did not respond to an email asking when museum construction would get underway.
Mohamed Al Mubarak, the chairman of the authority, is also the chief executive of Abu Dhabi’s largest real estate development company and has close ties to the emirate’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the U.A.E.
In a written statement on Thursday, Hiba Zayadin, of Human Rights Watch, which has documented what the group called “systematic human rights violations” of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, said serious concerns remain about workers’ rights there.
“While U.A.E. authorities have made important reforms to Emirati labor law and policy, we’ve documented the government’s failure to rigorously investigate violations and enforce the new laws,” she said. “Given U.A.E. government restrictions on human rights investigators operating independently in the country we cannot say how widespread abuses continue to be.”
In an email, Ms. Eaton of the Guggenheim wrote: “We remain committed to securing clear, enforceable worker practices and protections.”
Mr. Armstrong told Euronews that the Guggenheim was working “to put together what we think is really the first global collection since 1965.” He added that it would include works “in the wake of Pop Art” by younger artists and by “the likes of James Turrell or Ernesto Neto or Monika Sosnowska.”
Abu Dhabi is in the process of building several new hotels to accommodate the tourists it hopes to attract, and hotel industry executives have acknowledged that the draw of the Louvre Museum on its own has so far failed to meet their projections.
“To be honest, there is an effect, but not to the level that we had expected,” Khalid Anib, chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Hotels, said recently, according to a report by Arab News, an Emirati publication.
He argued that most tourists stay in hotels in the more larger and more cosmopolitan city of Dubai and make only a day trip to see the Louvre Abu Dhabi and other local attractions.
“So once we have a concentration of museums, then the guests will stay in Abu Dhabi,” he said.