x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Celebrating the UAE's 39th birthday

To commemorate the UAE's 39th birthday, we take a look at 39 of the highlights from the past year of the country's cultural life.

Music fans enjoy Beats on the Beach at the Corniche.
Music fans enjoy Beats on the Beach at the Corniche.

The Killers

There've been some serious gigs in Abu Dhabi this year, but could anything beat jumping up and down maniacally to Mr Brightside with a bunch of new-found friends at the Emirates Palace at the end of December 2009? We smiled and we really meant it.


The sixth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival marked itself out with an inspired selection of films from Palestine, most notably Budrus and To Shoot an Elephant, plus a live musical performance from the Palestinian artists who appeared in the documentary Checkpoint: Rock.

Omar Sharif

December brings crackers but none as fiery as the veteran actor Omar Sharif, the biggest star to attend DIFF. The limpid-eyed heart-throb star of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia was not happy that J'ai oublie de te dire (I Forgot to Tell You) was scheduled at the same time as the festival's closing blockbuster Avatar, in a smaller cinema to boot, and without the red carpet razzmatazz. Sharif made his feelings very clear. We enjoyed the fireworks.

Opening of Burj Khalifa

They were lining the streets and the fountains and hanging off the bridges to watch the spectacular opening of the world's tallest building by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, in January. The dramatic fireworks display heralded Dubai's incredible architectural achievement, named Burj Khalifa as a mark of respect for the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. At 828m, Burj Khalifa dwarfs the 508m Taipei 101 and the 629m KVLY-TV mast in the US, as the tallest man-made structure.

Disorientation II at the Manarat al Saadiyat

There were always going to be high expectations for the first exhibition on Saadiyat, and this show, curated by Jack Persekian, certainly didn't disappoint. The stand-out pieces were Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc, a rubber map of Beirut's myriad neighbourhoods and Wafa Hourani's Qalandia 2047, a model of a Palestinian refugee camp in 2047, both of which have also been well received in shows around the world.

Adach's World Stage programme

The amazing Malian guitarist Habib Koité and his band Bamada brought the sounds and rhythms of African pop to the Cultural Foundation in January, kicking off a season in which musicians from around the planet came to Abu Dhabi for the Adach World Stage programme.

Anne-Sophie Mutter at Abu Dhabi Classics

Of all the stars that Abu Dhabi Classics brought to the capital, the violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter delivered the most intellectually restless and challenging performance. Her programme included Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, which she invested with a fierce sonorousness, and a brand new oddity written by her former husband André Previn, perhaps the spikiest selection of the entire season. Her biggest coup, however, was a revelatory take on Mozart's Piano Trio in B Flat, a fizzing bonbon of classical invention that she transformed into a psychological riddle, full of fascinating and disturbing shadows.

The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum

A wonderful taste of things to come, this exhibition featured more than 50 paintings on loan from the Guggenheim New York. From Cézanne to Kandinsky via Mondrian and Pollock this was one of the strongest shows that we've seen so far in the capital.

Gourmet Abu Dhabi

From the opening gala at the Yas Hotel to the chocolate dinner, the Charlie Trotter evening and the masterclass with culinary giant Alain Passard, this year's Gourmet Abu Dhabi was a real treat for UAE foodies.

Shah Rukh Khan attends My Name Is Khan premiere

Shah Rukh Khan's visit to Abu Dhabi for the premiere of his film, My Name Is Khan and the frenzy it generated will long remain a highlight for the Indian community. For thousands of fans who gathered at the Emirates Palace, and tore through barriers screaming for him, it was a defining moment. Patient and smiling, he did what he could for his fans. One of India's biggest Bollywood stars was not only here, he was accessible.

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

As it continues to expand, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair aims for grand objectives. Since it joined forces with the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest in the world, it is attempting to be a public market and a publishers' networking arena. The biggest problem in the Arab world is distribution and this year the ADIBF launched the first pan Arab distribution company. It might just be the boost the Arab world needs to bring quality books to its numerous readers.

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

In just two years, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has established itself in the cultural calendar. March provided rich pickings for book lovers. It was a full house to hear an interview with the controversial author Martin Amis about his latest novel The Pregnant Widow and why he has battled all his adult life against critics who hate him simply for being the son of Kingsley. Children's authors were a huge draw, including Conn Iggulden, who, with his brother Hal, created a publishing phenomenon with The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Art Dubai

The feeling from this year's Art Dubai was that the fair could now hold its own amid the other major international art shows and had become an important date on the world's cultural calendar. Of note was a large presence from Iran that gave an excellent glimpse into Tehran's art scene, plus the Global Art Forum, a well-attended four-day symposium of debates and discussions.

Abraaj Prize

Abraaj Capital is the largest private equity group in the Middle East. In 2008 it launched an annual art competition with a total prize value of US$1 million (Dh3.7m). Over the past three editions, prize-winning art from across the MENASA region has been exhibited worldwide, making Abraaj a crucial platform for traditionally under-represented artists. The work by the recipients of the 2010 prize was on show at Art Duabi, and the 2011 winners were announced in October.

Anna Deaveare Smith/NYUAD

Anna Deavere Smith's life story is motivational for anyone interested in writing and acting and the craft of drama, and her role in the TV series The West Wing as well as her one-woman plays are must-sees. Her visit to NYUAD was her first time in the country, and she had good things to say about it. Smith's most recent theatrical work, entitled Let Me Down Easy, was garnering rave reviews, and she performed excerpts from it that evening. (The play's subject matter is health insurance in the US, and the way she embodies individuals from all walks of life, including a rodeo cowboy and a cancer patient, are works of art.) She provoked laughter and tears.

Chopin Bicentennial at Abu Dhabi Festival

Polish expats were bursting with pride at the opening night of the Abu Dhabi Festival in March when the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by one of their most famous conductors and composers Krzysztof Penderecki celebrated the bicentennial of Chopin's birth. The orchestra played two of Penderecki's compositions, but the highlight of the night was the dazzling interpretation of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 by the pianist Krzysztof Jablonski.

La Bohème at Abu Dhabi Festival

March was an exciting time for Abu Dhabi's opera lovers. The Giacomo Puccini Company brought 186 crew, cast and orchestra from its base in Torre del Lago in Italy to perform La Bohème. The venue was Emirates Palace Auditorium and the stars were Ana Maria Martinez (Mimi) and Luciano Ganci (Rudolfo), who enjoyed Abu Dhabi so much they were the last to leave the after-show party at the Hilton hotel.

Wynton Marsalis at Abu Dhabi Festival

It's not what you expect in the refined environs of the Emirates Palace: the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was giving his all, when someone at the back, clearly unable to hold in his excitement any longer, yelled "Who dat!" Was this Abu Dhabi or New Orleans?

A Story of Islamic Embroidery

This exhibition at Gallery One in Emirates Palace allowed us to relive the domestic lives of men and women from hundreds of years ago through their evocative, exquisite embroidery, created by everyone from enslaved women in harems to nomadic yurt-dwellers.

Jalal's Art Trip

The year Jalal Luqman's initiative to help emerging artists establish themselves got serious, with a spectacular trip for the participants to Sir Bani Yas Island, thanks to support from TDIC. The works produced went on show at the Ghaf Gallery in April.

Millions Poet

It wasn't just the Arab world that was gripped by the final of the hugely popular poetry competition in April - the female Saudi Arabian contestant Hissa Hilal made headlines across the world, despite eventually coming third to the Kuwaiti Nasser al Ajami.

Tom Jones

What better person to perform at the opening concert of Adnec's brand new indoor venue Abu Dhabi Hall in April than Sir Tom Jones? He didn't disappoint and the crowd was up on its feet dancing and singing along to old favourites such as What's New Pussycat, Delilah and It's Not Unusual as well as songs from his latest album. His hair and beard may be grey, but he can still belt them out.

City of Life

Ali F Mostafa's debut feature film, which premiered at DIFF at the start of the year and went on general release in April, also marked the arrival of the UAE as a hub for accomplished, commercial filmmaking. City of Life had a multi-strand narrative, openly modeled on Paul Haggis's pot-boiling racism drama Crash. Yet by taking Dubai itself as his subject, Mostafa achieved more nuanced effects than Haggis, revealing the complex ways in which lives and worlds overlap in his hometown. He was helped out by strong performances from an international cast, especially the first-time actor Saoud al Kaabi, playing an Emirati youth torn between duty and a listless search for excitement.


From the crowds dancing at concerts to artists such as TransGlobal Underground, it was clear that nothing sums up the multicultural nature of our city like Womad. World music for a truly international community.

Rod Stewart

Rod "the mod" Stewart belied his 65 years to entertain a packed house on a very warm night at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai in May. All generations turned up to hear old classics, including Maggie May and I Don't Wanna Talk About It. Fellow old-time rockers Spandau Ballet warmed up the fans before Rod himself sent everyone home humming their favourite Stewart songs after his one-and-a-quarter hour show.

Hakkasan at the Emirates Palace

As soon as we slinked through the doors of the restaurant, noted the shadowy, subdued lighting, the rhythmic, moody music and the sleek chic air, we knew the signs were good. It was only after tucking into that much famed venison puff-crisp, golden and delicious, that we could say for sure, though: Hakkasan had arrived.

Lord of the Dance

Billed as Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, it was a sensational show, full of Irish mysticism and folklore, eerie and atmospheric lighting, evocative music and the electrifying sound of 40 or so taps in unison with spectacular solo performances by the principal dancers. The only thing missing was Flatley himself. When asked why he wasn't going to be dancing in the Abu Dhabi show, he said: "I only play arenas."

Liwa Date Festival

It's a long way to go to sample dates, but well worth the effort in the end. The heady smells of some of the finest dates in the world competed for attention, but the charm of stalls depicting Bedouin life in the old days with rough-hewn cooking instruments, water bags made from antelope skin and richly woven rugs and camel bags was not to be missed. Nor were women weaving mats and baskets and selling beautiful perfumed hand-made soaps. It was a real family occasion.


Really, Manarat al Saadiyat's second show should be called RRSTWW, named as it is after the six American artists featured: Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Christopher Wool and Andy Warhol. The 72 pieces, taken from the private collection of the New York art dealer Larry Gagosian, include Wool's She Smiles for the Camera, Ruscha's Robin and Warhol's Four Marilyns.

RCO Amsterdam at Abu Dhabi Classics

A celebration of Gustav Mahler with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Emirates Palace Auditorium was a suitably bold and beautiful way to begin the Abu Dhabi Classics' stunning third season, still underway. With Daniele Gatti - known for his interpretations of Mahler's works - conducting, the Concertgebouw's delivery of the Fifth Symphony was deft and thrilling. The evening began with a favourite of Mahler's: Richard Wagner's Siegried Idyll, delivered with startling tenderness, and made all the more remarkable when followed by the emotional surges of the Mahler. The evening was a sign of all the luscious performances yet to come.


The best film festivals introduce audiences to innovative directors they might not have heard of otherwise. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival served its best edition yet in its fourth year, one of the highlights being an unheralded film, The Lives of Fish, which introduced one of South America's most exciting directors, the Chilean Matias Bize. An innovative, yet sweet look at relationships with startling performances from Santiana Cabrera and Bianca Lewin, it proved you don't need a big budget to hold audience interest.

The Middle East Fashion Days

The second edition of the fashion trade shows Who's Next & Premiere Classe, at Madinat Jumeirah, may have been an industry-changing event for the UAE, especially during the catwalk show for the abaya designers Hind and Reem Beljafla's DAS Collection, which was so packed that organisers were turning people away.

The National's Gallery, ADMAF, Abu Dhabi

Instigated by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, The National's Gallery is an online resource and register, launched in October, and aimed at supporting and introducing Emirati artists. This initiative is a rare example of UAE art being foregrounded to brilliant effect.

Abu Dhabi Art

The Abu Dhabi Art fair 2010 brought home the city's arrival as a major player in the art world, with leading galleries from New York, London, Paris and across the region bringing works including masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne to be sold at the Emirates Palace hotel. The artist Jeff Koons and dealer Jay Joplin took part in a series of cultural events aiming to foster local involvement.

Traffic's new space

The Emirati art collector Rami Farook made his pitch for the hippest contemporary art gallery in Dubai, relocating his commercial exhibition space to a four-warehouse compound in the city's sprawling Al Quoz industrial district. The Iranian painter Hesam Rahmanian's new work sold out entirely before the opening night party.

Sultan al Qassemi's Barjeel Foundation

The art collector Sultan Sooud al Qassemi recently opened up his collection to the public at the Barjeel Foundation, a cool and enticing venue that will feature samples of al Qassemi's vast collection of Middle Eastern art in a series of curated shows. A major step forwards for art in the UAE.

Alban Berg at Abu Dhabi Classics

Abu Dhabi might not be quite ready for Alban Berg, but when the Berlin Philharmonic's percussionist whipped out a huge mallet and started thumping a table mid-concert, it certainly shocked the Emirates Palace Auditorium out of its pre-interval slump. When he started rattling what looked like tin foil during Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall, the audience rallied with a battery of wry smiles and the occasional titter. Where better to strike an experimental note than in a city embarking on a great cultural adventure?

Beats on the Beach

At Yasalam's Beats on the Beach, the Corniche was transformed with people from every corner of the globe, all being serenaded by international artists in a beautiful venue, and all for free. Cross-legged on the grass, under the stars, right by the beach and surrounded by live music we enjoyed one of the best nights of our year.

Prince at Yas Arena

Prince's performance at Yas Arena is already being talked about as one of the all-time great concerts. The diminutive star was quite simply sensational, rocking the arena with hit after hit and coming back for five encores. The crowd just wouldn't let him go, and he responded with virtuoso displays of brilliance on the guitar and classics such as Let's Go Crazy, Delirious and best of all, Purple Rain. It was a thrilling night that also saw singer Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls join Prince on stage at the end, watched by her boyfriend F1 driver Lewis Hamilton. Big names such as Sir Richard Branson, Boris Becker, Gabrielle, and the footballer Patrick Viera may have been in the audience, but all eyes were on the star of the night - Prince himself.

* Kaleem Aftab, Suryatapa Bhattacharya, James Brock, Gemma Champ, Philippa Kennedy, Hala Khalaf, Ed Lake, Arsalan Mohammad, Timur Moon, Tracy Picha, Alex Ritman, Anna Seaman, Emily Shardlow, Karl Smith, Katherine Spenley, Ella Stimson, Charles Whebell