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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

In praise of Salvator Mundi and this time of year

It is a special time of year in Abu Dhabi, a period that begins at the end of October, writes Deborah Lindsay Williams

Fireworks along the Abu Dhabi Corniche in celebration of UAE National Day. Delores Johnson / The National
Fireworks along the Abu Dhabi Corniche in celebration of UAE National Day. Delores Johnson / The National

Driving along the Corniche at this time of year, with the car windows down to the soft winter air coming in the windows, it’s easy to forget where I am. In the evening darkness, I experience a kind of cultural synesthesia: the red, green, and white lights draped around traffic poles and across the rooftops initially signal Christmas to my Western eye. Then I refocus and see the pride of National Day. I love this particular Abu Dhabi season, which actually begins in late October, with Halloween candy jostling on the shelves with various Thanksgiving products and National Day decorations. Every year, when I see the sparkling curlicues of Arabic calligraphy spelling out National Day, I resolve to learn Arabic, and every year, my ageing brain proves that it’s impossible to teach an old dog new tricks.

A simple thing like celebrations sharing a colour palette might not seem like a big deal, but given the state of things in the world at this moment, I’m looking for signs of tolerance wherever I can, even if it’s just the Christmas tree standing in the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel.

It’s not a Christmas present, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi just got a gift, in the shape of a da Vinci. Salvator Mundi will be visiting the museum sometime next year. I am sure there are those who would say that the money might have been better spent on other things and I might have thought so too, except for a trip that I took last month to the Dubai air show.

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At the air show, you could get everything from new wifi systems for your private plane to in-flight targets for drones to high-grade military weaponry. Outside the exhibit hall, the amazing stunt pilots who dazzle us along the Corniche on National Day, spiraled through the air as if in defiance of the laws of physics. Inside the hall, elegantly dressed executives strolled through the exhibits, stopping to chat with acquaintances or to snap photos of particularly attractive missiles. One of the exhibits, from a US company, caught my eye with its promotional video for a new product. The tagline for the product was “high lethality, low cost.”

Is that what we want? Of course “low cost” here is a pretty relative term. Maybe this product doesn’t cost quite as much as Salvator Mundi, but it’s not quite shawarma-and-fries, either. Judging from the other things I saw on display in the exhibit hall, however, trading in your da Vinci wouldn’t actually get you that much: weapons are pretty big-ticket items.

I know it’s unrealistic for me to expect that people will stop wanting to buy bombs, or to stop wanting bombs that are bigger than the other guy’s bombs. Bigger is better, apparently, when it comes to bombs. And I know that tolerance on a deep level takes more than Christmas trees or colour schemes. But I’m thinking that maybe spending vast sums of money on art isn’t such a bad thing, in the grand scheme of it all.

I am not saying that the world can be saved by a single painting, far from it, but the world might be a significantly better place if we spent more money on art than on bombs. What if we measured our bargains with metrics of beauty, instead of lethality?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi