x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The UAE's dream factory restarts production

Nothing says economic confidence is returning quite like the construction of new cultural landmarks.

After a period of sluggish output, the dream factory that once drove the UAE's economy onto ever greater achievements is back - and it's working at somewhere close to full tilt, as three recent public announcements graphically illustrate.

If, as a smart piece of analysis by Ramy Inocencio of CNN suggested earlier this year, economic doom usually follows any building boom (essentially he used historical data to show that it takes so long to build skyscrapers that whenever a collection of tall buildings is under construction, their completion is usually followed by a severe economic slump), then nothing says confidence is returning quite like announcements of new or previously stalled cultural landmarks.

If reaching for the skies usually indicates plenty of cash is sloshing around the system, then a commitment to developing cultural facilities - in the form of building a network of performance, exhibition and leisure spaces - is a sure sign that expansive thinking has returned to the agenda. Simply, concert halls and exhibition spaces do not get built when or where there is a palpable sense that these will end up being white elephants.

Last week Dubai revealed its plans to build a new opera house and modern art gallery as part of Emaar's Downtown Dubai development, together with two themed "art" hotels. The developer's chairman, Mohamed Alabbar, has described the planned arts district as providing an "entire infrastructure for arts and culture to thrive in".

In the capital, meanwhile, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has begun the tender process for the main contract works for Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first of the emirate's clutch of world-class museums, albeit without the flashy (for that read stunning) computer-generated imagery that accompanied the Dubai opera house announcement. Instead, TDIC revealed its hand with a low-key but deeply significant newspaper advertisement inviting interested parties to bid for the works.

This is genuinely heartening news of progress in the emirate's mission to transform itself into a world-class cultural destination. While both the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and TDIC reaffirmed their commitment to the museums district in a recent strategic review, this is concrete proof (and for once the pun is almost excusable) that building work will shortly proceed, as the Louvre aims to open its doors to visitors in 2015. It will be followed, according to current estimates, by the Zayed National Museum in 2016 and by the Guggenheim the following year.

While we wait for those museums to open, most of us will have to content ourselves with filling our leisure time with trips to the shopping mall, perhaps one of the defining activities of life in the Emirates. And it is here, in any of the sporting goods shops that fill those retail centres, that you will find the answer to why Ras Al Khaimah has recently thrown its hat in the ring with a Spanish football club.

Mind you, that club is not just any team, but Real Madrid, one of the most famous institutions in world sport, a truly global brand whose popularity is such that its replica shirts are top sellers wherever they are sold, whether that be in Abu Dhabi or Aberdeen. To the many greats and special ones whose names have been associated with the club - Zidane, Casillas, a pair of Ronaldos and Raul, to name but a few from the modern era - one can now add RAK, where a $1bn Real Madrid Resort Island (complete with theme park, hotels and sporting facilities) will emerge before the end of 2015.

Real Madrid called this a "decisive and strategic step" and it is, for both club and country. And maybe, just maybe, it is more than even that: maybe those who forecast continuing economic doom have been finally (and decisively) kicked into touch too.