Tristram Hunt Is Wrong To Say That The Abu Dhabi Louvre is a Project that Britain Should Seek To Emulate

In a comment piece published in the Guardian recently, Tristram Hunt, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, celebrated the opening of the Abu Dhabi Louvre, as a "mix of ingenuity, vision and spirit" that signals the "rise" of the United Arab Emirates as a "major geopolitical player", and the kind project that Britain should aspire "to display on the world stage", if it is to retain its global influence in a post-Brexit environment. In dazzling prose, Hunt lauds the £18bn architectural construction on Saadiyat Island, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, as a "great thing of beauty" that has a "liminal feel between land and water, while its 180m diameter roof is crisscrossed with thousands of star shapes turning the beating sunlight into shards of rain". Glaringly missing from this account is the well documented evidence produced by Human Rights Watch in 2015 of the appalling conditions that those that laboured on the Abu Dhabi Louvre project worked under, which amounted to forced labour, where the mainly South Asian workforce were liable to arrest and deportation if they dared complain about the dreadful conditions they were labouring in. These findings were corroborated by a Guardian investigation which revealed that workers on the Saadiyat Island were living in "squalid conditions", had their passports confiscated, were suffering from wage theft and underpayment, were massively indebted, and were denied the right to join a trade union or independent organisation. This case is far from isolated. Migrant workers, largely of South Asian origin, account for over half the population in the UAE and have no political rights, leaving them vulnerable to various forms of mistreatment by both their employers and the state. Hunt fails to even pay reference to these issues. By omitting this from his article, the former Labour MP relegates the issue of migrant worker's rights in the UAE (and across the Gulf more broadly) to a matter of insignificance. Surely Hunt was aware of these relatively well publicised abuses when he set about writing this article and yet he consciously chose not mention them, focusing instead of the aesthetics and appearance of the Abu Dhabi Louvre. In keeping his focus solely on exterior appearances and image projection, the Director of the V&A celebrates the symbolism of cultural and global exchange that the museum supposedly underpins. He goes on to speak admiringly of the Emirati "soft power" agenda, asserting that for the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Louvre "signifies the rise of the nation, from struggling pearl fishing settlement to major geopolitical player", without even touching upon the numerous reports of documented systematic human rights abuses in the Emirates in recent years. Campaigners and human rights organisations have long argued that a key way the Emirati authorities detract attention away from these human rights abuses is by effectively 'laundering their image through western cultural institutions'. In doing so, the UAE are able to project an image around the world of tolerance, modernity, and openness whilst maintaining a system of repression within their borders. The Emirati regime have spent billions of pounds over the years on this carefully crafted image, which constitutes an effective PR campaign where the UAE authorities are able to conceal the darker side of life in the Emirati state where arbitrary detention, torture and heavy crackdowns on freedom speech have become increasingly commonplace. Hunt laments a lull in British influence in the region and celebrates cultural exchange whilst at the same time ignoring the underlying economic and social dynamics that constitute that relationship. The post-Brexit relationship with the Middle East is hardly likely to be one centred around cultural exchange but rather, with weapons sales on the increase, it looks to be the arms dealers who will dictate the terms of Britain's relationship with repressive regimes. The Abu Dhabi Louvre may well be a "thing of beauty" to some, but it is crucial that this does not detract from the underlying reality of human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates. To do so is to unwittingly allow art and history to be used in a way that serves the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than as a tool to help us understand the realities of the world around us. When publicly declaring admiration for the marvels of the Abu Dhabi Louvre in the capacity of the Director of the V&A Museum, it is downright irresponsible to sideline the plight of those who constructed this building. By blindly endorsing this venture, the V&A itself risk complicity in the systematic human rights violations of a brutally authoritarian state; this could hardly be described as "an end to orientalism".