Monday, August 4, 2008

dinosaurs and development in Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, a government agency established in 2005 "to harness the pride of the people of the UAE through the development of its cultural heritage, and to be the leading cultural development organisation in the region," has done some amazing things in the recent past. To those of you who were preschool geeks, as I was, this one will have particular resonance: ADACH obtained a dinosaur skeleton (pictured above) for the Abu Dhabi airport. It is the first dinosaur skeleton assembled in the Middle East. (n.b. the skeleton's name is Einstein). ADACH also sponsored a dig that unearthed 6,000 year old camel bones. In a more contemporary vein, ADACH is currently forming a commission to attract filmmakers to the Emirate by offering tax breaks and other financial incentives to film in Abu Dhabi.

These initiatives are part of Abu Dhabi's campaign to extend its relevance as an international city outside of simply being a desert oasis buoyed by oil wealth, and I'm sure in part it is demand-driven. Of course people often do business in London, but when move there to live, they take advantage of the many opportunities for 'cultural enrichment' and simultaneously enrich the British economy. Abu Dhabi wisely is cultivating a similar sort of market. But on another level, and perhaps I have been thinking in a national security vein for too long, but fostering this sort of national pride seems a very asset-based response to the indignities that Arabs and Muslims encounter in the world at present. It isn't a secret that the most common stereotypes of Arabs broadcast in the Western media are those of either terrorists or backward tribal people - those messages certainly have reached Abu Dhabi. Arabs are feeling increasingly less welcome in the United States as a result of our immigration procedures; even Tariq Ramadan is not welcome here. Cultivating a national consciousness, a historical narrative that belongs to citizens, is certainly a component to the modern nation-state and probably helpful for democracy (if it isn't, then I have to wonder why I took U.S. history in 3rd, 5th, 8th and 11th grades).

These initiatives at the very least raise opportunities for discussion on Abu Dhabi's self-definition. ADACH's acquisition of historical and 'heritage' (less than 400 years old) sites has prompted some murmurings, at least in the National, on what really should be considered relevant Abu Dhabi history. Mishaal al Gergawi posed the question, "Are we so bewildered by the pace of development that as individuals –and institutions – we fail to see that not too long ago our past used to be our present? So we seem to have resigned ourselves to the fact that our only history is in the mud homes built before the age of oil. To me it seems that if it’s not made of mud and palm thatch, it had better be made of shiny glass." And for me, as an observer, it's certainly an interesting conversation to watch unfold; for those with a stake in it, I can imagine it's compelling.

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