Can Book Fairs and Cultural Institutions Change International Perceptions?

In Discussion by Olivia Snaije

The UAE is spending billions on culture, book fairs and building museums, including a new Louvre. French architecture expert Philip Jodidio talks about why.

By Olivia Snaije and Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story looks at four book festivals that have sprung up in cities that are more closely associated with business than culture. Among them is Abu Dhabi. What’s interesting to note is that Abu Dhabi has been spending billions of dollars to transform itself into an attractive, livable city for the international population that lives there. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is one of those projects, as is a revamp of its national library, the development of several outposts of American institutions of higher learning, including a branch of New York University which teaches publishing, and the building of a new cultural district on Saadiyat Island (The Island of Happiness). This $25 billion project includes an outpost of the Guggenheim museum, a new national museum named after Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, and a Louvre

Prior to five years ago, when you thought of Abu Dhabi, you probably thought . . . oil! Now, at least according to government ministers, the hope is that you’ll think culture! But what role do book fairs and cultural institutions play in perception of a country outside its borders?


This is one question that will be addressed at by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which is hosting a talk on the reasoning behind the creation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in particular and its vision for the future.

Philip Jodidio

Philip Jodidio will host a talk at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on the role of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the result of an intergovernmental agreement between France and the United Arab Emirates. The Abu Dhabi museum gets to use the Louvre name for thirty years and a loan of works for a ten-year period as well as management expertise and temporary exhibitions organized by French cultural institutions, in exchange for €1 billion distributed over thirty years.

Philip Jodidio, former editor of the art journal, “Connaissance des Arts” and a prolific writer on architecture will lead the discussion. Other participants include Xavier Darcos, a former French minister in the Sarkozy government and director of the French Institute, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, curator at the Musée du Louvre and Hala Warde, partner architect at the Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Although yet to be confirmed, it is likely that Jerusalem-born Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh will also be present. Nusseibeh is on the Committee of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, as well as on the Board of Trustees of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a translator of Gulf and Arab poetry. But Jodidio could almost handle the discussion on his own. Besides having written a monograph on Jean Nouvel’s work published by Taschen, Jodidio has been following with interest the architecture in the region and the evolution of the regional strategy to import culture.“In the case of Abu Dhabi there is an effort to concentrate a number of institutions in a small area. There is a tourist potential as Dubai has shown but as to whether these institutions are sufficient to make people come in large numbers, that remains to be seen,” said Jodidio, adding that architect I.M Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar has had a considerable amount of visitors, which is promising.

There has been some talk of publishing a sister magazine for the Abu Dhabi museum to “Grande Galerie”, the Louvre’s magazine, but for the moment other joint projects with the museum’s publishing arm “Louvre Editions” have yet to become concrete. Violaine Bouvet-Lanselle, the Louvre’s publisher will be present at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair where “Louvre Editions” will have a stand of its own within the BIEF (French Publishing International Bureau) enclave.

As for the frenetic building in the Gulf, Jodidio feels the development has been irregular and often the architecture doesn’t have much to do with the territory. Jean Nouvel, however, “has tried to create a form that is a response to this harsh climate, it will create shade and light and has some relevance to the region.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi as well as the book fair are cultural projects that are all part of the same idea, says Jodidio. Moreover the UAE is geographically a meeting point between east and west.

“It is further evidence of a developing strategy to make these cities important places of culture and economy. If they are successful in their efforts this will last beyond the oil. The government is perfectly aware of this, they’re not just throwing caution to the wind, it’s an attempt to make a country that is economically and culturally significant.”

So, do projects such as the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Saadiyat Island project have the power to permanently change the perception of the UAE around the world? Could similar projects do the same for other countries?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.