After ten years in construction, including five years of delays, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened on November 11 to widespread praise. Writing for The New York Times, Doreen Carvajal referred to the museum as “a cultural cornerstone,” uniting “East and West,” while an article in The Economist called it “the first universal museum in the Arab World.” The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Minister of State, Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, described the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of a cultural strategy to combat tensions in the region. These attempts to portray the museum as a triumph of cultural pluralism, however, significantly downplay the labor abuses committed during the building’s construction and the UAE’s systemic exploitation of migrant workers.
The result of a unique 2007 bilateral accord, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was made possible by a lease on the Louvre brand, for which the Emirati government paid $400 million to France. The lease allows for the use of the Louvre name for approximately thirty years, and provides the Abu Dhabi location with approximately 300 pieces of artwork on loan from different French museums. The building itself cost an additional $654 million and was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, a “veteran builder of cultural institutions,” according to a recent article in Artsy.
In addition to its impressive art collection, which includes pieces from Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh, and Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as ancient artefacts, the building itself is considered a mesmerizing work of art. Its construction was, however, carried out by thousands of migrant workers, who were routinely subject to appalling living and working conditions.
This pervasive exploitation has been papered over, not only by those who have provided reviews of the museum, but also by its architect. In September, for instance, Nouvel claimed the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s laborers enjoyed better living conditions than most construction workers in Europe. According to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), however, workers on the project routinely had their wages and benefits withheld and their worker passports confiscated, and were housed in substandard accommodations. Worse still, laborers at the Louvre site have detailed violent treatment, grueling hours, and a fear of reprisal for speaking out, as reported in a recent article for the Middle East Eye.
Located on Saadiyat Island, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is one of three museums situated in this hub of cultural tourism, 500 meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The other two museums, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum, are still in the planning stages.
HRW has called on the French government to ban forced labor at the Louvre Abu Dhabi site since the project was first announced in 2007, but French authorities largely ignored the request. Now that the project is complete, it is even more unlikely France will address the issue, even retroactively, as the government stands to reap substantial revenue from the lease agreement. Indeed, ahead of the museum’s grand opening, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed France’s commitment to strengthening political and economic ties with the UAE in a speech at the UAE-French Business Forum in Dubai on November 9.
Migrant workers make up approximately 90 percent of the UAE’s private workforce. Abuse of workers in the UAE will, as such, continue, as more cultural institutions are developed using problematic labor practices to which the international community turns a blind eye.