The UAE is a dynamic country with an intriguing mix of old and new; from cultural hotspots to thrill-seeking attractions, picture-perfect beaches to treasures of the past.
Along with well-curated heritage sites and some fascinating museums, there’s a thriving art scene in the UAE that’s well worth exploring. While most of the art galleries are located within Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there are cultural attractions in every emirate.
The UAE is on track for a cultural awakening, the heart of which will undoubtedly be Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District. With the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, due to open in 2016, and the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim to follow, there’ll be some seriously impressive exhibitions housed in soon-to-be iconic buildings.
In the meantime, there’s a growing art scene that’s already attracting local and international talent to the UAE capital. A number of galleries have interesting exhibitions of art and traditional Arabic artefacts, including the Salwa Zeidan Gallery, that recently moved to Saadiyat Island, and Ghaf Gallery. The newly opened Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Al Bateen is an extension of the Etihad Antique Gallery, both of which are now open to visitors. For something different, Abu Dhabi Pottery showcases some fine ceramics and also holds classes. Many exhibitions are staged in the city’s more upscale hotels, which makes it very convenient to be a culture vulture.
While there’s nothing like the Tate or the Louvre in Dubai yet, Al Qouz is actually home to one of the most vibrant art scenes in the UAE. At the heart of this burgeoning scene is Alserkal Avenue, an arts district that’s home to around 20 creative spaces, and it’s a great place to spot new talent from the UAE and abroad. Elsewhere, the Majlis Gallery, The Courtyard and the XVA Gallery are all worth visiting for their architecture alone; they provide striking locations in which you can enjoy a wide range of art, both local and international, while at Opera Gallery you’ll find the odd Renoir and Picasso.
The UAE features many fascinating places to visit, offering glimpses into a time when the country was little more than desert, with small fishing and trading ports.
Depicting traditional life
The Heritage Village near Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi showcases all aspects of Bedouin life, and there are craftsmen demonstrating traditional skills. In Dubai, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and the Heritage & Diving Villages offer a snapshot of the past, and the Fujairah Heritage Village is home to a collection of fishing boats, traditional dhows and tools that depicts life before the discovery of oil.
Many of these pre-oil heritage sites have been carefully restored, paying close attention to traditional design and using original building materials. Most of these attractions are closed on Friday mornings, and they charge a nominal entrance fee.
There's something for everyone to explore at the UAE's growing collection of museums.
In the capital, Zayed National Museum promises to be something of an architectural and cultural landmark when it opens on Saadiyat Island, but in the meantime you can visit the Emirates National Auto Museum, which is home to more than 200 vehicles. Dubai has some brilliantly curated museums, including the must-see Dubai Museum, the House of Emirati poet Mubarak Al Oqail, the Coin Museum and the Police Museum, and more modern offerings such as the Dubai Moving Image Museum.
Further afield, Ajman Museum is an 18th century fort housing an astonishing collection of artefacts and archaeological findings. One of the highlights is an exhibition of an excavated cemetery discovered in the Al Muwaihat area; some of the pottery and jewellery found during the excavation dates back as far as 3,000 BC.
Sharjah is home to some truly outstanding museums. One must-see is the Museum of Islamic Civilisation. Once a traditional souk, today this stunning building houses more than 5,000 artefacts from the Islamic world including ceramics and manuscripts. The exhibits are packed with information, and include a beautiful gold-embroidered curtain for the door of the Holy Ka’ba. Sharjah Maritime Museum, adjacent to Sharjah Aquarium, is another destination for history buffs and showcases Sharjah’s illustrious pearling traditions.
For a more modern attraction, head for the Sharjah Classic Car Museum, a must-see for petrolheads. This impressive museum is home to more than 100 classic cars. Some of the models were manufactured as early as 1917, while others date back to the 1960s.
With its ever-growing arts scene and the imminent arrival of world-class galleries on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi is set to become a cultural hub for the UAE and beyond.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the first of the new museums to open on Saadiyat Island, and construction is well underway behind its high walls. The building, designed by the legendary Jean Nouvel, will be an impressive landmark boasting a diameter of 180 metres, with a 7,000 tonne dome sat atop four pillars on a man-made platform. Inside, the museum will present major objects from the fields of archaeology, fine arts and decorative arts, plus all regions, periods (including contemporary art) and the narrative of art history.
The fantastic Frank Gehry-designed architecture for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be spectacular and create one of the most unusual buildings in the country. The 137,000 sq m museum will house a huge collection of modern and contemporary art, as well as special exhibitions from the Guggenheim Foundation’s extensive collection. It will be built on the corner of Saadiyat Island stretching out to sea and will incorporate many traditional Arabic design cues.
Home to a fascinating exhibition showing the future development of the island, Manarat Al Saadiyat is also a functioning gallery in its own right. The high ceilings and light, airy feel of this contemporary space create the perfect place to appreciate the sculptures, paintings and other works displayed in ever-changing exhibitions of local and international art. Next to Manarat Al Saadiyat is the Norman Foster designed UAE Pavilion. The striking structure was first exhibited at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 then shipped to Saadiyat Island and re-erected. It’s now a regular space for art and other exhibits.
The Abu Dhabi Art Hub in Mussafah is helping to grow the local art community. As well as having a gallery and holding affordable art fairs, it’s also a working studio. Most months a small group of artists from a specific country is invited to live and work in the specially designed accommodation for resident artists.