History is written, in turn, by reactive events and proactive solutions. There are interventions such as the global COVID-19 response or dealing with the Suez Canal blockage. There are also long-term visionary ideas that shape the realm of future possibilities. Addressing urban planning, climate change, equal opportunities, and other humankind goals takes dedication, coordination, and resources. The United Nations is a post-war example of such an initiative. Post-globalization, the world is searching for additional and alternative leadership models suitable for the digital age. Abu Dhabi is emerging as a platform for transformation with Culture at the core of its ambitious development plan. Beyond Louvre Abu Dhabi – itself a historic milestone in cultural diplomacy – the emirate is investing in cultural projects that foster its influence.
In March, the Culture Summit 2021 took place with the theme “The Cultural Economy and the Economy of Culture”. Previously, we have looked at how artists and institutions are coping with the pandemic on individual levels. I spoke with HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi, about the (inter)national perspective on Culture as the driving force of economic and social recovery post-coronavirus and his personal take on what makes cities great.
Let’s start with one of the summit’s key takeaways. How does the idea of sustainability factor into the role of culture in society?
HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak: I think when it comes to sustainability, we talk a lot about the economic impact of it and not enough about the social aspect. Today Culture represents around 10% of global GDP, and it is just going to get bigger. From our perspective, social sustainability is critical to the health of any society as well. The creative industry sector can play a significant role addressing inequity, promoting social inclusion, fostering cultural diversity, and advancing development. This is critical for our strategy of continuous collaboration and continuous dialogue.
In a way, do you believe Culture to be “an essential industry”?
Absolutely. When you focus on how culture is implemented and what culture means to a community, you conclude that as governments we need to give a lot more. It sets the tone of how the world is built. Culture has been one of the greatest medicines we’ve had. Not just medicine for the mind but medicine for the heart. We believe culture is just as important as the STEM subjects in the curricula for the youth. Music and arts broaden horizons of their mind and create brand new possibilities in many sectors. This is why there is fear that we are not enabling the economic viability of the creative industries during the pandemic. We need to make sure there is a right balance in prioritizing culture and other recovery elements. It is the only way to move forward.
What drives the many co-branded cultural projects in Abu Dhabi?
The spectrum of assets that we have here is incredible. Our team has done an unbelievable job positioning Abu Dhabi as a top-of-mind 360° global tourism destination. Culture is at the front and center of everything we do. I’m very excited about that. Forging the right partnerships to deliver blockbuster cultural content has been an integral part of our rapid development. There is something for every taste. Collaborating with the most esteemed institutions such as the Louvre, Guggenheim, Berklee, Formula One, Warner Brothers and others sets the stage for what’s to come. When you visit Abu Dhabi, whether for the first time or returning again and again, you will have unforgettable cultural experiences of the highest order in the authentic warmth of Arabian hospitality. Abu Dhabi will continue to improve dramatically. Every single year, we’re adding new cultural attractions. For example, in September we’re opening Yas Bay, a waterfront nightlife district anchored by the 18,000-seat Etihad Arena. All these projects are not marketing gimmicks. We don’t make big announcements and tell people they have to wait for several years. We get very close to launch and then say, “Look what’s waiting for you here!”
Speaking of great projects, what is the concept of Abu Dhabi’s media and entertainment hub twofour54? Is it the new Silicon Valley, the new Paris, the new Bollywood?
We are creating a new benchmark. These places have their histories and identity. We want Abu Dhabi to have its own cultural voice that can move people. It’s a place to set imaginations free. Again, for the purpose of bringing people together. twofour54 started in 2006 and now we are proud to host over 600 media companies, 900+ freelancers and 100+ entrepreneurs, more than 5,000 creative professionals in a fantastic network under one umbrella. The Arab culture is a culture of storytelling. It is a story that continues to evolve. Combined with the different innovative ideas and different perspectives, it can create something really special. We are making sure that both the soft and the hard infrastructure is in place. We have just announced the new creative visa regime to allow people from all over the world to call Abu Dhabi home. We want to ensure all the creatives have the tools and support system they need to thrive here.
You have thrived abroad yourself. As an alumnus of Northeastern University, how has your experience of living in Boston affect your perception of the world and your role in it?
Truly, living the campus lifestyle was imperative and integral to my way of thinking. The beautiful thing about Boston is that it really is a melting pot of different cultures. You have people from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and everywhere in between. Understanding their identity was critical. Being open and making sure that you are seeing the beauty in others. It enhanced the imaginative portion of my brain, helping me mix different cultures and stories, and create different opportunities in my mind. When I came to DCT Abu Dhabi, I made sure that every voice is heard and that in our museums everything sits on an equal pedestal. There is no region that overshadows another. On the contrary, it has been our responsibility to highlight the contrasts and the dialogues between cultures.
Is there a destination you look forward to once the travel restrictions are eased?
I love the great cities of the world. The sooner I can get to travel the better it would be for my well being. I can’t wait to go back to Los Angeles. I love being in Paris or London. I used to go six, seven times a year, visiting our partners. These places are part of my personal growth. The cultural DNA of these and other great cities stays within us as humans. I dread the idea that those in charge, whether institutions or governments, could take a step back, away from culture. That we could lose music venues, theater programmes, art museums. We need to keep them alive and make sure the arts are emphasized the way they should be, for all.