There's something of a cultural revolution going on in the United Arab Emirates. For some in today's world, 'culture' may mean Universal Studios or perhaps Marvel Land. And to meet those desires, there are many high-profile mega-projects under way in Dubai.
The real strategic decision here is that Dubai, through such projects, has established itself as a tourist destination. However, 150km down the road in Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates and the federal capital of the UAE, there is a move to become the Middle East's new cultural hub - in the more traditional sense.
Abu Dhabi has an overarching strategy to deliver unique and compelling cultural experiences, while promoting national culture and identity as a source of pride and inspiration to its people. And, probably to no one's surprise, it is going at it in a big way.
This is a land of big ambition and deep pockets, and the development of an audacious multibillion-dollar cultural district on Saadiyat Island ('Island of Happiness' in Arabic), the like of which has never been seen in the Arab world, is well under way.
It is set to become home to the world's largest concentration of premier cultural institutions and the $27bn development will include three museums: a Guggenheim featuring contemporary art, alongside an outpost of the Louvre Museum in Paris, plus a maritime museum, reflecting the history of the Arabian Gulf. The project will also include a national museum and a biennial exhibition space composed of 19 pavilions along a canal that cuts through the island. Art schools and an art college will also be part of the development.
In all, the project will create an exhibition space intended to turn this unassuming neighbour of 'superstar' Dubai into an international arts capital and tourist destination. When completed, during the next decade, consultants predict it will most likely be the world's largest single arts-and-culture development project.
Abu Dhabi is seen to be complementing Dubai's growth. Experts say cultural tourists are wealthier, older and more educated. They also spend more. From an economic point of view then, the direction Abu Dhabi has taken makes an enormous amount of sense.
Completion of the project in its entirety may be a good number of years away, but the emirate is already embarking on a fast-growing schedule of exhibitions, concerts and other arts events as a PR exercise in the lead up to the phased launch from 2012-13.
Artparis-Abu Dhabi, for which MCS Action handled the PR, took place last month and expanded by more than 40 per cent this year to accommodate increased demand from international, regional and local exhibitors to participate. More than 15,000 visitors were expected to attend, underlining the growing significance of the event on the international arts calendar.
Artparis-Abu Dhabi followed other significant cultural initiatives introduced this year in Abu Dhabi, such as the Middle East's first exhibition of The Arts of Islam: Treasures of the Nasser D Khalili Collection, the staging of the Arabian Gulf's first Arabic performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, and Picasso Abu Dhabi: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris. The majority of these incorporated PR programmes as part of the marketing mix, highlighting a new need for specialist PR expertise in arts and culture.
In addition to creating a culturally aware population, bringing these programmes to Abu Dhabi allows for the delivery of a unique cultural experience for visitors and residents - an essential ingredient in Abu Dhabi becoming a global cultural hub.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Which Middle East media outlet do you most respect?
The Kipp Report. It is outspoken in an arena renowned for shying away from controversy and has quickly created a strong following.
- What would improve PR practice in the region?
More formal training. Local people are keen to enter the industry, but they need to fully understand it and be able to deliver consistently high levels of service.
- Who is the in-house comms person to watch?
Fouad Kassem, the new corporate comms manager of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. It will govern Abu Dhabi's growth over the next 20 years.