A Louvre In The Sand

Mosques, ultra-modern office buildings and cranes adorn Abu Dhabi's skyline. Oil money is rapidly turning the United Arab Emirate's capital city into a hub for international business, and, if tourism officials get their way, fine art.
CBS/Amy Guttman
This story was written by London-based CBS News producer Amy Guttman.
Mosques, modern office buildings and petroleum companies all crowd together to form the skyline of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates' capital city.

Fuelled by a booming oil industry, this desert oasis is a man-made maze of icy, air-conditioned shopping malls and luxury hotels.

It was the last place you'd have looked for fine art and culture - until now. In a deal that's got the Paris art world talking, the French government agreed to license a satellite of its most prestigious museum, the Louvre. Abu Dhabi's branch is set to open in four years.

"It's so different, the desert is so, different", says visiting Parisian art fan Marianne de Souza.

That's being nice about it. Thousands of French art connoisseurs have signed a petition to stop the export of their country's national treasure, saying it's about money, not art. Considering that more than a billion dollars is at stake, the critics may not be wrong.

But, fashionable Parisians like de Souza say the benefits aren't one-sided.

"France is too much closed on itself. Nobody knows the new writers, the new painters, so it's really sort of a new mission of France, to go out," she says.

The original Louvre has plenty of inventory items to spare. Much of the art sent will come from storage and rotate every few months. Museum directors put their foot down with the Mona Lisa and Venus di Milo; neither will leave Paris.

Fine art museum franchises aren't novel. New York's famed Guggenheim opened a branch ten years ago in Bilbao, Spain, putting the city on the tourist map and making the museum a household name. The government of Abu Dhabi can afford to buy into that brand, too.

Mubarak al-Muhairi, Abu Dhabi's director of tourism, hopes the Guggenheim in the desert will have the same effect. "We expect visitors from all over the world," he says.

They've even built a 10-mile stretch of land called Saadiyat Island where both the American and French institutions will stand side by side as part of a cultural Mecca, which will also include two other world-class museums, and performance space.

Even Yale University is considering a branch of its art school here.

No expense will be spared, with big name architects like Frank Gehry and Zahia Hadid drawing up the plans. This all may seem a bit ironic if you consider the French were among the critics of the Guggenheim's global plans a decade ago.

To the contrary, says de Souza. "That's French, typical French; First you criticize and then you do it."

Al-Muhairi hopes to create a thriving arts community and turn Abu Dhabi into a serious alternative to its glitzy neighbor, city-state Dubai.

"We are targeting the cultural visitors. Cultural visitors spend more, stay more, they come back again with different shows or exhibitions," says al-Muhairi.

Sheiks with deep pockets and Parisian society's elite may seem odd bedfellows, but it could be a marriage made in heaven.
By Amy Guttman