Western Culture In Abu Dhabi Breeds Exploited Workers

Construction site in Abu Dhabi
Construction site in Abu Dhabi
Sonja Zekri


For years, major sporting events have been hosted in the superbly wealthy Gulf States. Now, renowned Western cultural institutions are following suit. But these high-minded museums and cultural organizations are encountering a familiar problem.

In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the French Louvre, the American Guggenheim and other branches of imported high culture are envisioned as a massive hub of Western refinement on Saadiyat Island, also known as “Happiness Island.”

But the construction workers are living like slaves, sometimes forced to toil for an entire year to pay off their “employment fee.” Their passports are seized, and they live involuntarily in unsanitary conditions, fearing deportation at the slightest sign of dissatisfaction.

This is far from being a new phenomenon in the Gulf States, where foreign workers are normally subject to the principle of sponsorship and stripped of all their rights. Two years ago, artists were already threatening to boycott the new exhibition spaces in Abu Dhabi, refusing to display their work in buildings constructed by an exploited labor force. The Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad said that anyone working with bricks and mortar deserves the same level of respect as someone working with a camera or paintbrush.

So what does the future hold for Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi? The museum, with its unique design reminiscent of the rubble from a giant tower, is the largest Guggenheim in the world with 30,000 square meters (98,000 square feet) of space allowing it to host exhibits that would be too large for other museums. Its opening date has been pushed back, as has that of Jean Nouvel’s Louvre. The future looks equally uncertain for Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum and Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center.

It has been reported that local museum employees have rebelled against Western interference and that funds have been slashed. But the museums say that the delay will give them time to develop their “identity on the local and international stage.” The controversy over the conditions of construction workers demonstrates that achieving the high-minded goals of cultural exchange and dialogue between the East and West is far from simple.

The creative temptation of dictatorship

Architects who design buildings for countries with questionable human rights records tend to take great pains to point out that their work contributes to opening up the region. As if a glass façade could eradicate censorship.

Model of Saadiyat Island — Photo: Kennedy Fabrications/GNUFDL

Like all artists, architects are susceptible to the creative temptation of dictatorships. The suffering of foreign workers on Gehry’s and Nouvel’s construction sites in Abu Dhabi is merely the logical consequence of this temptation. Feudal societies function according to their own laws, and in Abu Dhabi these do not protect migrant workers.

The Western museums and universities that are flocking to Abu Dhabi sell a brand, a reputation, a promise of civilization. The oil and gas billionaires in Abu Dhabi or Doha invest their wealth in reinvigorating an ossified Western cultural landscape and hope that in return they will attract waves of tourists who are interested in more than paragliding and camel rides.

In principle there is no problem with this exchange, as long as it remains within the scope of marketing. But we must be realistic about the true extent of its democratizing effect. The workers on Happiness Island will tell you it doesn’t reach that far.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!