'It represents solidarity between people': the UAE's first Buddy Bear is unveiled at Abu Dhabi Mall

The two-metre tall sculpture was designed by eight students at NYU Abu Dhabi

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Abu Dhabi has its first Buddy Bear. If that sentence means nothing to you, please… bear with me.

First, a bit of history. The Buddy Bear project was conceived in Berlin in 2001, as an art initiative designed to brighten up drab urban spaces. Roughly 350 of these fibreglass sculptures, each one two metres tall and weighing 50kg, were placed around the city. Every bear – the animal on Berlin's coat of arms – was hand-painted, the vibrant designs promoting peace and openness.

The Berlin show was so popular that United Buddy Bears was launched the following year. United Buddy Bears consisted of a vast circle of the colourful sculptures, representing 140 countries acknowledged by the United Nations.

The motto was: “We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully.”

The United Buddy Bears sculptures stood outside the Brandenburg Gate for five months and were seen by around one and a half million people. At the conclusion of the exhibition, the Buddy Bears were either sold off, with the proceeds going to UNICEF, or moved to their countries’ respective embassies in Berlin.

The popularity of Buddy Bears has continued to grow ever since, and you can now see these ursine ambassadors of Berlin all over the world – which, in a rather roundabout way, brings us back to Abu Dhabi. On Monday night, Abu Dhabi’s Buddy Bear, nicknamed Sadeeq (the Arabic word for “friend), was unveiled outside the German embassy, next to the main entrance of Abu Dhabi Mall.

The story behind the Abu Dhabi Buddy Bear's design

Designed and hand-painted by eight students at NYU Abu Dhabi, Sadeeq incorporates elements of German and Emirati architecture. The bear is divided into a grid-like structure, which represents the “Fachwerkhaus”, the traditional timber structure used in building German houses.

Weaving around the "Fachwerkhaus" are floral designs inspired by those in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – only here, the flowers are European. On the bear's right side, the black "Fachwerkhaus" grid forms a window through which you can see the UAE desert.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -  Sadeeq at his inauguration of the Emirati-German Buddy Bear "Sadeeq" at Abu Dhabi Mall.  Ruel Pableo for The National

“It represents solidarity between people,” said Nisala Saheed, one of the students who worked on the project. “We were thinking about how to visually combine two things that are often seen as fundamentally separate from one another.” Katharina Klaunig, who also helped to design the Buddy Bear, added: “We wanted to balance the two cultures and not have one overpower the other. It was a really good opportunity to learn new skills and be a part of something.”

The Buddy Bear project began at NYU Abu Dhabi in November, and project manager Felix Beck, Assistant Professor of Design at the university, admitted it had caused him plenty of sleepless nights. “As you know, it is a student-driven project and students sometimes seem to disappear and then show up again, so my main role was to keep the team together,” he joked.

“I know about the Buddy Bear from when I studied in Germany, so for me it was a very nice moment, to say, ‘Let’s just try and identify different cultures at our university.’ NYU Abu Dhabi has so many cultures.”

The project was not without its difficulties, though. Hidden within the black lines of the “Fachwerkhaus” are Kufic words, which, on one occasion, caused unintended red faces. “We were thinking about which words to place where and after several hours of brainstorming, I had to disappear,” Beck explained. “When I came back the next morning, there were some words written on the bear’s backside, one of which was 'openness'.” A hasty re-design was quickly arranged.

The unveiling ceremony was attended by German Ambassador to the UAE, Peter Fischer, who congratulated the students on their achievement. “We’re proud to have a Buddy Bear here in front of our embassy,” he said. “They stand for openness, friendliness, a welcoming atmosphere, here we would say tolerance, and I think we can add love. Germany is about that message and Abu Dhabi and the UAE are about that message.”