There is a wealth of arresting imagery among the 72 pictures and sculptures on loan from the private collection of Larry Gagosian currently on display in the Arts Abu Dhabi gallery at the Manarat Al Saadiyat. But, in the week the long-awaited design for the Zayed National Museum is finally unveiled, it is not the familiar Warhols and Rauschenbergs that catch the eye so much as an old black-and-white photograph in the neighbouring exhibition devoted to the emirate's plans for Saadiyat Island.
In it, a man sits on the bare desert floor, apparently lost in thought. His brow furrowed in concentration, he reaches down to touch the ground, as if to coax forth into reality a vision - as though, in the words of the 18th-century English poet William Blake, he were striving to "see a world in a grain of sand".
The man is, of course, Sheikh Zayed, and it is his values and his vision of a modern, prosperous country, raised from the harsh ground of the kingdom he became ruler of in 1966, that are being celebrated in the Zayed National Museum. That museum is now rising, barely a kilometre away from this photograph, out of the sand of Saadiyat Island. People in the Emirates are used to remarkable and ambitious initiatives and sweeping and rapid changes - so much so that it is easy to lose sight of their significance. But without doubt the transformation of Saadiyat is the greatest example yet of such ambition.
Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) began to lay plans for a "world-class leisure, residential, business hub and tourist attraction of global proportions" in 2004. Yet, until just over a year ago, when the opening of the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and Highway linked it to the capital at one end and Yas Island at the other, few could even have put a name to what was just another one of the 200 or so flat, uninhabited islands that surround the capital.
When Saadiyat opened to the public, it served as a fast track to Abu Dhabi's Yas Island grand prix circuit. In more recent months, motorists passing over the 10-lane Sheikh Khalifa Bridge, the new gateway to the city, will have noticed the fresh fields of cranes and pilings, the familiar signs that here was another corner of the UAE stirring into life.
In one sense, Saadiyat borrows from a well-known model. True, it is the largest single mixed-use development in the Gulf: the 27-square-kilometre island is half the size of Bermuda. All the same, much of what is planned follows the tried and tested mixed-use model. The island will host businesses, hotels, educational institutions - partnerships with New York University and the UK's Dulwich College are already in place - and will be home to as many as 160,000 residents.
Naturally, one reason for this development is to create a destination for tourists. Rounds are already being played at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club on the north side of the island and luxury beach clubs and resorts will follow quickly. Last week it was announced that the 150-year-old Monte Carlo Société des Bains de Mer would open its first beach club in the Middle East on Saadiyat, joining St Regis, Mandarin Oriental and Park Hyatt, among other prestigious operators that have already signed up.
But it is in the cultural district that the ambition for Saadiyat plans to exceeds anything that has gone before - either here in the UAE or, quite probably, in any other place or time. And this, said Mubarak al Muhairi, TDIC's managing director, was not about tourism: "Yes, there are economic benefits to these institutions, but the reason behind it is not really the economic benefits. It is more the learning, the benefits of bringing knowledge to the younger generation in this region."
What is materialising out of the sand could fundamentally alter not only how the world sees the nation, but also how the nation sees itself, as a major player on the international cultural stage.
Many cities have signature buildings which contain and embody their cultural achievements and aspirations. Within a few years, Abu Dhabi will have five, all in the same neighbourhood, each one designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and capable of achieving iconic status in its own right. In the light of such ambition, the TDIC's proclamation that this is "the most dramatic cultural statement ever conceived" seems less exaggeration than understatement.
All five buildings - Frank Gehry's Guggenheim, Jean Nouvel's Louvre, Zaha Hadid's Performing Arts Centre, Tadao Ando's Maritime Museum and Norman Foster's Zayed National Museum - will, in TDIC's vision, transform Saadiyat Island into "an irresistible magnet attracting the world to Abu Dhabi, and taking Abu Dhabi to the world". But it is the Zayed National Museum, perched on elevated ground in a central position, that will take centre stage.
As if to underline its starring role, the museum was the last of the five to have its architect appointed, and the last to have its design unveiled. "Symbolically," said Lord Foster, whose extraordinary design was made public yesterday, "I think it's always been acknowledged by everybody that, in terms of protocol and importance, this was the first of the museums and should be seen to have that standing."
In a nation whose people have seen their lives and land change almost beyond recognition within living memory, the museum, which is expected to open towards the end of 2014, will address the vital question of identity, said Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of TDIC. "A national museum inherently presents a national story," he explained. "However, that story is often a complex one, reflecting the way in which cultural identities have changed and evolved over time through contact and communication with a wider society."
The unveiling of this final design represents a personal milestone for Sheikh Sultan, the driver behind the Saadiyat project. In 2007 he received the American Federation of Arts' Cultural Leadership Award for his "vision in creating the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, which ... will enrich the international community by establishing a new world capital for culture and education". In today's ever-changing world, he said, it was "more important than ever to understand how cultural identities have developed, and notably in the UAE, the place that has always been a meeting point for cultures and people. But national museums also have a role to play in encouraging discussion about identities today and how they are being shaped for the future."
The museum's tone, he said, would be "respectful of the enormous impact that Sheikh Zayed had on his country and the great pride that Emiratis today take in his achievements." But part of Sheikh Zayed's legacy was an openness to dialogue between cultures and faiths. "The Zayed National Museum will embrace his philosophy by presenting the story of the nation in a way that all audiences will be able to develop their knowledge of the country and the region," said Sheikh Sultan. Every visitor, he believes, will find inspiration in the story the museum has to tell: "The fact that a country has developed in the way that the UAE has in only four decades is inspiring. For Emiratis this takes on a special meaning because of the way in which the country developed under Sheikh Zayed's leadership. But all visitors will appreciate that this transformation is unique and will not fail to be inspired by it."
Crucially, the museum and its connected Sheikh Zayed Library will be an active public and civic building, a centre of learning and discussion to further the Government's goal of creating a cultural, artistic and educational platform. It will help to position Abu Dhabi and the UAE as part of the international cultural scene, but also enrich the lives and imaginations of those who live there. Its central atrium, with its meeting areas, cafe, restaurant and bookstore, will be a social nexus.
"This is a very important aspect of any national museum, given the civic role that they play in society," said Sheikh Sultan. "Through objects and exhibits, stories can be told that offer an account of what has happened in the past. However, they can also form a backdrop to the story of today and what might happen in the future, encouraging people to consider the role that they play in society and the kind of world in which they want to live."
The museum will tell its stories with a mix of media, including film, photography and audio. But artefacts, drawn principally from the UAE and supplemented where appropriate with exhibits from abroad, would be "integral to the telling of the story", said Sheikh Sultan. "It is the 'things' that make the ideas real."
Fittingly, the museum, like the man whose values it will embody and the nation whose story it will tell, will be both of and from the sand - literally, as well as metaphorically. The concrete for the main structure will be made from the sands of Saadiyat Island, said its architect, Lord Foster, "so that the building will literally emerge from the ground beneath".
Though this will be "a 21st-century museum, poised to serve for many generations", he explained, it also "seeks to learn a lot from indigenous architecture". In the process it embodies Sheikh Zayed's concern for the environment. "I would very much hope it is a good balance between working with nature, working with the elements, and learning from the best of the indigenous architecture in an age before there was 'unlimited' cheap energy."
The building's five enormous towers - a modern take on wind towers, but also evocative of falcons' wings - aren't just for show. They both pay visual tribute to, and exploit the ingenuity of, generations of desert peoples in the quest for sustainability. "Architecture in the desert in an age before cheap energy and refrigeration," said Lord Foster, "worked with a high level of intelligence developed over many centuries to create settlements which modified the desert climate." The result is a building "designed to maximise its passive architectural form to respond to the harsh climatic conditions of Abu Dhabi", and a design that incorporates function as well as symbolic form.
The wing-shaped elements, for example, are designed to heat up under the "intense solar exposure" and drive air upwards through the main public lobby. The main entrance is buried beneath an insulating layer of sand, to reduce the impact of direct solar radiation on the building. Meanwhile air will be captured at low level and pulled into the building through cooling tubes buried deep in the ground, allowing "a degree of natural ventilation during the winter months".
At the heart of the national museum will be five galleries. Each will tell the story of the history and development of Abu Dhabi and the UAE through the prism of Sheikh Zayed's legacy - the five pillars of environment, heritage, unity, education and humanitarianism. As such, the Zayed National Museum will be a fitting memorial to the nation's founder. "All the UAE's achievements have been the result of the legacy of leaders such as Sheikh Zayed, who planned a long-term vision for his people and the next generation to prepare them to be citizens of the world," said Sheikh Sultan.
But it is much more than that.
For one thing, the UAE might already be known for such marvels as its artificial island and the world's tallest building. Yet this is the nation's first official public building, and will eventually become its international face. This fact, Lord Foster acknowledged, added to the architectural responsibilities of the project, although it wasn't the first time his company had put a face to the nation. At Expo 2010 Shanghai, which closed at the end of last month, two million visitors passed through the Foster-designed UAE pavilion, created in the shape of sand dunes.
Similarly, said the architect, though on an entirely different scale, the museum "will be symbolic of the nation and the commitment of the UAE to its cultural identity… We hope it will be a place in which the spirit of the nation will be captured by the way in which the building interacts with the culture and environment around it."
To an extent, it already has. "We suggested that perhaps the master plan should be amended," said Lord Foster, "that the statement about the setting, the garden, the landscape, should be as important as the buildings, and perhaps ideally the building should be generated by the landscape, which is what it is."
The building's striking external form, said Lord Foster, "will create a unique experience which will engage the Emirati community and give a sense of national pride and history." But he stressed that the building itself can only be part of this experience, "as the content and the methodology by which information is communicated to the visitor is equally important."
This is where the British Museum, which approached Abu Dhabi last year to offer its services, comes in. When its board of trustees met in March 2009 to vote on the proposal there was unanimous enthusiasm and approval for the 10-year project, under which the British Museum will supply advice and training on all aspects of the new museum's development and operations, along with long- and short-term loans and exhibitions. The value to the new museum of such support and expertise is obvious. But in London the relationship is seen as a two-way street - and as having quite extraordinary potential. It would, the board's chairman Niall FitzGerald told his colleagues, help to strengthen the British Museum's position as "a museum of the world", underpin its international programme, create career opportunities for its staff and even "had the potential to contribute to creating stability in the Middle East by enhancing cross-cultural and inter-community understanding".
When the master plan for Saadiyat was announced in 2007, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, said the aim was "to create a cultural asset for the world - a gateway and beacon for cultural experience and exchange." Culture, he said "crosses all boundaries, and therefore Saadiyat will belong to the people of the UAE, the greater Middle East and the world at large." The occasion inspired the New York Times to remark that the Zayed National Museum had "the potential to engage a new generation of Arabs in a complex cultural conversation". Abu Dhabi, it said, was offering nothing less than "the hope of a major realignment, a chance to plant the seeds for a fertile new cultural model in the Middle East".
Sheikh Sultan is pleased when people get it.
"We hope that the Saadiyat project will be exactly that, a centre for international cultural dialogue," he said. "This is the very reason why we are investing in the new museums and other associated cultural activities rather than other forms of visitor attraction that, whilst they might attract large numbers of people, would not encourage the international cultural exchange that we are also seeking."
While there is, Lord Foster cautioned, a danger of expecting too much from any building, this one is clearly designed to engage Emiratis in a conversation about their own culture. "Everybody wants this building to help communicate a heritage which perhaps may not be as appreciated as it should be," he said. "In one sense a family relationship is like a national relationship in microcosm; it is only given some time and maturity that we appreciate the debt to our parents, and maybe the same is true for a nation.
"Maybe there needs to be an encouragement, there needs to be some telling of the story, and the telling of the story needs to be embodied in something which is finite, concrete, that we can walk around, that we can look at."
The Zayed National Museum will certainly stand as a symbol of a young nation that has come of age. "In Europe, museum building has been associated with nation building since the origins of the modern nation state in the late 18th century," said Andrew McClellan, professor of art history at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who last week gave a talk to museum students at Seton Hall University in New Jersey on "Museum Expansion in the Global 21st Century: The Case of Abu Dhabi".
The Louvre, for example, "was coeval with the birth of the French nation during the French Revolution" and set an example that was followed by emerging nation states across the first decades of the 19th century. "As monarchies became nations, and subjects citizens, museums served to demonstrate public ownership of a shared national heritage," said Prof McClellan. "Stewardship of national collections became equated with responsible government. National museums became a point of national pride and by the end of the 19th century no self-respecting nation state could afford not to have a national museum." The number of museums in a country became an indication of the cultural level that country had reached and, "judging by what we see in the UAE, this is still true".
In May 2009, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Abu Dhabi for a ceremony to mark the start of work on the Louvre, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, summed up the vision in a single sentence: "Abu Dhabi's ultimate goal in creating the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and indeed the entire Saadiyat Island Cultural District, is to build a platform for deeper and more meaningful exchange among people from our own region and from all parts of the globe."
It's a grand vision: the final conversion of Sheikh Zayed's kingdom of sand into a kingdom of culture. As Mohammed Ahmad Al Bowardi, secretary-general of the executive council, movingly recalled after the museum plans were unveiled: "Sheikh Zayed created this country, he laid out a way of thinking… He was more than 100 men in one man. He did all the planning, all the strategic thinking, and we are the generation to learn from this unique personality."
Sheikh Zayed's most valuable lesson was that it was vital to look ahead. This was the spirit in which the cultural and educational powerhouse of Saadiyat had been conceived. And as Sheikh Zayed had faced many challenges - "when he started he had no resources, yet he was determined to make a country, determined to progress", Mr Al Bowardi noted - so would his descendants.
"Today we have the oil; tomorrow we will not have the oil. We will have the minds of the people, that will create an alternative for the oil and ensure that the United Arab Emirates will continue to contribute to world development and peace."
Jonathan Gornall is a features writer at The National