Last week, over 130 internationally renowned artists came together to boycott the new Guggenheim in the United Arab Emirates, in an attempt to pressure Abu Dhabi officials to protect basic rights of its migrant workers. Many signatories are acclaimed regional artists, whose work is crucial to the Guggenheim’s efforts to become a beacon showplace for contemporary Middle Eastern art. As their petition enumerated to the museum, “No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees.”
The struggle between human rights sensibilities and the exportation of Western institutions is nothing new. In the late 1980s, American corporations tapped into a novel idea: they could short-cut hundreds of years of progress towards worker welfare and protection by fleeing American shores for less regulated pastures. Thus launched the great escape of US factories, as many companies moved their operations where labor was cheap and exploitation easy.
Now, at the turn of the century, museums, universities, and other cultural enterprises have caught on to the tricks of the corporate trade. Andrew Ross, NYU professor and a chief organizer of the petition, spoke with The Nation about the matter. “Western social institutions are in the process of off-shoring in almost the same way that businesses did,” he says. “They’re following where the money is to franchise their empires across the world.” Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in the oil-rich Gulf Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi. CNN, NYU, Reuters, the Louvre, Cleveland Clinic Hospital, the Ferrari World Theme Park, and, of course, the Guggenheim are just a few of the Western cultural brands recruited by the Abu Dhabi government.
The UAE emerged on the international stage after transforming from a near-empty desert landscape to a fully industrialized Western foothold in the Middle East in a mere fifty years. Of course, such development came at a price: the tears, sweat, and frequently, blood of the massive exploited migrant worker population, shipped in from mostly South Asia to work for pennies. Samer Muscati, researcher at the NY-based Human Rights Watch, told the Nation, “Agencies lie to these workers about the wages they’ll make in the UAE, convincing them to sell all their land and borrow money at exorbitant rates from loan sharks. Then, they sign insidious contracts that result in their virtual enslavement, burying them thousands of dollars in debt in faked up recruitment fees before they ever start working in the Middle East. As the years tick on, loan sharks circle closer and closer to the ones they love.” It is not uncommon for workers to commit suicide in the UAE, in the hopes of keeping their relatives safe back in their home countries.
Although the boycott has largely been ignored by the UAE public, local activist and artist circles excitedly debated the matter through email and at the Sharjah Biennial art show over the weekend. Given the censorship laws, local media coverage was predictably favorable to the government, painting the petition as another strike in the “constant hammering” of the international community. Walid Raad, a respected Lebanese artist, told The Nation that after boycott went public last week, the TDIC contacted the petition organizers and agreed to open a dialogue. To protect this future cooperation, he couldn’t give The Nation any more information on the matter.
The UAE is an experimental field for posing the moral questions that arise from exporting American establishments. There’s a huge amount of media scrutiny, and the artists are hoping to leverage that to improve labor rights not just in the UAE but in the entire Gulf area. As Ross concluded, “These Western cultural institutions are benefiting from the largess shown to them by authoritarian rulers who want to buy a prestigious brand. There’s a price you have to pay for that and it’s not a dollar price, it’s a moral and political price that you owe to the people who are working on the ground.”