Abu Dhabi, the glittering capital of the United Arab Emirates, is ascending to the pinnacle of soft power over the Persian Gulf. The city’s luxury resort, Saadiyat Island (Happiness Island), will, when fully built, serve as a regional arts hub featuring world-class branches of the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Guggenheim. But the nascent cultural oasis is also a notoriously brutal place to work for the site’s legions of migrant workers.
The cultural-activist collective known as the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) has for years years worked to expose the dirty underbelly of the Emirati construction boom. As a result of its pressure, it has been in negotiations with the Guggenheim leadership about safety and worker conditions at the Saadiyat construction site since 2010. But now Guggenheim leaders have broken off negotiations with the group as the museum moves into the construction of its new outpost.
The “unilateral” breaking of ties follows several years of spectacular protests, including banner drops and civil disobedience at the main Guggenheim branch in Manhattan, agit-prop installations at the Venice Biennale, and extensive field research on shady labor practices in the UAE’s massive and highly exploitative migrant guestworker system. But now, the grassroots network of artists, filmmakers, and intellectuals have been cut off from talks with the museum authorities aimed at promoting fair labor standards on the site.
A public letter, issued by Guggenheim Museum and Foundation Director Richard Armstrong, signals that the impasse was sparked by tensions over the GLC’s militant pressure tactics. Armstrong accused the GLC of not reciprocating the museum’s cooperative efforts, saying its supposedly antagonistic protests have been “unfair, convenient for publicity purposes, and distract[ed] from sincere efforts to address an issue to which [the project’s development authority Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC)] and the Guggenheim have dedicated significant energy and resources with measureable progress.” Moreover, in its discussions on labor reforms, Armstrong argued, “Gulf Labor continues to shift its demands on the Guggenheim beyond the reach of our influence as an arts institution while continuing to spread mistruths about the project and our role in it.”