Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi: We Are 'The Real Winner' of the Oscars

The tiny Arab emirate has declared itself the victor in Sunday's Academy Awards.

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Octavia Spencer forgetting to thank Abu Dhabi for her Oscar win on Sunday / Reuters

You might have thought that The Artist won biggest at last night's Academy Awards show, by virtue of taking five awards including best picture, but the oil-soaked Arab city of Abu Dhabi wishes to inform you that you are wrong. The real victor, according to government-owned newspaper The National, is Abu Dhabi itself, a region and city in the United Arab Emirates. An article on the Oscars opens, "The speeches have been given and the tears brushed away, but the real Oscar winner at the 84th Academy Awards was clear from the box office takings - Abu Dhabi."

Their argument is that the The Help may not have won best picture, but it made the most money out of all the best picture nominees, making it the actual winner. And the credit for this success doesn't go to the film's director, the book's author, or even the best-support-actress-winner Octavia Spencer. It goes to the government of Abu Dhabi, of course, which owns Abu Dhabi Media, which produced the film. (Abu Dhabi Media also happens to own The National, by total coincidence.)

The logic here is uniquely and inimitably Emirati. This neighbor of Dubai has used its enormous oil revenues to buy a gleaming downtown, a hyperactive investment industry, and a Hollywood-like love of extremely conspicuous consumption. It's the kind of place where you might see a man driving his pet cheetah to the vet in a Lamborghini. So what better partner for Abu Dhabi than Hollywood itself, and what better metric for Abu Dhabi to gauge its own success than dollars.

Abu Dhabi's self-celebration is also part of the United Arab Emirates' love of "soft power" -- cultural influence projected outside of the small nation's borders. (Nearby Qatar, another tiny but super-rich Persian Gulf nation, is even more enamored of soft power, which it pushes by supporting Arab democratic movements and even supporting rebels in Libya and now Syria.) For Abu Dhabi, the success of government-funded films like The Help is a victory for Emirati culture and its popularity in America. "We are extremely proud for Abu Dhabi to be associated with such a successful and recognised film," the head of Abu Dhabi's film company boasted.

Of course, The Help has nothing do with the United Arab Emirates, which was not even a country until 1971, nearly a decade after this film's story took place. And it's extremely doubtful that either American film audiences or Oscars attendees were aware of Abu Dhabi's role in financing the movie. So a best support actress Oscar has probably not done all that much for Abu Dhabi's international profile. Still, you have to start somewhere, and the state-run film company has started an annual film festival (run by the former director of the Tribeca Film Festival) and opened a computer animation school, both in Abu Dhabi. It's probably not going to be the new Cannes, but as long as this effort creates more movies for the world to enjoy, it can only be a good thing. Unfortunately, the consensus at The Atlantic seems to be that The Help was not such a great movie. But it did make money, and isn't that the Abu Dhabi way?

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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