The Tony Institutions Setting Up Shop in the Persian Gulf

The Kennedy Center is the latest to head to the oil-rich region

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This week, the AP reports, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will help Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said inaugurate the Royal Opera House Muscat and provide "leadership" for the endeavor through December. The Omani press is giddy about the opening. "In one sense the ROH is an arm of foreign policy as well as cultural policy, making it clear in a graphic way that Oman is a nation which appreciates both Arab and international culture," Maurice Gent writes today at the Oman Daily Observer. The D.C.-based Aspen Institute has also partnered with the opera house to launch a "ROH Muscat--Aspen Creative Arts World Summit" next month.

The Kennedy Center and Aspen Institute (which is a partner with The Atlantic in the Aspen Ideas Festival) join a long list of Western cultural and educational institutions that have set up shop in the Persian Gulf--and particularly in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar-- in recent years. These franchises help wealthy royals flex their cultural muscle--often for economic and geopolitical ends. While partnering institutions typically speak of furthering their missions, they often reap financial benefits from the initiatives as well. Here are some recent examples:

  • Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: In 2006, the New York-based Guggenheim Foundation, which pioneered the outpost concept in places like Berlin and Bilbao, Spain, signed a deal with the U.A.E. to build a an $800 million museum bankrolled by the government and designed by Frank Gehry. In April, around 130 artists boycotted the new branch to demand better treatment for the foreign workers who are building it.
  • Louvre Abu Dhabi: The French government announced in 2007 that it would rent the Louvre name, art works, and expertise to a new museum in the U.A.E. for $1.3 billion (the U.A.E. also paid to renovate a wing of the Paris Louvre, which was subsequently renamed for an Emirati ruler). A petition claimed that France was "selling its soul" and a leading German art figure accused the Louvre of behaving "like a corporation with a clearly-defined strategy: profit maximization." But French officials insisted that the money was a "fair fee" and would be reinvested in French museums. "France is profiting handsomely from this deal," The New York Times concluded.
  • Doha Tribeca Film Festival: The Qatar Museums Authority inked a deal in 2009 with the founder of the New York City-based Tribeca Film Festival to launch an annual festival in Doha the following year and develop Qatar's film industry. The daughter of Qatar's ruler first approached Tribeca about starting the festival after she worked for the founders in New York as an intern. 
  • NYU Abu Dhabi: In 2008, New York University followed in the footsteps of Paris's Sorbonne University in announcing that it would open up a campus in 2010 in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island, where the Guggenheim and Louvre will also be located as part of a planned cultural destination. NYU President John Sexton insisted that he hadn't agreed to the project in order to make money, but some found that hard to believe. According to Bloomberg, Abu Dhabi paid all costs associated with the branch campus, reimbursed NYU for the expense of replacing the faculty staff relocating to the Middle East, and made a $50 million gift to NYU. An NYU professor complained to New York magazine that the university was becoming "a conglomerate with a number of wholly owned subsidiaries.” 
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