EventsSeen BeyondVoices

Constructing the Island of “Happiness”

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All over the world May 1st is referred to as the International Workers’ Day. Ways of „celebrating“ this occasion are various. Unintentionally the Guggenheim Museum in New York got roped into the feast this year, when a group of activists occupied the building on Friday. The members of the „Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction“ blocked the museum in order to call public’s attention towards the working conditions on the site of Guggenheim’s new branch in Abu Dhabi.

It seemed just like an ordinary Friday at Guggenheim Museum until noon. Then suddenly activists and artists, who have been associated in the „Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction“ („G.U.L.F.“) for years, revealed a big red parachute in the middle of the building. In large white letters it said „Meet workers’ demands now“, additionally the protesters dropped flyers with similar messages in the atrium. Chanting the group expressed their call for speaking to a member of the museum’s board of trustees.


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With this action G.U.L.F. rubbed salt in Guggenheim’s wound one more time. Years ago the museum announced its expansion towards the gulf. The plans sketched a fancy, prestige enterprise: Abu Dhabi is currently subduing a natural, triangle shaped island of 27 square kilometres infront of its doors. Saadiyat („Happiness“) Island is planned to become a perfectly designed environment for the rich and beautiful, described as „world-class leisure, residential, business, and tourist center of global proportions, all the while maintaining an environmentally sensitive philosophy“.

Besides beaches, star awarded touristic attractions and business areas, the future 145,000 inhabitants of Saadiyat and the solvent visitors of course are appreciated to spend some of their money on culture. They are supposed to do this in the „Saadiyat Cultural District“, where not only a new national museum of the UAE is about to arise, but also famous museums as the Louvre and Guggenheim are building expensive, exclusive branches.

Guggenheim for example is looking forward to inaugurate a „state-of-the-art facility“ designed by Frank Gehry there, that will be constructed right on the shore of Saadiyat, surrounded by water on three sides. On about 12,500 square meters of exhibition space sophisticated art connoisseurs will get the opportunity to concern theirselves with art from the Middle East and everywhere else. Whenever visitors are tired of this visions, they will also be able to enjoy „spectacular views of the Saadiyat Cultural District and Arabian Gulf“.


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The only problem for the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) directing the whole project is that every luxury home, every hotel and also every museum needs to be built before the arrival of their target group. This is, what thousands of workers from Eastern Asia are taking care of at the moment – daily risking their lives on unsafe construction sites, suffering from poor working conditions and accomodation in the hot climate. Tens of thousands of them are populating the island of Saadiyat interim in order to build up this Arabian dream.

Of course TDIC is caring about corporate social responsibily and for instance developed an „Employment Practices Policy“ (EPP), also the Guggenheim subscribed to. The documents speak of fixed working hours, provided health care and „spacious, comfortable, clean and climate controlled living accommodations“ (whole 4 square meters per person instead of the usual 2.4!). Especially for Guggenheim one document regulates issues as working breaks and bars companies to simply keep the workers’ passports, in order to prevent them from quitting and leaving the gulf.



Although this efforts may look welcome at first sight, most likely not all of the labourers in Saudi Arabia will be as satisfied as the ones displayed on Saadiyat’s offical page. In 2013 the Guardian referred to the working conditions of migrant workers on the island as „modern slavery“ and just recently Human Rights Watch published a report saying that violation of workers’ rights on the “island of happiness” continues. So, naturally the workers from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka did not „celebrate“ May 1st in Abu Dhabi. The activists occupying Guggenheim in New York intended to stand up for these workmen with their action: „Today is International Workers’ Day. When workers in Abu Dhabi — who are not allowed to organize — go on strike, they may be arrested, beaten, and deported. We repeat the demands for a living wage, a debt jubilee, and the right to organize.“

The Guggenheim did not agree to the demand to talk with the G.U.L.F. activists on Friday but instead confiscated the parachute, denyed entry to visitors later on and sent employees home. In a statement the museum complained about the „disruptive activities“ of G.U.L.F. and mentioned it was „forced […] to close its doors and turn away thousands of members of the public“. In general concerns of the activists regarding the working conditions were shared, the directorate stated, but one already had offered sufficient „open lines of communication“ on this topic before.

At the same time Guggenheim announced that construction on the site in Saadiyat did not start yet and that immense attention is going to be paid to workers welfare, once a contractor is picked. On the contrary G.U.L.F. claimed their May Day action was just the beginning of another campaign focussing on workers’ rights in the gulf region, which is going to last for 52 more weeks. So there will be a lot of discussion before Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s opening, which is currently scheduled for 2017.


#GuggOccupy #GuggOccupied

Thomas Büsch

Filmmaker, Founding Member and Secretary General of diyalog, promotion of cultural exchange with Turkey. Since 2012 he is also project manager of InEnArt.

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