French President Emmanuel Macron joined Arab kings and other rulers on Wednesday to inaugurate the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a decade after his country signed an over $1.2 billion agreement to share the name and art of the world-famous museum.
Envisioned by France’s then-President Jacques Chirac as a means to fight extremism with art after the Sept. 11 attacks, the museum is intended to be a bridge between East and West, with Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Jewish artifacts.
“My friends, here starts the fight of the generation, for our youth,” the French president said. “This fight we are fighting with a spirit of conquest because from our side we represent the beauty of the whole world.”
The elite guest list, however, showed the limited adoption of liberal ideals in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab Spring. Macron was joined by only one other democratically elected leader at the event, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The two kings at the event, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Moroccan King Mohammed VI, both have faced unrest at home over their rule. Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled Oman since overthrowing his father in a bloodless 1970 coup, had been invited but sent his culture minister instead.
Macron and his wife, Brigitte, walked up to the museum with Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan and Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The hereditary rulers smiled and greeted the couple, an honor guard standing at the ready nearby.
France has grown closer to the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
It opened a French naval base in 2009 at Abu Dhabi’s Port Zayed, which is visible just across the water from the museum’s home on Saadiyat Island. French warplanes and personnel also are stationed at Al-Dhafra Air Base, a major Emirati military installation outside Abu Dhabi that’s home to some of the 5,000 American troops stationed in the country.
With architect Jean Nouvel at his side, Macron entered the first gallery of the museum on Wednesday night. Nouvel pointed out the skylight within it, which mirrors the Louvre Pyramid is similar to others through the museum. As the Abu Dhabi ceremony took place, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris projected images of the art on display at the new museum.
Sheikh Mohammed, who also serves as the UAE’s vice president and prime minister, said the museum represented the UAE’s “cultural pride.”
“The Louvre museum will represent the best of the East and the West and it’s going to be a meeting point for those who love beauty and culture from all over the world,” he said.
The artwork on display offers a brief history of the world and its major religions — without shying away from Judaism in a country that does not recognize Israel.
However, the conservative mores of Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital that’s more buttoned-up than freewheeling Dubai, can be seen in the relative absence of pieces depicting nudity.
Abu Dhabi officials have not disclosed how much it cost to build the museum.
What is known is that Abu Dhabi agreed to pay France $525 million for the use of the “Louvre” name for the next 30 years and six months, plus another $750 million to hire French managers to oversee the 300 loaned works of art. A center at Paris’ Louvre now bears the name of the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, which was also part of the deal.
During construction, the project faced intense criticism over labor conditions, as workers toiled for long hours in the brutal heat for low pay. A worker was killed in an accident in 2015, while another died of “natural causes” in 2016, according to Abu Dhabi authorities.
Hundreds working on projects on the island, including the Louvre, were deported or lost their work visas for launching strikes over their conditions, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Labor strikes are illegal in the UAE.
Those laborers help build the modernist museum, which sits under a honeycombed dome of eight layers of Arab-style geometric shapes.
It draws the lapping waters of the Persian Gulf into its outer corridors, allowing individual beams of light that pass through the roof to strike the surface and cast dancing reflections across the white walls. After sundown, light filters out of the exterior dome, evoking a starry night.
At Wednesday night’s ceremony, a traditional Arabic singer performed in front of an orchestra seated on a stage surrounded by Gulf waters. Paper airplanes with lights fell around him, an homage to Nouvel’s idea that the dome would offer “a rain of light.”