1The inauguration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 was presented as a success for French cultural diplomacy. The completion of a project that went on for more than ten years seems to have wiped away the “incommunications” that were expressed during the execution phase. There is now a smoother, slightly triumphalist discourse on the muscle of French soft power. But what does this discourse comprise? The Emirati authorities’ perception is not the same as that of the French, even if words such as “universal” seem to be one of the acquests of their common heritage. For that matter, what is at stake here is the formation of an official discourse that matches the respective national diplomacies’ objectives.
From multiculturalism to universalism
2Cultural diplomacy is not conceived of in the same way in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as it is in France. As in the Arab world as a whole, the distinction between domestic and international policy has been swept aside to create space for transnational problems that are very fluid; these issues also blur Western categories—the best example being politics and religion. Museums are an illustration of the ambivalent nature of a transnational issue. The discourse emanating from the Emirati authorities on the Louvre can only be understood within this framework. Museums continue to elicit questions, or even misunderstandings, on the part of foreign observers—hence the assertion immediately made by Olivier Mongin, editor of Esprit, that the United Arab Emirates’ museums policy corresponded to “an identity deficit”: via the modernization of traditional urban spaces, the UAE’s rulers were allegedly buying an identity at great expense (Mongin 2012). By the same token, the assertion that the production of a city of spectacles is an attempt to conceal the customs of those who live there is a baseless opinion that echoes systematic criticisms of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates such as those made after the financial crisis of 2009–2010 (Guéraiche 2017). As Cynthia P. Schneider has said in clear terms, the announcement that the capital’s museum projects would be delayed in 2011 was met with a sense of curiosity and schadenfreude by the international press at the time (Schneider 2012).
Roots museums, mirror museums, and nation branding
3Museum policy is first and foremost a societal issue. Museums, as Alexandre Kazerouni has shown, are far from a princely whim; they offer an in-depth questioning of both the national identities of oil monarchies and the power relations between the different segments of the population (Kazerouni 2013; Kazerouni 2017a). There is a coexistence of two types of museums: roots museums and mirror museums. Questions centered on the first type have been asked as far back as the first moments of independence. The Emirate of Sharjah launched a “cultural revolution” stimulated by the Islamic Revolution that took place on the opposite shore of the Gulf in 1979. Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, emir of Sharjah, wished to send a strong signal to his Iranian and Saudi neighbors. His objective was to bring people together around a transnational Muslim identity rather than divide them according to the dotted lines of state borders (Kazerouni 2017b). This irenicism also privileged the reconstruction of scenes of the daily life of the past. Roots museums respond to identity issues and are part of a broader approach to preserving, and sometimes reinventing, the past (Khalaf 2017). Mirror museums fulfill another function. In Kazerouni’s view, the idea behind them is to compete on a symbolic level with developed states (Kazerouni 2017a). It is assumed that they will have an ostentatious nature. A showcase for a modernism that is cut off from local realities, they serve to place the Emirates (or Qatar) on the map as destinations for wealthy tourists. At the same time, they create a familiarity with the West. These museums, the Louvre chief among them, thus fulfill an eminently diplomatic function, because their purpose falls within nation branding.
4The Emirati leaders have deliberately used the Louvre, as well as the Guggenheim and the Sorbonne, within a nation branding strategy. The idea—a very simple one—is to sell a political entity (the emirate or the federal state) as a brand (Guéraiche 2017). The Maktoum family has been a pioneer in this regard. Sheikh Rashid and above all his son Sheikh Mohammed, the current emir of Dubai, have surrounded themselves with experts in marketing and communications to position their emirate, which, unlike Abu Dhabi, has exhausted its oil resources. Sports, luxury, and the Emirates airline, whose fate was immediately linked with that of the emirate, became the pillars of a promotional strategy. Burj Al Arab (a hotel constructed in the sea and the world’s only seven-star hotel), Burj Khalifa (the highest tower in the world), and the Palms (the world’s largest artificial man-made islands), as well as a “leader,” Sheikh Mohammed, have facilitated the identification of the emirate on a global scale. When Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding president and the emir of Abu Dhabi, died in 2004, his son Sheikh Khalifa took up the idea of nation branding for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. A branding agency (OBAD) was set up, and in November 2007, its director, Sheikh Tahnoon al Nahyan, unveiled a branding strategy whose cornerstone is culture and cultural tourism. Drawing on its immense oil resources (ninety billion proven barrels), Abu Dhabi has gone further—and moved quicker—than has Dubai in building its image. Contrary to what Brian J. Hurn has written, nation branding cannot be understood as an instrument of cultural diplomacy; in the Emirates, it is cultural diplomacy that serves nation branding (Hurn 2016). Indeed, cultural diplomacy attempts to maintain or even increase a country’s spontaneous prominence by enhancing the value of easily identifiable cultural aspects. In the case of France, noteworthy elements used in nation branding campaigns include the country’s language, cuisine, arts, and lifestyle. In the case of the UAE, the emirates’ image has already been built, and it encompasses, as required, cultural aspects that are variously real (cultural tourism, for example) and imagined (Dubai, the city of the future).
The three phases of Emirati discourse
5The UAE’s official discourse is difficult to grasp. Nevertheless, it can be supposed that the Emirati press agency, WAM (Wakalat Anba’a al Emarat) reflects the authorities’ positions. A total of 442 releases from between March 6, 2007, and March 22, 2018, make it possible to appreciate the three phases of discourse on the Louvre.
6During the initial phase of the project, emphasis was placed on dialogue between cultures and tourism. At the moment when a thirty-year cooperation agreement between France and the United Arab Emirates was signed in March 2007, the Emiratis knew what they were hoping for from the project. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the federation and emir of Abu Dhabi, welcomed the “international dialogue” and bilateral cooperation between France and the UAE.  His intention was to promote a revival of local cultural heritage.  As mirror museums did not yet exist (the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha opened its doors in November 2008), the emir of Abu Dhabi used roots museums for his reference points. The project also found a place in foreign policy, as the UAE’s permanent representative at the United Nations, Anwar Othman Barout Saleem AI Barout, shows. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an initiative that aims to promote an intercultural dialogue, a culture of peace, and respect for religions.  The name’s power of attraction was ultimately integrated into Abu Dhabi’s and the federation’s tourism strategy. Abu Dhabi’s tourism department (which fulfills the role of a ministry at the level of local government) has supervised the project in the United Arab Emirates; Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, its director, also signed the March 6, 2007 agreement with Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, France’s minister of culture. During a Franco-Emirati exhibition at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ahmed Al Qasimi took up the refrain of two countries that have a shared interest in culture, but the head of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority stressed the importance of showing Emirati “heritage” to potential French tourists and investors.  As an adjunct to the exhibition, discussions on the Franco-Emirati partnership were held. The event was supposed to “enhance the UAE’s status as an attractive tourism destination, while highlighting the country’s rich heritage and traditions.”  The Louvre’s status as a tool of tourism policy was never denied. A sure sign of this can be seen in the branding strategy: on October 18, 2017, Etihad, the Emirati national carrier (and also that of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi) signed a branding partnership with the Louvre. The Louvre and the airline, like the governments of Dubai and the Emirates, linked their names for the purposes of marketing and public relations activities on social networks, as well as to organize events and so forth. 
7Over time, the Emirati discourse shifted from the theme of intercultural dialogue to that of universalism, an approach that may seem more French (see below) but that in reality takes on a different meaning in the context of the Middle East. The 2008–2010 financial crisis eclipsed Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s monumental projects. The Louvre was mentioned on occasions, but without any specification of concrete actions. Mentions of it became more frequent from 2014, a pivotal year. During the Talking Art Series, Hissa Al Dhaheri, then the Louvre’s programs director, presented the project as a “universal narrative,”  marking a significant shift in the discourse. In July 2016, during the inauguration of the Sheikh Zayed Center at the Pavillon de l’Horloge in Paris, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan reframed the project within a set of regional and international initiatives. Cultural links such as those between France and the United Arab Emirates stand fully against those that promote disharmony.  The Emirati minister of foreign affairs made a thinly veiled reference to Daesh, squarely in line with federal policy on the fight against radicalisms (Guéraiche 2018). In response to the obscurantism of radicalisms, whatever their origin might be, the UAE presented itself as an open and tolerant Muslim country. This theme proved readily usable because it corresponds to the UAE’s interpretation of Islam (Maliki Sunnism) and the way in which it has been practiced since the beginnings of the federation.
8When the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors in November 2017, the official discourse finally reached maturity. It responded to all expectations, using the range of universalist themes, increasing the visibility of the federation, and not upsetting the Emirati population. On November 8, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister, addressed Emmanuel Macron and an audience of international figures. He stated that through the Louvre, Abu Dhabi had become a capital of culture, the arts, architecture, and human innovation. In opposition to destructive forces that hope to usher in a period of obscurantism, it symbolizes a bridge with other civilizations, first among them Islamic civilization. In the globalized space, it brings together intellect and humanity, allowing tolerance and interaction to flourish. After making the required remarks on Franco-Emirati friendship, the emir of Dubai described Sheikh Zayed’s legacy of love and humanity. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, he concluded, is a bridge between East and West and a global meeting point for lovers of art, beauty, and culture.  The next day, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the regime’s strongman, struck the same note. He placed an emphasis on culture and on dialogue between peoples and civilizations as a means of combating extremism. The UAE offers a model to follow—one of dialogue, tolerance, coexistence, and interaction between cultures. 
9The UAE has therefore produced a well-honed discourse. Its malleability meant that it could adapt to changes in the local and regional contexts. The theme of culture against obscurantism has remained a point of strength that has been affirmed since the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the linchpin of the project since 2006 and currently minister of state, said in an interview with the New York Times that the Louvre is an integral part of a cultural strategy that aims to stem tensions in the region, positioning the Emirates as a tolerant global capital with a museum that symbolizes the bridge between civilizations. 
10French discourse on the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been multifaceted. It reflects sometimes opposing, if not irreconcilable, opinions. From the first discussions in 2005 and 2006, critics raised their voices, but their grumbling did not carry so far as did responses highlighting French universalism. This discourse in fact reveals uncomfortable realities about the French state and its diplomacy.
“Museums are not for sale”
11The main criticisms of the project were expressed by professionals from the field of art history. While the pace of working meetings between Abu Dhabi and Paris was accelerating in order for the agreement to be finalized on March 6, 2007, Françoise Cachin, Jean Clair, and Roland Recht published an opinion piece in Le Monde on December 13, 2006. The authors observed that museums had not escaped the commodification of the world. French museums, which had hitherto been financed by public funds, had managed to resist this trend. The authors concluded their piece by wondering whether major museums’ long-term loans of artworks made in return for cold, hard cash “is not ‘selling one’s soul.’” Shortly after, Libération reported in its February 3, 2007 edition on a motion signed by thirty-nine curators from the Louvre that precisely set out their reservations about loans to Abu Dhabi. First of all, on the moral level, the idea of a financial consideration for loans of artworks is not acceptable. Second, associating French Museums with heritage-acquisition operations for other countries could contribute to distortions in the art market. The final argument, and the most important one, specified that: “The interests that are at the source of this project are not primarily cultural, but economic and diplomatic.”  Culture professionals, accustomed to operating in (mainly French) networks, therefore perceived the initiative as both a way to make money from art and a method of increasing France’s political influence, two logics that are foreign to the values of the sector. In response to this outcry, France’s culture minister set out an official position.
12He stated that the Louvre Abu Dhabi project was not a derogation from curators’ ethical codes and it illustrated France’s global reach. At a meeting with museum directors and curators on January 16, 2007, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres strove to dispel the profession’s doubts.  The culture minister emphasized the fact that the project was not a break from the cultural policies that had been pursued in the past. But globalization is a “new phenomenon” that facilitates the emergence of new practices such as cultural tourism. His motives could not be impugned because he had contributed to defining a “cultural strategy in response to globalization,” namely the promotion of French exceptionalism. Therefore, the agreement signed with the UAE was “actually the expression of our cultural policy. And it’s actually the expression of the prevailing republican consensus in our country when it comes to culture.” There was even a convergence between the profession’s ethical rules and the new objectives that the government wanted to assign to French museums: “France’s museums have a duty to contribute to France’s cultural reach… This is a noble mission that corresponds to France’s universalist values.” When the agreement was signed on March 6, 2007, Donnedieu de Vabres reiterated the leitmotiv of the “universal vocation” of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a common project that encouraged “France’s universalist message, dialogue between cultures and civilizations, interaction between them, and mutual awareness among contemporary societies.”  The French official discourse is also well oiled. It aligns with the idea of French universalism, which is in itself an oxymoron. As Seth Graebner (2014) notes in an excellent article on this topic, French universalism is in fact a particularism—in other words, the exact opposite of universalism. It is closer in this sense to “American exceptionalism.”
Universal best tender
13Hidden between the lines of the French official discourse are less palatable realities. During the exchange with the museum directors and curators, Donnedieu de Vabres refused to comment on the financial amounts involved in the agreement: “Please be aware that the stakes are big enough for a public official to be unable to turn down this offer.” He was referring here to the one billion euros payable for use of the name and loans for payment, but probably also to additional packages for restoring French heritage. The government’s rhetoric strangely has similarities with that of the “cultural best tender” of François Léotard, the culture minister (1986–1988) who broke up the French audiovisual landscape to curb his department’s budgetary expenditures. The same causes produce the same effects; even before the implementation of the French General Review of Public Policies, public funds were stretched. Culture—and diplomacy—were in the crosshairs. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy marked a turning point in the French discourse, though in terms of form and not of substance. Whereas President Chirac or the Villepin government’s ministers could elaborate on art to serve France’s reach, the French officials who succeeded them were more artificial in this regard. These issues were not within President Sarkozy’s comfort zone. For example, he summed up French universalism in a sentence and moved on to security issues and trade matters when he addressed the Emiratis during his official visit in 2009.  During this very 2009 visit, Ariane Warlin explained how the French delegation was divided between supporters of a cultural diplomacy and backers of a security policy (Warlin 2012). This journalistic investigation, incomplete though it might have been, shows an instrumentalization of the institution that had been overtaken by political and diplomatic issues. In the political and diplomatic domains, and even in the business world, custom dictates that tribute be paid to French universalism, before turning to more serious business. In the production of official discourse for use by French officials, the Louvre therefore became a required stop that relegated the “real” issues in the Franco-Emirati relationship under Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande—the Abu Dhabi military base, arms deals, and oil agreements—to the background.
And yet, it contributes to France’s reach…
14Two observations arise here. First, discourses on the Louvre Abu Dhabi are difficult to isolate from related problems, and they fit into a tight mesh of conflicting interests, at least on the French side. The political class and those in charge in the national administrations have been the guiding hand behind a universalist discourse. Where opposition has been voiced, this has come from either lower levels (museum directors, for example) or external figures (Roland Recht, an academic and art historian, and Didier Rykner, a journalist, are good examples here). In this power relationship, it is evidently executive power that has laid its critics on the bed of Procrustes. Second, as is customary in the study of representations, discourse and reality are not linked, or are scarcely so. It remains to be determined whether the Louvre Abu Dhabi fits well in France’s cultural diplomacy and, if it does, to what extent.
French cultural diplomacy
15Strictly speaking, cultural diplomacy is actually more an extension of the communications domain than it is of diplomatic activities. It encompasses external state actions in the cultural field undertaken through agents of the diplomatic network or international organizations. It therefore does not overlap with the whole set of France’s cultural activities that may be carried out by nonstate actors, foremost among them artists, and within various areas such as the economy (via, for example, company partnerships). Its resources are specified in the finance bill for 2018. In the budget increase for the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (2%), appropriations for cultural diplomacy and influence (program 185) stagnated (+ 0.29%). The Agence pour l’Enseignement du Français à l’Etranger (AEFE) (Agency for French Education Abroad) takes up the lion’s share of the budget (398 million euros out of 717 million euros). Cultural cooperation in the strict sense (with respect to which promotion of French through Institut Français and Alliance Française branches is included) therefore has a budget of a grand total of twenty-six million euros.  One can understand why in a restrictive budgetary framework, the Louvre Abu Dhabi project has been viewed as a boon. These figures also show that French cultural diplomacy amounts more to a repeatedly reaffirmed discourse than it does to real political will. With limited means and budgets in constant decline, culture is always the first victim of cuts. In addition, the definition of culture is also to be treated with caution. At the Quai d’Orsay, it primarily means education (AEFE), higher education and research, and promotion of the French language. Then come the fine arts. It is therefore hardly surprising that within the ministry, culture is not a prestigious area (Lequesne 2017). In a period of state retreat and therefore of cuts to budget items, appointment to a post of counselor for cooperation and cultural affairs (COCAC) may be seen by professional diplomats as a punishment, just as a posting to certain positions in poor countries might be.
16France may have been able to avail itself of cultural activities across the world since the nineteenth century, but its influence, in the absence of objective indicators within the fine arts field (number of international exhibitions? Key word occurrences on social networks or in the international press?), is not measurable—and it is not dissimilar to the intangible politique d’influence, part and parcel of French foreign policy. Appreciating the gap between discourse on cultural diplomacy and what it represents in reality therefore reveals major surprises. Further research is required to ascertain if it might not be a form of diplomacy by default, that of a middling power that, while having the third-largest global diplomatic network, scarcely makes itself heard across the world.
17However, the picture is not so dark, as through its international media coverage, the Louvre Abu Dhabi gives a degree of visibility to French diplomacy in general and to the country’s cultural diplomacy in particular. Regarding the first aspect, a ripple effect can even be discerned. On the back of discussions between France and the UAE, other initiatives have come about. The best example is probably the partnership on protecting humanity’s world heritage following the destruction of Palmyra. On December 3 and 4, 2016, François Hollande traveled to the UAE. The president visited the Louvre and talked about French cultural diplomacy, but in particular, he took part in a conference on the protection of cultural heritage that was organized jointly by France and the UAE under UNESCO’s aegis. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones was then created in Geneva on March 8, 2017. France used its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to bring about the passage of Resolution 2347, with the support of the United Arab Emirates, on 24 March. France therefore put to use its diplomatic know-how for a common cause that the two actors benefited from.
18The Louvre Abu Dhabi undeniably falls within the framework of cultural diplomacy—in the case of both the UAE and France—even if the partners do not use it in the same way. The UAE and France have both made gains. The United Arab Emirates has primarily used the museum in its nation branding strategy. It has also consolidated its status as a reliable diplomatic partner in the Middle East and on the global level—hardly something inconsequential for a “small state” such as the UAE. France has also made gains, perhaps not in terms of prestige, but in any case from a financial point of view. In addition, the Louvre may perhaps be a springboard for joint initiatives such as the protection of humanity’s world heritage in conflict zones, and it will certainly be capable of advancing France’s interests—and foremost among them, its economic interests.
Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
WAM, March 3, 2007, “Abu Dhabi and French Governments in Historic Cultural Accord.”
WAM, March 7, 2007, “UAE is Striving to Achieve a Cultural Renaissance, Says President Khalifa.”
WAM, October 6, 2007, “UAE Calls for Promoting Interreligious, Intercultural Dialogue.”
WAM, November 22, 2007, “Hamed bin Zayed Opens UAE-France Partnership Exhibition.”
WAM, November 20, 2007, “Hamed bin Zayed to Inaugurate UAE-France Partnership Forum in Paris.”
WAM, October 18, 2017, “Louvre Abu Dhabi Today Signed the First Exclusive Platinum Partnership with Etihad Airways, at the Museum’s Dome.”
WAM, October 16, 2014, “Fourth Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series Launched”; WAM, November 6, 2014, “Fourth Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series Begins.”
WAM, July 6, 2016, “Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre Opens at Musée du Louvre in Paris.”
WAM, November 9, 2017, “Mohammed bin Rashid, Mohamed bin Zayed and President Macron Open Louvre Abu Dhabi.”
WAM, November 9, 2017, “UAE is Hope Maker for Nations: Mohamed bin Zayed.”
Doreen Carvajal, “Museum Diplomacy, Finally,” New York Times, November 7, 2017.
The two articles and a special report on the Louvre Abu Dhabi by Didier Rykner were published on the site La Tribune de l’Art: Didier Rykner, “Motion signée par 39 conservateurs du musée du Louvre,” La Tribune de l’art, February 4, 2007, www.latribunedelart.com/motion-signee-par-39-conservateurs-dumusee-du-louvre and www.latribunedelart.com/dossier-louvre-abu-dhabi, accessed June 5, 2018.
Site of France’s Ministry of Culture, Speeches and press releases: www2.culture.gouv.fr/culture/actualites/index-aboudabi.html, accessed June 5, 2018.
Site of France’s Ministry of Culture, Speeches and press releases: www2.culture.gouv.fr/culture/actualites/index-aboudabi.html, accessed June 5, 2018.
One example among others: interview with WAM, May 24, 2009, “UAE is France’s major trade partner in the region: French President.”
Robert del Picchia and André Vallini, Avis présenté au nom de la commission des affaires étrangères et des forces armées sur le projet de loi de finances pour 2018. Tome II: Action extérieure de l’État: Diplomatie culturelle et d’influence, Paris, Senate, November 23, 2017.