Abu Dhabi is a city created by decree and it is busy. The cobalt windows of its banks speak of adamant and proud commerce. I stepped into the warm winter evening and the heights, and slink of the lit towers commanded my eye upwards, so that my feet swam in a kind of reverse vertigo. As editor of The London Magazine I had come to the Emirates at the invitation of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), to witness the opening ceremony of the ‘Million Poets’ festival. I was intrigued to find out why such a celebrated icon of English literary life had attracted the attention of this city, where on first impression, the cult is of the new reaching towards blue certainties.

If all landscapes, even those conjured into steel, glass and neon, are essentially landscapes of the mind then Abu Dhabi’s skyline, risen from the sands in so short a time, is a wonder of conjured thought. However, to me the most striking aspect of Abu Dhabi’s life lies in its celebration of the interior topography of the arts and its discourse with public utterance.

I had very little foreknowledge and less idea of what to expect of the ‘Million Poets’ evening. I was shown into a theatre, furnished with a plush stage set, featuring a sinuous ramp and a large gold throne. In front of the stage sat a panel of judges. All travellers take with them skeins of expectance and reference that they unravel as they make their journeys. As I took my seat my immediate thoughts were of the X Factor. Coming from a grey English December, I had constantly to remind myself that all this luxury and spectacle was focussed on poetry. In England poetry as practice has become a minority pastime. Performances are conducted in discreet functions and even the poet laureate only gets a chance to read occasionally on the radio. Yet Abu Dhabi has placed a poetry competition as a prime-time televised event.

Each of the contestants appeared at the top of the ramp and processed to the throne where they sat and told their poem. Given such surroundings, together with such gestures and oration, the word declaimed does not seem at all melodramatic. I sat next to a Syrian reporter who told me that the poems all belonged to a classical Bedouin form called Nabati. For the space of three or four minutes each poet wore his or her passions like vestments and drew taut or graceful pictures with their hands. The last time I had been in the presence of such a sense of living the word was when I stood among traditional sean nos singers in Galway.

Moreover, as the judges began to make their pronouncements I found it salutary to think that this programme was being broadcast right across the Arab world and watched

by millions with the same fervent interest as Britain’s public fixates on pop music talent shows. Such glamour, such enthusiasm, such confidence.

This essential confidence in the arts and Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in creative life were central to my meeting with the director of arts and culture Abdullah Al Ameri. He explained that, whereas Dubai sees itself as primarily a commercial hub, Abu Dhabi has an avowed mission to become the fulcrum of arts and culture in the region and indeed also in a global sense. In courtly fashion the director spoke through his layered sense of history, telling me of the once and current centres of Arab thought: Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus and the sad plight of Baghdad; each with its past and pedigree. Each of them famed for its art, its cinema, its literature. He told me that the arts have always been as important in Arabic life as commerce. And now that Abu Dhabi is emerging as a prosperous society it then follows that the city is seeking to enunciate a 21st century profile in which its resources will encourage the flourishing of creative expression.

As he spoke an idea came to me of Britain in its Victorian heyday, with its bold public buildings, its philanthropic patrons. I raised this idea of patronage with Abdullah Al Ameri and he explained that one of the peculiarities of Emirati Arabic culture is that, although it has elements of a modern, even postmodern state, it is still a tribal society where the people live according to the principles of Islam, traditional Arabic values and the decisions of their rulers. The support of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan has been a major factor in promoting the arts. The sweep of Abu Dhabi’s ambitions is wide. Given the eminence of the poetic in Arab consciousness, perhaps the Nabati poetry competition is not after all unexpected within a Gulf state context. However, other ADACH projects propel them into a global arena. They are publishing Jacques Chirac’s memoirs. They have hosted a WOMAD festival and have even organised a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

When I left Mr. Al Ameri I wondered what Shakespeare, the great literary figure of the northern renaissance, would have made of his work being performed in far off ‘Araby.’ But then it came to me that Shakespeare only throve as a dramatist because of patronage. Indeed, this patronage was of chief significance to the success of the renaissance. As my driver swept us through the wide boulevards my thoughts moved further south and I drew a skein of similarity between Florence in 1415 and present day Abu Dhabi. The great Italian city of rebirth had its gilded counting houses, its unabashed commerce as well as its celebration of the arts.

Moving even further south in my thoughts, this time I was minded that the renaissance did not begin as a sudden spark peculiar to a few Italian city states. Cordoba, Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad all provided the artistic, scientific and commercial inspirations that led to the rebirth of European society. Indeed, the concept of the renaissance man has its roots in Arabic ideas of a noble and just life, where a man should be adept at both the arts and the sciences.

I left Abu Dhabi impressed by the declared intentions and vital energies which accompany the city’s aspiration to mobilise and attract culture in a global sense. It seems to me that Abu Dhabi, the city created by decree and where the arts are favoured by patronage, offers a surprisingly 21st century version of renaissance and one that could elevate the city into an image of classical Baghdad at the zenith of its eminence.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.