Abu Dhabi: An Oil-financed Cultural Center?

In 2007, Forbes named Abu Dhabi the wealthiest city in the world, and like nouveaux riches everywhere, it has gone on a bit of a spending spree. Local branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are under construction. They'll join the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy and the Arab Heritage Village, with exhibits on life in the Gulf centuries before the mall with the ski slope moved into the neighborhood. And then there's Zaha Hadid's swooping design for the five-theater Performing Arts Center, which will make the Sydney Opera House look like a grade-school auditorium. Aside from the sand that still occasionally blows across the modern cityscape, the Abu Dhabi of a few decades ago wouldn't recognize itself today. But the most impressive display of cultural pride—not to mention deep pockets—sits on the floor of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It is the world's largest prayer rug—60,546 square feet of vibrant wool, handmade in Iran. It is so dazzling, you almost don't notice the gold-leaf domes above. Almost.

Oil wealth has long financed outrageous opulence in the Gulf. Compared with nearby Dubai—home to the world's tallest building, the world's only seven-star hotel, and a group of man-made islands arranged to look like a miniature map of the world—Abu Dhabi practically looks conservative. What's different about the building boom in this tiny emirate is that behind it lies a common-sense master plan. The "2030 Plan" is, in fact, designed to insure against the day no OPEC nation wants to think about—the day the wells dry up. The state's oil reserves, which make up 5 to 10 percent of the world's supply, could run out in as little as 50 years. "Just because Abu Dhabi has this fantastic resource of oil, no matter how long it has to run, they have to mold something meaningful here," says Tony Orsten, CEO of a media company called Twofour54. "So it's not just about buildings, or people living here temporarily for work, it's about building an infrastructure for life."

And what could be as in demand as oil? Videogames and reality TV, and Abu Dhabi plans to corner the regional market on those as well. Twofour54 (named after the emirate's geographical coordinates) is a "content-creation community" that encompasses a giant high-definition film studio, a state-of-the-art television and radio broadcasting center, a media-training academy, and a division to fund new projects. The goal is to produce high-quality indigenous films, TV shows, news, and even gaming specifically for the Arab world (move over, Mario Kart, here comes Hameed Humvee). It doesn't sound like much, but watch TV for an hour in any Arab state, and you'll be longing for the sophistication of Nickelodeon.

Yet here, too, Abu Dhabi is daring to be different. It may have a spiffy Formula One racetrack and the Middle East International Film Festival with the likes of Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts flown in to walk the red carpet. ("We love you, J. Lo!" a few excited fans in hijabs screamed—at Eva Mendes.) But it's also intent on retaining a strong Arab identity. Many of the new structures incorporate Islamic design elements (arabesque arches, colorful tile work) in their modern, sleek frames, and the year-round arts, music, and film festivals that now jam up traffic in the city feature more regional talent than imported. And sitting above them all, on a hill overlooking the city, is the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the ultimate reminder of Abu Dhabi's commitment to hold on to its heritage while racing into the future. It may be only the third-largest mosque in the world, but there's plenty of room on that gigantic prayer rug.