A view of Saadiyat Island during the construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (image courtesy Hans Haacke and Gulf Labor Coalition)

On November 9, Swiss journalists Serge Enderlin and Jon Bjorgvinsson were filming migrant workers in Abu Dhabi’s public Mussafah market when they were arrested by local police. The journalists were in the United Arab Emirates to cover the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the working and living conditions of the country’s foreign laborers. Once arrested, the police blindfolded them, confiscated their equipment and held them for more than 50 hours, where they were interrogated for nine hours at a time and forced to sign confessions in Arabic before being deported to Switzerland.

“We took the opportunity of the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening, and its huge impact in the French speaking world, to enquire again about the fate of the migrant workers who are building these countries,” Enderlin told Hyperallergic in an email.

Migrant workers on Saadiyat Island (image courtesy Hans Haacke and Gulf Labor Coalition)

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened to the public on November 11, is the latest project to launch on Saadiyat Island, which translates from Arabic as the “Island of Happiness.” The island is being transformed into an international cultural and education hub as part of a larger government strategy to diversify the UAE’s economy through tourism and development. The Louvre museum franchise joins a campus of New York University and a forthcoming branch of the Guggenheim, all of which are bankrolled by the UAE government, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which will receive 400 million euros (~$467 million) over a period of 30 years — the New York Times reports that eventually the UAE will pay 974 million euros, or ~$1.15 billion, for French expertise, guidance, and loans.

The Louvre boasts that its Abu Dhabi museum is “rooted in universal human values” and designed to “see humanity in a new light.” Meanwhile, its UAE government partners claim its role in the joint venture is to help “build bridges between cultures based on tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.”

These statements are nothing more than empty PR rhetoric. The UAE is hardly a place that promotes tolerance and “universal human values.”

First, the men responsible for building the Louvre Abu Dhabi were routinely subjected to situations akin to forced labor. Human Rights Watch interviewed migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, including those sub-contracted to the Louvre construction site, who paid illegal and high recruitment fees for their jobs, and had their passports confiscated and their wages withheld for periods of five months at a time. Other workers Human Rights Watch interviewed were summarily deported back home to Bangladesh for striking. The advocacy group Gulf Labor Coalition, of which I am a member, found similar issues after they visited Saadiyat Island throughout construction of the Louvre, as did The Guardian and The New York Times in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

A billboard on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, advertises several of the museum projects as The World’s Finest Masterpieces. (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

I also researched the working conditions for the migrant laborers who built NYU’s campus on Saadiyat Island while studying abroad at NYU Abu Dhabi in college in 2013. At a labor camp housing NYU’s workers, a pharmacist and construction laborers told me wages peaked at $137 a month and that employers cut salaries if workers sought medical care more than twice a month. As a result of my criticism, the UAE authorities hacked my email and placed me on a blacklist for “security-related reasons.” Others researching workers’ rights in the country, including NYU professor Andrew Ross and members of Gulf Labor Coalition, are also banned, as are journalists, including one who was deported after refusing bribes to become a government spy.

Jean Nouvel, the starchitect who designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, claimed that the conditions for workers building the museum exceeded those in other countries after he visited labor camps housing Louvre workers. “We checked and it was fine. We saw no problem,” Nouvel told The Guardian in September, callously dismissing the issue as an “old question.”

“Like the other Gulf states the UAE has a deeply abusive labour system with the central pillar being its kafala system, which binds workers to their employers,” said Nicholas McGeehan, former senior Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the organization’s latest report on Saadiyat. “It appears from all accounts that Nouvel has designed a remarkable building but it’s ironic that a man with such an eye for beauty can be so blind to the ugliness of this project.”

The treatment of domestic dissidents is equally as egregious as the abuse of migrant workers.  The UAE regularly jails government critics, including the prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who was arrested from his home in an overnight raid in March and charged with using social media “to publish false information and rumors as well as promoting (a) sectarian and hate-incited agenda.” Emirati professor Nasser bin Gaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions” for comments he made on Twitter. Mansoor and Gaith are just two of many individuals the UAE government has targeted in what Human Rights Watch calls a “systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology.”

This backdrop of sweeping intolerance puts Nouvel and the museum’s baseless claims to rest. Like NYU and the Guggenheim, the Louvre has bought into the UAE government’s branding scheme, where Gulf capital and international prestige are spent at the cost of the very “universal human values” that these institutions purportedly espouse.

Kristina Bogos is researcher and writer focusing on human rights and migration in the Middle East, and a member of Gulf Labor Coalition.