(ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates) — The Mideast outpost of France's iconic Louvre Museum will open in Abu Dhabi on Nov. 11, officials announced Wednesday, ending a decade-long wait for a gallery whose construction was beset by economic turmoil and criticism over laborers' working conditions.
The announcement breaths new live into Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island, a salty flood plain of the Persian Gulf originally envisioned as a cultural touchstone for an Emirati capital flush with oil money in the mid-2000s.
The domed ceiling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, offers eight layers of Arab-style geometric shapes, allowing beams of star-like light to pour in.
The story of the Louvre's construction tracks with the recent history of the United Arab Emirates, a seven-sheikhdom federation whose commercial capital of Dubai was in the grips of feverish development in 2007, when officials announced the Louvre deal. As Dubai built the world's tallest building, Abu Dhabi sought a culture edge in a battle of siblings, buying its way into both pop-culture movies and high-culture art.
Abu Dhabi's oil-rich rulers agreed to pay France $525 million for the use of the "Louvre" name alone, plus another $750 million to hire French managers to oversee 300 loaned works of art. A center at Paris' Louvre now bears the name of the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan, which was also part of the deal.
Public relations officials at Wednesday's announcement nevertheless insisted The Associated Press not refer to the museum as a "branch" of the Louvre, without providing an explanation. They also refused to allow the AP to interview government officials.
As construction began, Dubai's overheated property market collapsed, forcing Abu Dhabi to offer a $10 billion bailout. A global crash in oil prices from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to around $30 in early 2016 further strained the UAE and slowed Abu Dhabi's plans.
The museum's use of migrant labor in its construction sparked criticism. Like nearly every construction project in the UAE, the Louvre Abu Dhabi relies on low-paid laborers from South Asia who brave humid summertime temperatures of around 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Many work for years to pay off loans to travel to the UAE. Some find their wages lower than promised or entirely withheld for months.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that hundreds of workers on Saadiyat island were deported or lost their work visas for launching strikes about their conditions. Labor strikes are illegal in the UAE. The report did not specify whether the workers were employed on the Louvre site or other construction sites on the island.
Saadiyat Island includes a satellite campus of New York University as well as residential, leisure and commercial developments, though the majority of the island remains an off-limits construction site.
During construction of the Louvre, one worker was killed in an accident in 2015 while another died of "natural causes" in 2016, according to Abu Dhabi authorities.
During the announcement Wednesday, one Emirati official acknowledged the laborers' help.
"Every single worker who's worked on this job has made this happen," said Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. "They are really the heroes who have come up with this fantastic building and you want to spend every minute when we are inside the Louvre thinking about the hardship and the difficulties it took everybody to get to what we see today."
In the face of criticism, the UAE has reformed its labor laws to allow migrants in theory to bring complaints to the government and to get out of contracts and change jobs while keeping their passports.
However, there still are systemic problems affecting migrant workers at Saadiyat and elsewhere in the country, said Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights activist long focused on migrant workers in the Gulf.
"I think the institutions have consistently accepted at face value whatever the UAE authorities have told them," said McGeehan, who was blacklisted from entering the UAE over his work in 2014. "They have been dragged kicking and screaming and protesting at every step of the way when we've tried to get them to do what is necessary."