Star Wars coming to Abu Dhabi is a turning point for the UAE's film industry
A long time ago, in a desert far, far away from Abu Dhabi, the Star Wars films were first made, but it is in the plains of the Emirate that the contours of Tatooine are now taking shape. Star Wars: Episode VII has started shooting in the Gulf.
Twofour54, the Abu Dhabi media hub, has confirmed that the Emirate had been chosen as the new location for Luke Skywalker's homeland. A crew of 600 has descended, and on a site closely guarded by security services, sets such as a prefab "centuries-old" market are rising.
It's not the first time Hollywood has come to the United Arab Emirates. But film producers tend to descend on Dubai, the showier Emirate whose Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, formed the backdrop for Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. That film "undoubtedly drew the world's attention to Dubai, leading to an increase in film productions travelling to shoot in Dubai from China, India and Europe", says Jamal al-Sharif, head of the Dubai Film and TV Commission. That film alone is estimated to have contributed £29m to Dubai's coffers.
Now Abu Dhabi hopes the Star Wars franchise will have a similar impact. The country boasts a stable political climate. Tunisia, the site of previous Star Wars sagas, still benefits from tourists visiting the now-crumbling structures of Tatooine but has seen its tourism revenue decline drastically in the wake of political unrest.
Noura al-Kaabi, head of twofour54, hails Star Wars coming to Abu Dhabi as a turning point for the capital of the UAE's film industry. "This shows that we are emerging as the region's leading media and entertainment hub," Ms al-Kaabi says.
The announcement proves that the aggressive marketing techniques of the Abu Dhabi government are paying off. In addition to promising "year-round sunshine and blue skies", the Emirate introduced a 30 per cent cash rebate on production spend last September, as well as offering no sales tax. Unlike its neighbour Dubai, it also doesn't charge for obtaining filming permits.
Although paying lip service to cooperation, and jointly manning a pavilion at the recent Cannes Film Festival, it seems the two Emirates are competing in a growing tug of war for the affections of Hollywood and Bollywood.
Dubai has long been favoured by Indian cinema. But here, again, Abu Dhabi is gaining ground. Abu Dhabi's seaside corniche was closed off for a car chase earlier this month as part of the filming of its first Bollywood feature, Bang Bang.
Films are but the latest field the UAE is tackling in its search for cultural dominance. The Gulf country has been making a push onto the global art scene, with auction houses such as Christie's setting up in Dubai, and Dubai's Art Fair becoming a top event on the art calendar. Abu Dhabi has also launched its own Art Fair, though it is yet to properly compete with the more established Dubai version.
"The two cities have their own character," says Neil van der Linden, creator of the Gulf Art Guide. "Abu Dhabi is organised in a top-down manner, while in Dubai culture is created more organically from the bottom up," says Mr van der Linden. Dubai has a host of private galleries, while in Abu Dhabi that scene has failed to take off.
Star architects from around the world are clamouring to build in the cities. The Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has prestigious projects being built in both. She revealed plans in February for her first Dubai project, the Opus Dubai Hotel.
Ms Hadad is also building the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre, which will be housed on Saadiyat Island. Saadiyat will also have the largest Guggenheim in the world, built by Frank Gehry, and the Richard Rogers-designed Zayed National Museum. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, will open its doors in 2015 and is currently presenting its collection at the Louvre in Paris.
Yet along with prestigious names comes scrutiny. Western institutions such as the Guggenheim have been facing increasing criticism over the region's low living standards for overseas construction workers. The Gulf Labor group, a boycott campaign by artists, keeps badgering the Guggenheim Foundation about its concerns for workers' rights. Earlier this week, New York University had to issue a grovelling apology to workers on its Abu Dhabi campus after The New York Times found they were sleeping 12 to a room and were underpaid.
Although Dubai is still clearly in the lead, in the long term far richer Abu Dhabi might emerge victorious. "Abu Dhabi is looking at Dubai knowing that they have a longer breath because their money will stretch a lot further," says Mr van der Linden.
By Fernande Van Tets