Should the Emirati government be allowed to buy The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph? The government is considering this important question and has hinted that it may allow the sale if promises are made about editorial independence. Fine words, but what would this mean in practice? Assurances of editorial freedom mean nothing when they come from an autocracy like the United Arab Emirates. You simply cannot cross the Emirati royals: they call all the shots, down to the smallest detail. It’s the way it works. I should know.
My story starts in 2007 when France and the UAE agreed to create the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a great universal museum on Saadiyat Island. The Art Newspaper, which I co-founded in 1990, supported the plan. After September 11 (in which my daughter was caught up), it seemed to me that the more opportunities there were for the Middle East to know the West, the better, since it is harder to turn someone you know into your mortal enemy. I saw a shared language in art that can unite people at a time of political conflict.
My attitude contrasted with a froth of indignation in France, where some politicians and intellectuals were saying it would be like building an opera house in the jungle: the Arabs were too unsophisticated to appreciate such art; it was disgusting that France was taking money for culture (€400 million to be divided between the participating museums); that it would be impossible to show Christian art or nudes (in the event, untrue), and so on.
To my surprise, I was asked by Abu Dhabi to produce an edition of the Art Newspaper for the entire Arab world – from Morocco to the Gulf – with reporting from all the centres. There was, and still is, nothing like it. It was a marvellously grand idea, a mouthpiece for the creativity and heritage of all those countries, which are separated by their divergent histories and spoken Arabics, but united by literary Arabic, which is understood by all educated people.