Of poetry and princes

In the UAE poetry is the pinnacle of manly achievement

It's no longer compulsory for western poets to starve in garrets, but they are expected to survive on meagre advances and the occasional public handout. In the United Arab Emirates, this Romantic image of poetic poverty holds little sway.

In the UAE, poetry - along with falconry and horsemanship - is the pinnacle of manly achievement. Even the hard-headed ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has a website featuring his verses and declaring that "poetry has allowed Sheikh Mohammed to express the creative, sensitive side of his nature that he has little chance to display in the political arena".

As a hobby of princes, it is an accordingly lucrative business. The Gulf version of Pop Idol is Millions Poet: a television spectacular in which Arab poets battle it out for a million dirhams - about £140,000. The night I visited the studio, the audience sat in neatly segregated sweeps: men in white dishdashas and ghutras to the left, women in black abayas and face veils to the right, the Sandhurst-educated crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, at the front. Between ad breaks for 4x4s and luxury flats, contestants composed elaborate verses in his honour - the favourite being a Qatari poet who compared competitors to racing camels guided by the prince's wisdom and foresight.

It's hard to imagine Charles and Camilla popping down for a spot of electronic voting on The X-Factor, but the lavish prizes for Millions Poet are all state-funded. The competition is run by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which, its mission statement declares, will "preserve the values and traditions of the United Arab Emirates and enhance the economical progress". The twin aims mirror Millions Poet's odd blend of conservatism and big-money glamour.

Backed by fabulous oil wealth (Abu Dhabi holds 10 per cent of the world's known reserves), the Emirati government is determined to shore up its Bedouin heritage against an 80 per cent immigrant population, while marketing the city as a world capital for culture.

"Unlike the rest of the region, we don't have any political conflicts or unrest," explains Jumaa al-Qubaisi of ADACH. "And we lead the region in cultural and religious tolerance." Emiratis are bemused by the rest of the Arab world - Saudi Arabia for its insularity and religious severity, and the Mediterranean Arab countries for their chaoticism and poverty.

Abu Dhabi's canny laissez-faire is irresistible to investors. The result is Saadiyat, a $28bn "cultural island" that will, in an improbable five years' time, sport a Frank Gehry Guggenheim, a branch of the Louvre filled with works lent (or rather hired) out by French state museums, a performing-arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid and a "Ferrari World" theme park. "I believe in competition, whether it's economic, cultural or political," says Qubaisi. He is also director of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which aims to revitalise the censorship-strangled Arab publishing industry. "If we encourage freedom of speech and protect writers and publishers, other countries will follow us."

"We need to talk to one another, and we are going to make this happen," adds the poetry-loving prince, before turning away to accept another rhyming tribute.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery