In the spring of 2016 I was travelling in the Persian Gulf. In Abu Dhabi I decided, with some apprehension, to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Opened in 2007, this mosque is advertised as one of the world's biggest, with the largest central chandelier, the largest carpet, etc. I wondered if I might be confronted with a Disney theme park, a vulgar display of wealth by nouveau riche oil sheikhs. After all, oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) only a couple of generations ago. Prior to the discovery the locals eked out a precarious subsistence desert existence, while today many Emiratis are counted among the top 1 per cent on the globe.
After I made my way across a vast parking lot under the brutal midday desert sun (record highs were being recorded across the Gulf) and past the checkpoint where women visitors were being scrutinized for appropriate head coverings and lengths of sleeves, I caught my first glimpse of glittering white domes and minarets. From a distance a bit like a Hollywood set for an Arabian Nights epic, but rather beautiful against the brilliant blue sky.
On closer approach, my apprehensions quickly gave way to something very different: stunned admiration for an astonishing architectural and aesthetic achievement. The Grand Mosque draws on the legacy of the extraordinary Islamic artistic tradition but brings it into the 21st century with the latest building materials and techniques incorporated seamlessly into a remarkable conceptual unity--a place of worship that, like the great cathedrals of Europe, puts secular artistic tools into the service of a striving toward the eternal. Every detail conforms to a standard of good taste, without a trace of vulgar display. No more than a decade old, the Grand Mosque already reasonably stands comparison with the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon.
Yet appreciation quickly gives way to doubts, not about the mosque itself, but about the context of its construction. The UAE is in many ways an unsettling place. As little as 12 per cent of the population consists of actual Emiratis, who lead lives of extravagant leisure while most of the work is done by the more than 80 per cent who come from abroad and have no citizenship rights or even security of residence. Many of these are manual workers and tradespeople, but many others are highly paid business and professional types working in the burgeoning financial sector in the UAE's spectacular high-rise...