Can a string of grand-scale, starchitect-designed museums help the Gulf states shed their reputation as a cultural desert, asks John Arlidge
FOR DECADES, PETRO-DOLLAR gazillionaires have built not-so-great monuments to their great wealth. The richest investors across Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spent billions on razzle-dazzle palaces, revolving skyscrapers and seven-star underwater hotels. Well, move over Sheikh al-Bling. Take a look at the building above. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is the understated icon of modern Arabia and the national symbol of Qatar, the richest nation per capita on earth.
As you arrive by dhow across Doha’s Corniche, the vast, tiered limestone cubes of I M Pei’s 400,000sq ft structure give the building colossal, instant impact. But, thanks to the soft detailing, notably the Islamic geometric patterning and the traditional Arabic arched windows, the structure is not severe. Inside, the huge atrium is illuminated by a 150ft-high curtain wall that looks out over the Arabian Sea.
The MIA, as it is known locally, has only been open for three years but it is already doing for Doha what the Guggenheim did for Bilbão: putting it on the map. But the project is about much more than Qatar, modern architecture and Islamic Art. It marks the first shot of a cultural revolution that could transform the arts across the Gulf and beyond.
Reformist sheikhs have spent the past decade using their wealth to snap up financial institutions and retail and leisure brands in an effort to transform the city states they rule from one-camel towns into global business and tourism hubs. Now they want to use their pennies from heaven to acquire something that is impossible to price and may be impossible to buy at all: culture.
Like latter-day Renaissance aristocrats, the rulers of Qatar and Abu Dhabi are sinking £100 billion into grandiose galleries and museums. As well as the new Museum of Islamic Art, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has just opened the Arab Museum of Modern Art and is building four other museums. For its part, Abu Dhabi is betting £20 billion that it can transform barren Saadiyat (‘Happiness’) Island, just off downtown Abu Dhabi, into a 21st-century version of the Pyramids of Egypt.
Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is Qatar’s national symbol
The state’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has persuaded architect Frank Gehry to design the latest — and, at 450,000sq ft, the biggest — branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum (top). Jean Nouvel is behind the first outpost of the Louvre to be built outside Paris (bottom). The London-based Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid has penned a performing arts centre. Norman Foster has designed the new national museum. And Japan’s Tadao Ando is behind a Maritime Museum. The new institutions will open from 2016.
The sheikhs believe that by mixing their black gold with the genii of Western architectural and artistic expertise, they can create an oasis where a new generation of art-lovers and artists will grow. But will the new ‘insta-museums’ attract local and international visitors or simply turn out to be white elephants? After all, many travellers will be reluctant to fly on airlines whose names they cannot pronounce, to cities they cannot find on a map, to look at art, much of which they will not understand. What’s more, with the conflict between the West and the Islamic world worsening in many areas, it’s hardly a good time to be marketing ‘Brand Islam’.
The sheikhs know it’s a tough sell. That’s why they’re spending so much money on hiring Western ‘starchitects’ to create the gallery buildings. They believe the avant-garde structures themselves will attract visitors, regardless of what’s inside. It’s also why they are partnering with the most-recognised Western gallery ‘brands’ — the Guggenheim and the Louvre. ‘We want to break down suspicion,’ says Mubarak Hamad al-Muhairi, the head of Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority.
BUT LURING ESTABLISHED Western brands with oil money — Abu Dhabi has paid the Louvre £300 million alone for the right to the French museum’s name — has prompted a chorus of criticism. Some accuse the sheikhs of ‘bribing’ Western museums to give their seal of approval to what is merely the artistic version of the leisure theme parks being built all over the Gulf. Catherine Goguel, emeritus director of research at the Louvre, dismisses the Louvre/Abu Dhabi deal ‘merely a matter of petro-dollars’.
Others argue that there is something rotten about a cultural complex that will bring the fruits of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the intellectual adventures of modernity into a land where materialism and exploitation are rampant, freedom of expression is limited and democracy non-existent. Some artists have threatened to boycott the galleries in protest at what they say is poor treatment of the workers building them. Design critics complain of ‘architectural megalomania’. Gehry himself — despite taking the dirham — has condemned the decision to build so many signature buildings so close to each other on Saadiyat Island as ‘a group grope… a cabinet of horrors’.
Al-Muhairi insists the treatment of workers in Abu Dhabi is exemplary and argues the Abu Dhabi developments are partnerships of equals. The architects get to build the kind of structures that would be hard to execute anywhere other than a country where there is vast open space and few planning restrictions.
The Louvre and the Guggenheim will display as much Islamic art as Western art. ‘This is not a cut and paste,’ he says. ‘We are creating the Louvre Arabia, the Guggenheim Arabia — not the Louvre or the Guggenheim in Arabia. There will be works from the Louvre and the Guggenheim but there will be curators and works of art from here, from Tehran, from Egypt, from Syria, from Morocco. We’re bringing the West to the Middle East but also showcasing the Middle East to the West.’
THAT, IT TURNS out, is the point. The sheikhs want to change Western perceptions of Islam and Muslims’ perceptions of the West. Sheikha al-Mayassa, the daughter of the Emir of Qatar who chairs the Qatar Museums Authority, acknowledges that, thanks to recent history, ‘people see Islam as a violent religion. People in the West come with bin Laden in their heads. We want to go back in time and showcase, with evidence, that Islam is a peaceful religion at the heart of the most intellectually and culturally sophisticated societies throughout history.’
The message comes through loud and clear in the MIA’s exhibits, notably the collection of complex scientific instruments, such as the 10th-century astrolabes that ancient Islamic scholars used to map the stars and determine prayer times. New pieces, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, will soon bolster the message.
By hosting exhibitions of Western art, the sheikhs also hope the new museums will drag the more conservative elements of local society up by the scruff of their dishdashas and into the modern artistic world. Both al-Mayassa and al-Muhairi insist there will be no restrictions on works displayed. Nudes are already featured in paintings and sculpture — a remarkable attempt to push the boundaries of public taste in a region where fears of offending devout Muslims prompt some newspapers to airbrush women out of photographs, fully clothed or not. ‘We don’t have a problem with anything,’ al-Mayassa says.
The idea that the Gulf could be the next big thing in culture may sound fanciful, but it is the richest nations that tend to call the tune in the art world, setting global tastes, anointing the next stars and establishing market trends. The Gulf states have all the money in the world and the new Pharaohs are daring to dream big.
Museum of Islamic Art image courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha; other images courtesy TDIC