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September 28, 2020updated 20 Oct 2020 3:40pm

Cultural Desert: Inside the Arabian art boom

By John Arlidge

The opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum adds another stop to the emerging Grand Tour of Arabia

The never-ending battle to put cities on the global tourism map has been fought in many ways. In recent years, the weapon of choice has been art.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao kick-started a renaissance in cultural investment. Since Frank Gehry’s titanium sails were unveiled in the Spanish port city in 1997, Tate has helped to transform the once derelict Albert Dock in Liverpool and a dilapidated stretch of London’s South Bank.

In Hamburg the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2017 and has been followed by New York’s Shed, Shanghai’s Tank and St Petersburg’s New Holland Island.

Now it’s the Middle East’s turn.

Next spring the much-delayed Grand Egyptian Museum, a £1 billion, 7,000 sq m structure near the Pyramids of Giza, will open. The main attraction will be the first exhibition of the 5,400 objects that form the full tomb collection of King Tutankhamun, including leather and papyrus artefacts, refurbished necklaces, shoes and even a loincloth.

Some 40,000 other exhibits will be relocated from the existing Egyptian Museum in Cairo and galleries in Luxor, Minya, Sohag, Assiut, Beni Suef, Fayoum and Alexandria. The museum, designed in the shape of a chamfered triangle by Dublin-based architects Heneghan Peng, is one of several new attractions that the Egyptian government hopes to use to rev up the economy after the recent Covid-19 flight bans.

The National Museum of Qatar, photo by Danica O. Kus

Tourism in Egypt, which generated a record income of almost £10 billion in the year to June 2019, is expected to halve this year due to the pandemic. Other new attractions include renovated historic Jewish synagogues, such as the 116-year-old Sha’ar Hashamayim in Cairo. But don’t stop in Egypt.

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A two-hour flight takes you to the Gulf, where, at dawn and dusk, a breeze wisps under the vast silver parasol of the most striking new art gallery and the best new building in the Middle East, if not the world: the £3 billion Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2017.

The first overseas ‘branch’ of the world’s most storied museum is the boldest bet any modern city state has made on the appeal and value of art.

None has ever cost more – or been more controversial. From day one it has been beset by complaints about Gallic arrogance, claims that Paris is ‘franchising art’ like McDonald’s, and allegations that construction workers were forced to work long hours in poor conditions.


Up the coast, the late IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha has done more to put Qatar on the global map than any other institution. It has been followed by new museums, galleries and libraries, designed by Dutch master Rem Koolhaas and Nouvel (yes, that Pritzker prize-winning Frenchman is all over the Gulf). Nouvel’s National Museum has just opened across the Corniche from the Museum of Islamic Art.

Its delicate concrete petal exterior, which mimics the flower-shaped crystals that form in deserts, provides the perfect foil to IM Pei’s cuboid structure. The National Museum’s interior is no match for the exterior and the exhibits tell the story of Qatar, which makes it of limited interest to overseas visitors.

The reverse is true for the 45,000 sq m Rem Koolhaas Qatar National Library, a 20-minute drive across Doha. Walk in under the concrete roof that resembles two pieces of folded paper, and you are confronted by a raked stadium of books. Terraces of marble shelves, containing a million volumes, run up to the roof and the glass walls in every direction.

At the centre, carved into rock, are some of the oldest manuscripts and maps in the Arab world. Their delicate manual restoration is offset by leading-edge technology – books are automatically returned to the shelves using radio frequency tags and conveyor belts.


For the Arab World, what’s the attraction of investing so much in art – and is it worth the hefty price tag? The 21st-century urban Medici argue it can not only help to put a city on the map, it can also change perceptions of an entire country, even a culture.

In a rare interview, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who runs the Qatar Museums Authority, told me: ‘Thanks to recent history, people see Islam as a violent religion. We want to showcase, with evidence, that Islam is a peaceful religion at the heart of the most intellectually and culturally sophisticated societies throughout history.’

Her message comes through loud and clear from the artefacts in the Museum of Islamic Art – manuscripts, books and scientific instruments from across Islamic civilisation, spanning the 7th to the 20th centuries.

The highlights include a hind-shaped bronze fountainhead from Andalucía, a 10th-century Iraqi astrolabe that helped its owner to face towards Mecca, and a striking red silk carpet from Samarkand illustrated with a blend of garden and chessboard.

The gift shop at the national museum of Qatar in Doha mimics the interior of a rock crystal

There is gold jewellery decorated with emeralds and rubies, notably a 17th-century jade pendant that the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, wore to ease his grief over the loss of his wife.

Sheikha al Mayassa is not only looking to influence the West. By buying Western masterpieces and hosting exhibitions of Western art in Doha, she hopes to drag the more conservative elements of local society into the modern artistic world: ‘It is a good thing to celebrate Western art in this region.

You have to accept, appreciate and, yes, learn from different cultures. In the years to come, we’ll be learning a lot about our Picassos, our Légers and our Cézannes. There is incredible talent in this region.’ The works of a new generation are on display in Mataf, Qatar’s modern art hub.

Her vision is bold, all right. But some question the value of such splashy investments. The Smithsonian, the world’s biggest museum and research complex, recently abandoned its plan for an outpost in London, while Helsinki has decided it doesn’t want to be home to AN Other Guggenheim.

The man behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, is undeterred. He points out that the United Arab Emirates have, in the modern era, become the purest expression of the triumph of globalisation over every other economic, social, political and religious force.

Every kind of person from every country goes to the city to get a taste of modernity, even if it is only going window-shopping in Dubai Mall. ‘Why should art not be part of the story?’ he asks.

Arab governments, he adds, can scarcely spend too much to promote cultural dialogue between East and West at a time when the ancient cities of Palmyra, Hatra and Nimrud have suffered the destructive wrath of Isis.

Fine. But what about the workers? Labour rights organisations have claimed that the army of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men behind the Louvre’s ultra-modern structure, whose roof is a 7,850-piece jigsaw of perforated geometric aluminium and stainless-steel panels, eight layers thick, are victims of medieval employment practices.

Privately, Abu Dhabi officials concede there have been problems, in particular poor accommodation, restrictions on visits home and hefty, illegal fees paid to recruitment middlemen.

They insist the first two have been resolved and ‘we are working on the third’. Not hard enough, say campaigners. My advice for culture geeks with air miles?

Don’t ignore the less beautiful sides of the new museums and galleries, but don’t let them put you off embarking on the new grand tour of Arabia. Ancient history never looked so fresh.

Main image: Ramses the Great, at the new Grand Egyptian Museum 

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