Travel + Leisure

July 2007, Travel + Leisure

Bridging the Gulf

Is Doha, Qatar, the new cultural capital of the Middle East?

Along the semicircular bay in Doha, in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, dozens of glittering new skyscrapers are rising out of the blazing desert sands. Marble-lined shopping malls and luxury hotels proliferate, while opulent waterfront apartment complexes meant to invoke the Italian Riviera and other far-flung locales are emerging alongside futuristic private villas. And just offshore, on its own man-made island, an eye-popping stone-clad ziggurat floats above the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf: the new Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, the first of at least half a dozen major art museums in the works here.

Until now, this sun-scorched city was best known to Americans, if they were aware of it at all, as headquarters of the Al-Jazeera satellite television network. But significant changes are under way. With the country rich in petrodollars, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is intent on reinventing Doha as nothing short of the cultural hub of the Middle East and the center of an educational and scientific renaissance in the Arab world. Other Persian Gulf states have been touting plans to boost their cultural offerings—most recently, Abu Dhabi unveiled a quartet of designs by celebrity architects for a lavish museum district. But Qatar’s efforts in this direction are the furthest along in reality.

This push to transform the tiny emirate’s capital (population 600,000) is all the more remarkable, given other developments in its immediate vicinity. At a time when nearby Iran, just a hop across the Gulf, is pressing to acquire nuclear technology and threatening Israel, Qatar is building cultural institutions and pursuing trade ties with the Jewish state. Qatar is a conservative Islamic society, but the emirate is committed to at least a certain degree of intellectual openness and dynamism, building schools and libraries in addition to museums, and–perhaps–laying the groundwork for a renewed and cosmopolitan Middle East.

Pei’s imposing museum is surely one of the most significant projects of his lengthy career. The geometric, tiered design of pale limestone accented with charcoal granite contains many of the distinguishing elements of traditional Islamic architecture–carved stone, domes, archways, fountains, and courtyards. Yet Pei brings them together in a way that makes the fortresslike structure seem simultaneously archaic and intergalactic. I approach the museum via a grand ramp paved with pink-granite cobblestones from Pei’s native China and four allies of palm trees between which water will cascade down a chute running the length of the processional entrance. The ramp connects to a bridge, suspended 200 feet over the Gulf, that leads to the building’s soaring atrium. When the museum opens, later this year, it will house one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic art, textiles, and rugs, assembled in just eight years by the emir’s cousin, Sheikh Saud Mohammed al-Thani.

Doha still has a way to go before it might challenge the historic cultural role of cities like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad–which, in previous centuries, exerted the greatest influence among Arabs–but the museum will boost Qatar’s position as a guardian of Islam’s aesthetic heritage. The dazzling quality and breadth of its holdings became clear in spring 2006, when a prime selection, covering more than a millennium of Islamic creativity, went on display at the Louvre under the title “From Cordoba to Samarkand.” “It’s astonishing what one person with the will, the imagination, and the bankroll was able to do in such a short time,” says Daniel Walker, former head of the Islamic department at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As chairman of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Heritage and Art, Sheikh Saud became a well-known figure in the auction houses and art galleries of London and New York.

The sheikh did not confine himself to Islamic art. Spending an estimated $1.5 billion in government money, he also scooped up choice Roman antiquities, Art Deco furniture, precious gems, dinosaur remains, vintage cars, and contemporary art. I met with some of the curators he brought to Doha from Europe to oversee the collections he had assembled, and they described how the artworks now fill a vast, high-tech warehouse specially built within a military base at Al-Wajba, just outside the capital, awaiting completion of the new museums.

Then, two years ago, the juggernaut of state-bankrolled treasure hunting came to a screeching halt, when Sheikh Saud was ousted from his post for alleged misuse of official funds. Accustomed to living in palaces and traveling via private jet, he found himself thrown into prison, a development that sent shock waves through the international art world, where a network of prominent dealers had been thriving on the sheikh’s patronage.

According to his aides, Sheikh Saud has since been released to live on his country estate, pending a court judgment. Though I tried repeatedly to meet with him in Qatar, he declined all comment on the case. An aide confirmed that this past spring the sheikh had traveled to London and Maastricht, but would not confirm reports that he was again buying art for the government. Qatari officials have given no details about the charges and insist that the scandal will not disrupt the ambitious museum-building program. In the meantime, the emir has overhauled the culture ministry, putting museum projects under the jurisdiction of a newly created Qatar Museum Authority, headed by his daughter Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani and aided by foreign advisers, including former British National Gallery chairman Jacob Rothschild and a top executive of the Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

“Museums are going to be pivotal to Qatar’s future,” says Sheikha al-Mayassa, a 23-year-old Duke University graduate, as we talk in her office. “Education and culture give people a chance for a better life and a better life for their children. A lot of countries in the Arab world are very rich yet have a poor population. There’s a lack of innovation. There’s stagnation. Qatar is trying to become a role model. It has proven it can make a lot of changes in a short time.”

From the Museum of Islamic Art, I walk along the waterfront to see the construction site of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s futuristic new National Library, an inverted pyramid poised atop three mammoth pillars. For a nearby plot, Santiago Calatrava has drawn up a Museum of Photography with two immense intersecting wings that open and close, depending on the light conditions. At the opposite end of the bay, Jean Nouvel has been asked to revamp the National Museum, a heretofore modest affair housed in a former royal palace. And Scotland’s Kathryn Findlay has designed an elegant new Museum of Traditional Costumes and Textiles.

There’s more: Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed al-Thani, Sheikh Saud’s older brother and cousin of Sheikha al-Mayassa, has assembled his own collections, which are already open to the public by appointment. These collections–the Arab Museum for Modern Art and the Qatari National Heritage Library–are currently kept in provisional structures south of Doha’s city center, waiting to move to new homes.

Sheikh Hassan is abroad during my visit, but one of his advisers, Yousuf Ahmad al-Homaid, offers to meet me outside one of the city’s newest malls, the Landmark, where women in black burkas shop for foreign brands ranging from Prada to Häagen-Dazs.

Wearing a long white robe and a black-corded cotton headdress, Al-Homaid picks me up in a cream-colored SUV, and after a short drive we reach an unassuming four-story stuccoed villa. Its interior is a startling contrast to the hot and dusty streetscape outside. Here, in spacious galleries and climate-controlled storerooms, are more than 10,000 20th-century paintings, drawings, and sculptures from throughout the Arab world.

“The West thinks that this area is desert and camels,” Al-Homaid says. “We want people to discover what’s really going on.” In much the same way that Pei’s museum will present an overview of Islamic art over the centuries, the Arab Museum for Modern Art will show the largest survey of modern Arab works anywhere. Sheikh Hassan has recently handed over the collection to the Qatari government, and an architectural competition is to be held shortly to come up with designs for two permanent buildings in which to display it.

As we walk from room to room, I see works created by artists from Morocco, Palestine, and the Gulf states. Many are of high quality; others are pale imitations of 20th-century trends in the West–Surrealism, Pop Art, colorful abstraction. Surprisingly, a number of nudes are on view, several quite erotic, and I ask how these will fare when they are displayed prominently in Islamic Qatar. “We’ve become more open now, man,” Al-Homaid says in American-accented English, a vestige of his days studying art in California in the 1960’s.

Along with the 20th-century Arab works, Sheikh Hassan has also assembled what may be the world’s most important collection of Orientalist paintings–19th-century works by Westerners depicting what they found on expeditions to the Arab world. There is a certain irony in these images being reunited in Qatar, the very heart of the region they depict, loaded as they are with colonialist ideology. But if these stylized images of harems, mosques, oases, and camels are rejected by some as demeaning stereotypes, they nonetheless provide the rapidly changing region with a rare degree of documentation of bygone architectural styles and dress. The sheikh has also collected works by early photographers whose cameras chronicled the premodernized Middle East. All in all, the presentation of these works comes off as a reclamation of history, a way of “de-Orientalizing” the exotic scenes. “We’re recapturing the culture and trying to present it again,” Al-Homaid says at the end of our tour.

The next day, I visit the separate collection of books, manuscripts, and scientific instruments assembled by Sheikh Hassan. The library comprises some 120,000 volumes of antiquarian books about the Islamic world and is housed in another plush, well air-conditioned villa that brings to mind an earlier incarnation of New York’s Morgan Library.

Like the art collection, the literary one includes examples of how Arab lands were seen by outsiders — the 22-volume Descriptions de l’Egypte, for example, written by scientists who accompanied Napoleon on his abortive 1798 expedition into North Africa. There are multiple versions of the Book of One Thousand and One Nights; travelogues by T. E. Lawrence and by Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century English explorer who managed to enter the holy city of Mecca by disguising himself as a Muslim; and maps and other documents. There are translations of the Koran into dozens of languages.

The library also documents seminal Arab advances in medicine and science and how they were transmitted to the rest of the world via Latin translation. As he points out manuscripts by great physicians like Avicenna, Abulcasis, and Averro’s, who were making intellectual breakthroughs while Christian Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Mohammed Hassan Fekri, deputy director of the library, explains, “In the Western mind, Islam is terror. We want to show its true face.”

In the view of Qatari officials, science is not to be confined to a museum: “The past is the basis for the future,” the librarian says. And, in fact, I saw large banners fluttering along the capital’s boulevards advertising a Founding Conference of Expatriate Arab Scientists. Some 200 Arab scientists now living in the West came to the meeting to discuss collaborations with research institutions in Qatar. “I’ve been waiting for a long time for this to happen,” says Antoine Naaman, a Lebanese-born engineer at the University of Michigan.

He and others I meet at the conference are dazzled by the most prominent of the emir’s three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who heads the state-funded Qatar Foundation and is reforming Qatari education from kindergarten to graduate school. A glamorous figure, she broke with custom five years ago when she appeared in public without a face covering; leading the drive to revive scientific excellence, she has pledged millions of state dollars for research and has successfully recruited universities from around the world to open branches here at a new campus called Education City. Even so, some scientists say that if Qatar is serious about stanching the brain drain, money alone is not enough. Essential too, in their view, are democracy and a concomitant climate hospitable to debate. “Qatar is a sort of haven,” Nobel laureate Harold Varmus says, adding, “It’s not perfect and it remains to be seen how deep the commitment is.”

Yet change is clearly afoot. The emir has pledged to hold parliamentary elections, and though Qatar’s media remains timid and reflects the government’s views, public discourse is in some ways more free than elsewhere in the Arab world. To witness this directly, I had only to walk from the scientists’ conference at the Sheraton to the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel, where the government had organized a gathering of Islamic,  Jewish, and Christian clerics to pursue interfaith dialogue. It included six American rabbis and two from Israel, with an invited representative of the Israeli foreign ministry.

“This meeting is helping to fight ignorance,” Israeli Ambassador Ali Yahya says, expressing confidence that the emirate is moving in a positive direction. “Qatar has the ability, they have the goodwill, and they have the money.” The European and American clerics also praise the Qataris for holding the unprecedented event. “Qatar is an oasis of knowledge and development,” Rabbi Reuven Livingstone, from London, says.

Such exuberant assessments–were they realistic or wishful thinking?–rang in my mind as I made my way to Education City, the 2,500-acre campus where Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown University, and Texas A&M are already teaching a new generation. The sprawling compound, a 20-minute drive from Doha, is still under construction, but it already resembles a well-equipped state university in Texas or California.

The student body, however, could not be more different from those on most U.S. campuses. Many of the Qatari students arrive in chauffeur-driven cars or gleaming SUV’s. “Please remind your maids that they are not permitted beyond the entrance door,” reads a notice outside one building. This means students must carry their own laptops and book bags, and Qatari officials hope they will adopt a more innovative mind-set overall.

On this $12 billion campus, in a step revolutionary for the Gulf region, men and women study together, for degrees granted by U.S. institutions according to the schools’ own admissions and curricular standards. Besides palatial new buildings by Isozaki and Mexican architects Legoretta + Legoretta, Education City will soon include an 18-hole golf course, a small airport, a teaching hospital with an $8 billion endowment, and a science and technology park. “It’s an unparalleled endeavor,” says Madeline Green, the American Council on Education’s vice president for international initiatives. “There’s no other place in the world like it.”

Some 800 students are currently enrolled here, but this number is expected to grow to 4,000 within a few years, with about half coming from Qatar and most others from the rest of the Middle East. Coeducation has not been an entirely natural process. In classes at Texas A&M’s Doha branch, students say the sexes still gravitate to opposite sides of the classroom, although Georgetown economics professor Ibrahim Oweiss has facilitated gender mixing in his classes by seating students in alphabetical order.

Creating an environment that encourages free and open debate may be harder to achieve. “When it comes from the top down, it’s going to take a long time before the ideas are accepted by the students,” Oweiss says. Now that Education City is finalizing an agreement with Northwestern University to open a journalism school, the dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service satellite in Education City, James Reardon-Anderson, says he “can’t imagine there won’t eventually be conflicts” over curricular content, but adds that so far students in Doha have had no difficulty accessing books. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, as well as the writings of Rousseau and Jefferson, can be ordered from the Georgetown campus; books arrive by overnight mail.

“We don-t come here with an agenda of social and political change,” Reardon-Anderson says. “We’re doing the same thing here that we do on the main campus–asking questions and going where the questions lead.”

The emir-s 18-year-old son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, is in Georgetown-s inaugural class in Doha, and already his fellow students, in a seminar last year, have questioned the privileged status of Qatar’s ruling family. “People feel free to speak their minds,” freshman Katrina Quirolgico, a student from the Philippines, says. But classmate Noor Saleh, a Qatari freshman who pairs her veil and traditional black abaya with a Dior logo necklace and a Gucci handbag, says her country has no need to copy everything from America and can find its own way. On the other hand, when the emir’s son ran for class president–and won–she backed another candidate: “I voted for a woman.”

At Virginia Commonwealth University’s fashion-design program, I encounter more Qatari women eager for change. In a studio overlooking parched desert terrain, department chair Sandra Wilkins says she is constantly surprised at the designs devised by her Qatari students. “In Virginia, most of our students don’t create the kind of body-revealing clothing these girls do.” Of course, she says, these “strapless, very tight, ultrafeminine clothes” are intended “for women-only wedding parties.” When the school hosts its annual fashion show, she says, “We screen and edit the clothes so we don’t offend anybody.”

I wonder whether this kind of screening would spare Qatar more radical transformations. Echoing her Georgetown counterpart, VCU’s dean, Christina Lindholm, assures me, “Our intention is not to import Western design. We give students tools that enable them to arrive at solutions that make sense in this country.” Then, summing up much of what I have seen in Doha, she says that in observing developments in the Qatari capital, “you have a ringside seat on a culture that is taking quantum leaps into modern times.”