Qatar's culture drive is not just for culture's sake

Doha is highlighting culture as part of its drive to diversify its economy, with museums and other institutions being built to promote the country's heritage

A general view shows the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 1, 2008. Qatar's Islamic museum, designed by the famous American architect I.M. Pei, opened to public on Monday as this tiny, oil-rich nation challenges its Gulf rivals  Dubai and Abu Dhabi  in the quest for international attention and outside investment.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) *** Local Caption ***  HAS108_Travel_Trip_Qatar_Islamic_Museum.jpg

DOHA // Call it the fourth power. Along with diplomacy, media and sport, Qatar is promoting culture as another facet of its budding regional and international reach, and as part of a long-term plan to diversify its economy.

In recent years the country has organised negotiations on Darfur and Lebanon, built Al Jazeera into a leading global news source and, after hosting the Asian Games in 2006, is now bidding to host the 2022 World Cup. The spearhead for Doha's cultural ambitions is the Qatar Museum Authority. The authority, the brainchild of Sheikha Mayassa, the US-educated, 26-year-old daughter of the Qatari emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was created in 2005 to oversee the museums of Qatar, promote that country's national heritage and transform Doha into a regional arts hub.

Roger Mandle, the authority's executive director since July 2008, said in a recent interview: "They see culture as a leading aspect of their vision for the growth and development of this country." The Museum of Islamic Art, a US$1.6 billion (Dh5.87bn) IM Pei-designed cubist masterpiece set on its own island across from the skyscrapers of Doha's West Bay, is the QMA's lead project. The museum's 700-object collection is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and includes an amulet of the 17th-century Mughal ruler Shah Jahan and a ninth-century white earthenware bowl from Iraq.

In the 18 months since it opened, the museum has had more than half a million visitors, half of them Qataris. "We've established a very high level of quality and expectations," Mr Mandle said. "Out of that is a challenge, in that every building we build has to be that good or better." Up next is the Qatar National Museum, set to begin construction this year. Designed by another Pritzker-winning architect, Jean Nouvel, the building reflects a strong sense of place: its shape mimics that of the so-called desert rose, small, naturally occurring formations of gypsum found in arid deserts.

When the museum opens in 2013, interactive displays will detail Qatar's history, geology and cultural life, from Bedouin times to seafaring and pearl diving and from contemporary Qatar to the near future. At 40,000 sq metres, it will be larger than the Museum of Islamic Art. The museum authority is looking to build a dozen museums and expand its cultural education efforts. There has been talk of photography and contemporary art museums, but plans have yet to be finalised.

With other museums, Mr Mandle hopes to move away from international names and nurture young local talent. "They're not limiting their search to exclude well-known architects," Mr Mandle said. "But surely one of our responsibilities is to promote artists, architects and designers from this region." The efforts complement those of Abu Dhabi, which is building a cultural capital on Saadiyat Island, with four museums including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim, designed by Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. Saadiyat will also be home to a performing arts centre, designed by Zaha Hadid.

Phillipe de Montebello, the former director of New York's Museum of Modern Art who is now a special adviser to New York University Abu Dhabi, has been in talks with Mr Mandle, an old friend, about contributing to the QMA in some capacity. Qatar has hosted two conferences for Gulf arts and cultural leaders. The most recent, held last month, was attended by cultural representatives from all GCC countries but Oman. "We've taken the initiative to invite our colleagues to discuss how we can work together, not how we're competing but how we can co-operate," Mr Mandle said.

The group hopes to create a joint cultural calendar so events complement rather than collide and to develop joint training and education programmes. Antonia Carver, who has been working in the UAE art world for nearly a decade and will take over Art Dubai, the city's annual art fair next month, said: "Anywhere in the world, you have the best result if people collaborate rather than compete." She envisions western tourists visiting museums in both Doha and Abu Dhabi on a single trip.

"Building a complex and beautiful building is nothing compared to connecting to the local population and building a vibrant arts community. That's infinitely more challenging."