Reforming the nation

by Loay Mudhoon

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Qatar is a small but influential Arabian Gulf state. For several years now, the nation has been trying to establish itself as a player on the international arts scene, with the help of multi-billion dollar revenues from its trade in oil and gas. Under the leadership of the country’s young ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar is working on an ambitious plan for development: By 2030 this small country aims to have switched from being an economy dependent on fossil fuels to one based on knowledge. And the arts and culture are at the crux of this plan. The scheme – called the Qatar National Vision 2030 – stresses the importance of so-called soft power; that is, the question of how support for the media, the arts and culture can positively impact on Qatar’s international image.

For many observers, Qatar’s policies can sometimes be confusing, not least as they often appear contradictory. This is because the Qatari leadership has been trying for a long time to maintain good relationships with all the important regional and international actors around it, and to ensure the survival of the small country, trapped between powerful neighbours like Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

That is why Qatari foreign policy contains both pro-Western and pro-Islamic elements. The state manages to accommodate a major US military presence but at the same time, maintains good contacts with almost all the other countries in the Middle East.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states imposed an air, sea and land blockade on Qatar in June 2017. It was Qatar’s positive attitude toward Riad’s arch enemies in Iran, and towards various populist Arab revolutions, that led Saudi Arabia to break off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Since then Qatar has tried to strengthen its relationships with other countries like Turkey.

Besides organising major sporting events, the pan-Arab, pan-Islamic TV channel, Al Jazeera, counts as a major instrument of Qatar’s foreign policy. And in recent years Qatar has also been focused on making major investments in the arts and in cultural projects. 

One of the prime movers behind Doha’s art boom is the sister of the Qatari ruler, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani; she is known as one of the world’s biggest buyers of contemporary art. Experts suggest that the princess, who heads the Qatar Museum Authority, invests almost a billion dollars every year in new museums, artworks and cultural events. Her goal is to turn Qatar’s capital, Doha, into a culture-infused metropolis.

One of the major milestones on the road towards this ambition was the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha in 2008. The museum’s spectacular architecture is the work of the legendary Ieoh Ming Pei and pays homage to the shapes in traditional Islamic building. Just as spectacular are the museum’s contents, in this first major museum for Islamic art in the whole region. The museum shows significant ceramics, textiles, manuscripts, documents and other historic artefacts over its 45,000 square meters.

“The Museum of Islamic Art has one of the world’s best collections of Islamic art,” confirms the German director of the facility, Julia Gonnella. Today the museum is one of Doha’s main attractions. But at the same time it is also a symbol of Qatar’s return to its roots and a reaffirmation of Qataris’ place in the world. Here, the Qatari people can present the history of the Muslim peoples and culture, their way.

Another spot where this happens is the Katara Cultural Village, a project initiated by Sheikh Hamad, the father of the current emir. The set of buildings and courtyards in Doha are “an exceptional project of hope for human interaction through art and cultural exchange.  It is a place where people come together to experience the cultures of the world and Qatar,” the project’s website explains.

Meanwhile the mother of Qatar’s emir, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Misned, is working on Qatar’s educational transformation. One project she has seen through to completion is Education City, a university and research campus on the edge of Doha. Another project close to the royal’s heart is the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The Qatari leader has visited the world’s top schools, universities and research institutes to convince the best and brightest to come to Qatar.

Over the past few years, there’s been more competition for the Qataris, as setting up one’s own architecturally-designed museum seems to have become some sort of contest in prestige and power between the new, younger rulers of the Gulf states. For instance, in 2017 an annex of Paris’ famous Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi. It is meant to be a symbol of cultural exchange and tolerance, according to the royal family that rules there, the Al Nahyans.

By the end of 2018, there should be another new museum open in Doha, the new National Museum of Qatar designed by French architect Jean Nouvel; the form of the building will mimic that of a desert rose.  

Despite all of these changes, apparently intended to encourage more modern, open and forward thinking societies in Qatar and the other Arab emirates, it is hard to know whether they will alter a great deal about those countries’ politics, places where there are only minimal constitutional rights and democratic participation. All too often this great show of tolerance and openness to dialogue ends up proving to be a mirage: For example, when Abu Dhabi’s Louvre opened at the end of 2017, the locals appeared to simply forget all about Qatar. One of the maps in the new art museum didn’t even include Qatar on it. An expanse of water sat where that country is normally located – yet another malicious attempt at ignoring the smaller nation altogether.

Qatar – A Timeline

1760 – Bedouin clan, the Al Thanis, found the village Al Bid, which later evolves to become the city of Doha.

1867 – The Al Khalifa family from Bahrain attack Doha and the Qatari harbour city of Al Wakrah. The Al Thanis and the Al Khalifas fight a bitter war at sea.  

1868 – The British empire intervenes, forcing the feuding families to sign a peace deal. Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani is made ruler of Qatar and British influence increases.

1916 Qatar becomes a British protectorate.

1939 For the first time, oil is discovered, near the city of Dukhan. Ten years later the first oil wells begin drilling.

1961 Qatar becomes a member of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

1971 The country withdraws from a proposed Federation of Emirates, just as the British are pulling out of the region, and announces it will become independent. At the same time, the North Field, off Qatar’s coast, is discovered. It will become the world's largest natural-gas field.

1977 Qatar’s oil and gas industry is nationalized.

1981 Together with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Qatar helps found the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

1995 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani takes power. Qatar is on the road to modernisation. The Qatar Foundation launches and begins to fund a variety of educational and research projects.

1999 The first elections take place, at municipal level.

2003 The country’s new Constitution is approved by a majority of Qatari voters. The Qatari Advisory Council is also founded at this stage. This council assists the country’s royal rulers in formulating policy and making budgetary and legislative decisions.

2013 Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani becomes the eighth emir of Qatar. Despite some political reforms, the country remains a monarchy with a strict line of succession.

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