Art and architecture in the Middle East
Oil-rich Gulf sheikhs hope to lure art-lovers with a host of glittering new museums - but can culture really be bought?
That wealth and good taste do not always go together is nowhere better illustrated than in the Middle East. There, oil-slicked rulers have built gaudy monuments to their billions. But now the gold-plated palaces, revolving skyscrapers and seven-star underwater hotels have a tasteful challenger. The Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, the new national symbol of Qatar, is an understated Gulf icon. And it might just be the best new museum or gallery building anywhere.
IM Pei, the Chinese-American architect behind the Louvre’s glass pyramid, agreed to undertake the project — his last, at the age of 91 — on condition that the Emir of Qatar reclaimed an island in the Gulf on which the new institution could sit like a citadel, without being encroached on by any other building. Pei’s stubbornness paid off. As you arrive by dhow, the vast, tiered limestone cubes of the 400,000 sq ft structure tower over you, giving the building colossal, instant impact. Yet thanks to the soft detailing, notably the Islamic geometric patterning and traditional Arabic arched windows, the structure is not severe.
Inside, the huge atrium is illuminated by a 150ft-high glass curtain wall looking out over the emerald sea. The galleries, with exhibitions of calligraphy, textiles and ceramics from the 7th century onwards, shoot off in every direction. Standing under the silver dome, it’s hard to disagree with the director, Oliver Watson (formerly of the V&A and Oxford’s Ashmolean), that it is “the most spectacular space”. When it opens in November, it will, at the very least, do for Doha what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao — put it on the arts map — but the project is about more than Qatar, modern architecture or Islamic art. It is the first shot in a cultural revolution that could transform the arts across the Gulf.
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 it to acquire something that is impossible to price and may, in fact, be impossible to buy at all: culture.
Like latter-day Renaissance aristocrats, the rulers of Qatar, Dubai 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 four new museums on the drawing board, including an extension to the National Museum designed by the French modernist architect Jean Nouvel.
Abu Dhabi is betting £20 billion that it can transform barren Saadiyat island, just off downtown Abu Dhabi, into a 21st-century version of the pyramids of Egypt.
The city-state’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has persuaded Frank Gehry to design the latest — and, at 450,000 sq ft, the biggest — branch of the Guggenheim. Nouvel is behind the first offshoot of the Louvre outside Paris. Zaha Hadid, the London-based Pritzker prizewinning architect, is designing a performing-arts centre, and Norman Foster the national museum. The new institutions are scheduled to open in 2012.
Dubai is opening galleries and an opera house, as well as hosting arts festivals, but it is devoting most of its efforts to becoming an art entrepôt. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the emirate’s ruler, recently lured Sotheby’s and Christie’s to the city.
Clearly, the sheikhs believe that by mixing their black gold with the genie of western architectural and artistic expertise, they can create a cultural oasis where a new generation of art-lovers and artists will grow. The long-term aim? To make the Gulf, a potential nexus between East and West, as much of an emerging artistic power as a financial one.
With oil at record prices, the estimated £100 billion bill for all the new developments is small change. The question is, will these museums attract local and international visitors or turn out to be white elephants, like the palaces Arab rulers built during the last oil boom?
Even their backers acknowledge that luring westerners will be tough. It’s not just that travellers are 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. With the conflict between the West and Muslim extremists still raging in neighbouring Iraq, it’s hardly a good time to be marketing “brand Islam”. Watson concedes that many overseas visitors will be “more curious than passionate”.
That is one reason both Qatar and Abu Dhabi are spending so much money on the museum and gallery buildings themselves. Pei has already proven his worth in Doha. If the scale models displayed in the Emirates Palace Hotel, in Abu Dhabi, are even half realised, Saadiyat island will become an architectural destination in its own right.
Abu Dhabi’s decision to create partnerships with the most recognised western gallery brands — the Guggenheim and the Louvre — is designed to break down suspicion. “If we’d started our own museums from scratch, it would have taken a long time and we would have made mistakes,” says Mubarak Hamad al-Muhairi, the head of Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority, whose office looks out over the cat’s cradle of new roads and bridges that link Saadiyat to the mainland. “By bringing in partners, we can be quick; we can buy knowledge, expertise.”
Luring established western brands with oil money — Abu Dhabi has paid the Louvre almost £300m for the right to the French museum’s name — has prompted a chorus of criticism in the West. 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 that are being built all over the Gulf. Catherine Goguel, emeritus director of research at the Louvre’s prints and drawing department, recently dismissed the Louvre/Abu Dhabi deal as merely a matter of “petrodollars”.
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 nonexistent. Design critics complain of “architectural megalomania”. Gehry himself — despite taking the dirham — has, in these pages, 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 that 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 that has vast open space, few planning restrictions and budgets of “whatever”. When it comes to the collections, the Louvre and the Guggenheim will display as much Islamic art as western art.
“This is not a cut-and-paste,” al-Muhairi says. “We are creating the Louvre Arabia, the Guggenheim Arabia — not the Louvre or the Guggenheim in Arabia. There will be works from the collections of both museums, of course, but there will be curators and works of art from here, from Tehran, from Egypt, from Syria, from Morocco. We are bringing the West to the Middle East, but also showcasing the Middle East to the West.”
That, it turns out, is the point of these cultural grands projets. The sheikhs want to use the new museums and galleries to change western perceptions of Islam and Islam’s perceptions of the West. In her sunbaked office in Qatar, Sheikha al-Mayassa, the daughter of the Emir of Qatar and chair of the Qatar Museum Authority, acknowledges that, thanks to recent history “people see Islam as a violent religion. We want to go back in time and showcase, with evidence, the fact that Islam is a peaceful religion at the heart of the most intellectually and culturally sophisticated societies in history. That’s our message”.
It’s one that comes through loud and clear in the museum’s exhibits, most 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.
The sheikhs also hope that, by hosting exhibitions of western art, the new museums will drag the more conservative elements of local society by the scruff of their dishdashas into the modern artistic world. Both al-Mayassa and al-Muhairi insist that there will be no restrictions on works displayed. Nudes will be featured in paintings and sculpture — a remarkable attempt to push the boundaries of public taste in a region where some newspapers still airbrush women out of photographs, fully clothed or not. “We don’t have a problem with anything, really,” the US-educated al-Mayassa says.
Modern buildings may be able to grow in the desert, but can modern art? Will a new breed of artists emerge, working in a distinct East-meets-West style? The idea that the Gulf could be the next big thing in culture might 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, as the modernist building blocks of this unique cultural experiment begin to rise from the dusty desert scrub, the new pharaohs are daring to dream big. “Could the Damien Hirst of 2020 be an Emirati?” al-Muhairi asks. “Well, why not?"