A Sophisticated State

Forgoing flash for substance, Qatar is channeling its oil wealth primarily into culture and education.
By Sameer Reddy | NEWSWEEK
Apr 21, 2008 Issue

The visionary architect I. M. Pei, who designed the Louvre's pyramid, the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan and other iconic high-modernist structures, had packed away his drafting table for good years ago, or so he thought. But then the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) came calling. A centerpiece of Qatar's development plan, the museum offered Pei free rein over the design—a project too enticing for him to turn down.

Today the museum serves as a symbol of Qatar's highbrow development strategy. Nestled between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf, the tiny desert nation has long been overshadowed by its showier neighbor Dubai. In recent years, however, Qatar has begun a process of reinvention, determined to channel its significant oil reserves into a more sustainable legacy. Under the guidance of its emir, Sheik Hamad al-Thani, and his politically active wife, Sheika Mozah, it has charted a creative course with the intention of transforming itself into the region's cultural hub. Instead of trying to compete with Dubai for tourists seeking over-the-top excess, it has chosen to focus on a different demographic: those in search of sophistication.

When Qatar wants to make musical headlines, it invites Plácido Domingo to perform instead of a pop singer like Shakira, as Dubai recently did. When developers want to build an adult-size playground, they emulate Venice instead of Las Vegas. And when they want to showcase art and culture, they create their own star vehicle to highlight their people's heritage, rather than franchise a foreign institution, as Abu Dhabi is planning to do with the Louvre.

The MIA offers visitors a unique perspective on local art. Constructed from architectural concrete, stone chameson, granite and stainless steel, the building echoes influences of ziggurats in its blunt, planar exterior. Like the Western perception of the Islamic world, it is dominated by an inscrutable air. Inside, however, the mystery is revealed in a majestic atrium constructed from a geometric series of interlaid circles, squares and triangles seamlessly merging. The design is wholly modern but maintains a distinct link with traditional Islamic architectural and esthetic motifs.

Spread out over five stories, the building will house galleries, an auditorium, a fine-dining restaurant and a café, along with an education wing complete with a high-tech library and classrooms. "The museum will be a center for students, scholars and visitors from around the world to share in the history and culture of Islamic art," says its CEO, Abdullah alNajjar. With a soft launch last month and a formal launch to the public in November, the MIA will be the world's premier institution for Islamic art, encompassing several thousand works. Highlights include a carved emerald amulet from 17th-century India and a Kufic-inscribed earthen bowl from ninth-century Iraq.

In addition to attracting those hungry for culture, Qatar is developing tourism around education. The country was ahead of the curve in boosting its higher-education offerings, inviting Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Cornell universities to launch satellite programs in Doha. Realizing there was a strong desire for respected educational options within the Arab world, the government created a hub for young students across the region, removing the need for people to travel abroad in order to continue their education. Officials were smart enough to realize that this influx of students would result in many more families visiting; in anticipation of the increased demand, the number of five-star hotels has swelled to include properties from the Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Sheraton, with others under construction. Visitors will find Qatar relatively liberal; women are not required to cover up, though many do by choice.

Qatar also seeks to promote hip, brainiac appeal with its annual Tasmeem design conference, sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University. A six-day symposium that explores the state of contemporary design, the conference has drawn distinguished speakers such as Bruce Mau, Stefan Sagmeister and Twyla Tharp.

The nation hasn't completely resisted the lure of the lavish. Emboldened by 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, its civic planners have developed their own from-scratch island project, the Pearl, built on land reclaimed from the sea by an extensive engineering effort. A massively ambitious undertaking, the complex includes more than 16,000 luxury condos, townhouses and villas, four luxury hotels, seven small private island "estates," nightclubs, restaurants and the longest luxury retail promenade in the world: more than 2.5 kilometers of luxury boutiques. The first phase is scheduled to open this month.

Perhaps the most surreal, slightly campy aspect of the Pearl is the Qanat Quartier, described in promotional materials as "a waterfront village reminiscent of the best of Venice and Amsterdam," complete with an intricate canal system, gondolas and pedestrian plazas and squares. Even that part of the project, however, manages to stay on message in terms of Qatar's brand identity: an upscale, evolved lifestyle destination, designed to appeal to a select few instead of the grand masses.

Qatar's policymakers remain passionately committed to the belief that it's not necessary to abandon their heritage in order to make room for the modern world. They seek, instead, to harmonize the two and create a third way, a middle path built on a foundation of both technology and tradition. In a corner of the world that is riven by misunderstanding, their efforts stand as a compelling argument that a progressive, intellectual approach to prosperity might be the best way to keep the peace—and attract the tourists.


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