Rapid Gulf-wide tourism growth is inspiring new interest in the distinctive features that set each of the region’s destinations apart from its neighbours.
It’s no longer enough to be a simple winter-sun escape from grey northern skies. Travellers these days want something more. Each destination needs a defining identity – or USP – reflecting the qualities and facilities that make it different and special. One area where Qatar is successfully carving out a niche for itself is as a regional and international cultural centre. This reflects a deliberate government policy, a strong commitment to the promotion of the arts and culture as a key priority in the national development strategy.
This policy is partly inspired by a desire to foster indigenous creative talent and partly to celebrate the great works of Islamic and Arab artists through history. Equally though, Qatar’s commitment to culture is international in scope. It aims to make Doha a showcase for the world’s very best music, theatre and art and to promote creative exchanges on a global scale.
While still a work in progress, Qatar already boasts an array of museums, galleries, theatres, performance venues and public art installations unmatched in the Middle East. Currently, the jewel in Qatar’s cultural crown is undoubtedly the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). Prominently located on Doha’s Corniche waterfront, this internationally renowned treasure house contains some 14 centuries of the finest Islamic art and artefacts from across the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, North Africa and Spain.
Designed by the celebrated architect IM Pei, the MIA is housed in a dramatic modern building jutting out into the Gulf and surrounded by an expanse of parkland. Its imaginatively presented displays cover a vast range of subject matter, including artworks, ceramics, manuscripts, textiles, metalwork, jewellery and much more. Besides its permanent-exhibition halls, which offer free admission to the public, the MIA puts on a number of specialised exhibitions and displays throughout the year.
Promising to match the MIA as another star in Doha’s cultural firmament is the Qatar National Museum (QNM), currently under construction with completion expected in 2016. This spectacular building has been designed by Jean Nouvel and was inspired by the interlocking discs of a “desert rose”, a geological phenomenon created in gypsum deposits such as those found naturally on the Qatar peninsula.
The QNM is one of several interesting upcoming projects currently being developed by the Qatar Museums Authority. Others include the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, championing the nation’s involvement in sport; The Orientalist Museum, featuring western artists’ depictions of their early experiences and impressions of the Middle East; and Doha Fire Station, which will be a community of studios offering nine-month residency programmes for artists.
But those are for the future. Qatar already has a number of fine existing museums and galleries open to the public. Linked to the MIA by shuttle bus, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art is located in a converted school in Doha’s Education City. Specialising in modern and contemporary art exhibits and programmes offering an Arab perspective on international art, it serves as a centre for dialogue and scholarship about modern art in Qatar, the region and the world.
The Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum is a privately run facility dedicated to the spectacular collections of the eponymous Sheikh Faisal. Located some 20km to the west of Doha city at Al Samriya, it houses more than 15,000 exhibits covering a fascinating spectrum of arts, artefacts and heritage items. These include ancient Islamic manuscripts, archaeological finds, textiles, carpets, embroidery, silver and gold coins, antique furniture, militaria and metal items. It also showcases an extensive collection of vintage cars, including a 19th-century steam vehicle. Elsewhere in the city, other important museums and galleries include Al Riwaq Gallery, the Arab Postage Stamp Museum, Souq Waqif Arts Centre and Al Markhiya Gallery.
Besides such standalone facilities, Qatar has created Katara Cultural Village, a 99-hectare zone dedicated to positioning culture as an integral part of mainstream modern life. It achieves this by combining a wide range of regional and international artistic experiences with restaurants and other recreational facilities. Located on the West Bay waterfront to the north of Doha’s city centre, Katara is designed in the traditional architectural style of the region. Its facilities include a spectacular amphitheatre, a state-of-the-art theatre and opera house, a multipurpose hall, libraries, galleries and academic institutes. Katara’s range of performance venues makes it the epicentre of Doha’s lively cultural scene, staging a great variety of dramatic, theatrical, dance and musical performances by a wide range of regional and international artists, including the locally based Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
The offerings are not restricted to high-brow culture, but include concerts by pop groups, traditional music bands, shows by stand-up comedians and circus acts. There is literally something for every taste.
A number of major festivals take place in Qatar throughout the year to mark religious holidays such as Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha, or national celebrations such as the National Sports Day, Qatar Summer Festival and Qatar National Day. These invariably include a number of cultural performances and shows. Other events focus on more specialised areas, such as the Qatar International Food Festival, Katara International Kite Festival, Traditional Dhow Festival and Ajyal Youth Film Festival.
Qatar’s commitment to the arts extends to “taking museums beyond four walls” (to quote Qatar Museums Authority), in the form of a range of impressive public art installations around the country. These feature works by some of the world’s best-known artists, including:
• Anne Geddes: Healthy Living from the Start – a series of photographs portraying local athletes with newborn babies and young children at HMC Women’s Hospital.
• Damien Hirst: The Miraculous Journey – 14 monumental bronze sculptures illustrating the development of a baby from foetus stage at Sidra Medical and Research Centre.
• El Seed: Calligraffiti – striking graffiti murals inspired by local culture and created with a team of students from Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar at Salwa Road Tunnels.
• Louise Bourgeois: Maman – a giant spider sculpture made of marble, bronze and stainless steel at Qatar National Convention Centre.
• Richard Serra: 7 – homage in steel to the spiritual significance of the number seven in Islamic culture at the Museum of Islamic Art.
• Richard Serra: East-West/West-East – breathtaking sculpture spanning over 1km and comprising four steel plates, each more than 14m in height at Zikrit on the west coast.
• Subodh Gupta: Gandhi’s Three Monkeys – three head sculptures recalling Gandhi’s famous visual metaphor, “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil”, at Katara Cultural Village.
• Sarah Lucas: Perceval – bronze of a life-size shire horse at Aspire Park.
• Several public installations at Hamad International Airport, including Lamp Bear by Urs Fischer and a series of sculptures by Tom Claassen depicting the Arabian oryx, a native antelope and Qatar’s national animal.