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Art and architecture in Qatar

William Cook
28 August 2012

Qatar may be the wealthiest nation on Earth but it's not all about hard cash. 
The state is fast gaining a reputation as the cultural heart of the 
Middle East with its capital's cutting-edge museums and jaw-dropping architecture. William Cook is charmed

How often do these things crash?' I ask, through gritted teeth, as our 4x4 hurtles towards the biggest sand dune I've ever seen. 'Not often,' replies our driver, stepping on the gas. 'What happens when they do?' I ask him, gripping my seatbelt for dear life. 'What happens will happen,' he says, serenely, as we lurch towards the summit. But when we reach the top, I forget that my stomach is turning cartwheels. I am transfixed by the sight ahead — a wide expanse of clear blue water, Qatar's inland sea. We drive on, across the salt flats, until we reach the beach. We stop and get out. Silence. No waves, no seagulls. The horizon is empty. 'Over there, that's Saudi Arabia,' says our driver, pointing at the barren landscape across the water. Barely an hour ago we were in Doha, surrounded by the skyscrapers of Qatar's futuristic capital. Now we are on the edge of nowhere, without a soul in sight.

Not long ago, I'd hardly heard of Qatar. But then this tiny Gulf state won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, and ever since then the country has been continually in the news. With vast reserves of liquid natural gas (fairly useful stuff, apparently), Qatar is now, per capita, the richest nation in the world, with an annual income of £57,000 for every Qatari. Naturally, this new-found wealth has given them lots of international clout. They're building The Shard, London's biggest skyscraper. They own Harrods, and a slice of Sainsbury's and the London Stock Exchange. But not all the news coming out of Qatar is simply about hard cash. Al Jazeera, the Arab world's answer to CNN, is based in Doha.

Increasingly, this tiny country is perceived as an important bridge between East and West. Qatar's reconstructed National Museum (due to reopen in 2014) is set to become one of Doha's most striking landmarks, and the country's prolific Qatar Foundation is driving all sorts of cultural and educational projects here in Doha. They've even formed a partnership with Bloomsbury (the British publisher of JK Rowling's Harry Potter books) to publish a raft of new titles — by English and Arab authors, in Arabic and English. Clearly, something special is happening on this prosperous peninsula.

Driving into town from Doha's smart, efficient airport, it's immediately apparent that I've landed in one of the biggest building sites on the planet. Immense constructions — office blocks, apartment blocks — are rising up all around (it's enough to give you vertigo) and this new city is filling up, as fast as they can build it. All the top European brands are here, from Mulberry to Armani. I lose count of the de luxe cars on the road. Here, a Porsche is a weekend runabout. Even a Ferrari looks fairly ordinary. It's a stunning spectacle, but it all looks a bit slick and shallow. Is this just a place for making money? I wonder, as I check into my five-star hotel with its chandelier-laden lobby. Is this all there is?

Thankfully, next morning I see another side of Doha. The city is in a spectacular setting, built around a sheltered bay, with the new high-rise business district to the north and the (slightly older) old town to the south. Our first stop is the Museum of Islamic Art, housed in a beautiful new building by Sino-American starchitect IM Pei, on a man-made island in the bay. The historic contents are intriguing, drawn from right across the Islamic world: fine calligraphy from Arabia; illuminated paintings from India; priceless carpets from Turkey; ceramics from Iraq and Egypt; tiles and statues from Iran. The ancient jewellery is particularly alluring but the architecture is the best exhibit, a symbol of Doha's determination to become more than just another boomtown.

Unlike the flamboyant skyscrapers across the bay, Pei's museum is subtle and inscrutable, like the mosques and fortresses that inspired it. You can see out, but you can't see in, and the effect is strangely peaceful, more like a place of worship than a museum. Pei's museum is impressive, but Doha's Arab Museum of Modern Art (aka Mathaf) feels like more of an artistic rendezvous. It is housed in an old school with a humdrum exterior but the interior is bright and airy, and full of dynamic art. Cali, one of the curators, takes time out to show me round. 'There was always a cultural scene in Qatar,' he tells me, as we walk through these galleries. 'There are a lot of Qatari artists.' But with new forums like Mathaf, outsiders can actually see their work.

'It's only through culture that we can build bridges,' says Cali. 'If we understand each other's culture, there's less misunderstanding.' He's got a point. To me, the art in here seems attractive but impenetrable — but by the end of my visit, this foreign aesthetic already feels more familiar. We finish up in the foyer, overlooking the sculpture park. 'We haven't censored anything in terms of nudity,' says Cali. 'It's a fine line, but it's a learning process for everybody.' If you want to learn about modern Arab art, Mathaf is a great place to start.

However the museum of Islamic art and Mathaf are both dwarfed by Doha's 'cultural village'. Katara (the ancient name for Qatar) is billed as a 'valley of cultures'. There's a Roman amphitheatre and a Viennese opera house and a splendid concert hall — all extravagantly furnished. All it lacks is a few rough edges. It still feels brand-new. But a big part of Doha's appeal is seeing history in the making. It's still a work in progress, but in this nascent metropolis you can see the future. Venice must have seemed a lot like this, once upon a time. There's a theatre and visual arts centre, even a philately museum, but the main attraction is the street life on the quayside. You can eat Turkish, Indian or Italian, but my favourite spot was L'wzaar, which serves fresh seafood in a slick canteen that's half restaurant, half fishmonger.

Despite its abundant waterfront, Katara's Al Yazwa public beach is pretty much the only place in Doha where you'll see people swimming in the sea. This may seem odd until you stop to think about Qatari attitudes to clothing (or unclothing). A bikini or a pair of Speedos has a rather different social cachet around here. For an unrestricted swim, drive south to Khor Al Adiad (where the sand dunes are). Here the beach is crowded with swimmers and sunbathers, but most of them are Indian or European. Most swimming in Qatar takes place in hotels.

If you haven't visited a Muslim state before, Qatar may be quite a culture shock. If you have, you'll know the normal rules apply: dress modestly, no alcohol (except in licensed hotels), no public displays of affection (though Arab men often hold hands). Qatar is modernising at a fantastic rate but they're not forsaking their traditions. There's a bewildering array of female fashions, but it's quite common to see women covered head to toe in black.

Qatar's cultural ambitions are eclipsed by its sporting plans, and on the other side of town I get some sense of how this compact country landed the Fifa World Cup. Built on the site of the 2006 Asian games (which Qatar hosted, with predictable aplomb), 
Aspire is an enormous campus devoted to every sort of elite 
sport. As well as the state-of-the-art facilities (including a 
colossal stadium, where the England football team played Brazil), there's a sleek new school, built to train the next generation of athletic prodigies. As I wander round, marvelling at the talent and dedication of tomorrow's Olympians, I spot some teenage footballers playing a practice match on the pristine pitches outside. When I come closer, I realise it is one of Everton's youth teams. They're one of numerous European clubs (Bayern Munich, Manchester United) who come out here to train.

By now my head is spinning after so many gleaming new buildings, so it is a relief to wind up somewhere with a bit more spit and sawdust. Souq Waqif is a classic street market, where the locals come to shop and socialise. Pearls and jewels, rugs and pottery — it's all here, if you know what you're looking for, and know how to strike a deal. Falconry is big business (it's a treat to see these noble birds up close) but plenty of people simply drop in for an evening stroll and a stand-up snack. We sample Qatari cuisine at Al Tawash (+974 4494 2002) — a hearty meze of meaty stews and savoury dips, a blend of Persian and Lebanese — but lots of Qataris simply graze on nuts and sweetmeats, or sip a fruit mocktail bought from market stalls.

The next day we drive north, out of town, towards the tip of the peninsula. You're soon out into the desert — not the fine sand you find further south, but dry, dusty rubble, like the surface of another planet. It's a vivid contrast with downtown Doha, but there's not an awful lot to see. The forts are relatively modern and heavily restored. The Qataris are striving to resurrect their past, but what's far more interesting than these rudimentary relics is how little their nomadic ancestors left behind, how their lives have been transformed in the space of a single lifetime. A generation ago, people used to dive for pearls along this arid coast. Now the pearl is the name of Doha's biggest building project, the last stop on our trip.

Nothing can prepare you for the size and scale of The Pearl. It's a massive artificial island, jutting right out into the sea. They're still building, and building, transforming the entire coastline, and it's already teeming with shiny new shops and restaurants. As well as all the international outlets (Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen), The Pearl boasts plenty of unique stores, and pick of the bunch is Toujouri. This chic boutique only opened this year, but it's already making waves. Kitted out by top US architect Peter Marino, it's the brainchild of Lama El-Moatassem. She is a Qatari of Palestinian descent, who studied at the London College of Fashion, and her elegant, timeless clothes evoke Doha's new status as a cultural crossroads.

'The response has been phenomenal,' says Eva Alfonso, Toujouri's sales director, as she shows me round the store. 'You cannot compare Doha to London or Milan or Paris, but our clients are very interested in fashion.' There are Arab and European women admiring the rows of cocktail dresses. They could hardly have looked less alike — some in western clothes, some in burkas — but clearly, their taste in ballgowns and kaftans is just the same. Throughout my brief visit, I've been looking for a place where the Occident meets the Orient, and now, finally, I've found it — not in a museum or an art gallery, but in a boutique in a shopping centre.