A visit to the Gulf

David Tresilian , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

New cultural destinations are sprouting up across the Arab Gulf, including a clutch of splendid new museums.

The Museum of islamic Art in Doha
The Museum of islamic Art in Doha


Having the good luck to spend part of the holy month of Ramadan in the Arab Gulf this year, it seemed natural to take advantage of the trip to visit some of the region’s new museums. While many parts of the world have invested heavily in new cultural destinations, among them museums, to attract and enchant visitors, perhaps few have done so as single-mindedly as the countries of the Arab Gulf.

The tour started in Dubai in the UAE, where several high-profile museum destinations have opened in recent years, among them the Dubai Frame and the Museum of the Future on the city’s main Sheikh Zayed Road that sweeps visitors towards the massive Dubai Mall. Next to it is the Burj Khalifa, the destination that more than any other now stands for the Dubai brand and is at present the tallest building in the world.

Unable to resist the chance of going to the top of the Burj Khalifa, Al-Ahram Weekly party found time to take one of the building’s high-tech elevators that whisk visitors up to the 124th floor in what seem to be a matter of seconds. A soundtrack recounts the technical feats involved as well as other details of the journey. Once the doors open near the top of the building, visitors are ushered out onto the two-level observation floors where they can see Dubai stretched out far below them through the sheer glass walls.

From below the Burj Khalifa appears in another guise as a gigantic screen on which lights play up and down in the early evening as part of the Dubai Mall’s sound, light, and water shows. Illuminated fountains play as the accompanying lightshow makes full use of the Burj Khalifa’s verticality along with that of other surrounding buildings. The Mall seemed the perfect place to eat the Iftar meal that marks the end of the daily fast in Ramadan, and inside and out there are many restaurants and other eateries. The Weekly party found a Lebanese restaurant offering a more or less all-you-can-eat Iftar buffet.

Both the Dubai Frame and the Museum of the Future dwell on the identity of Dubai as a city that has made a kind of massive bet on the future, seeking to be bigger, brighter, and more extravagant than virtually all its neighbours. The Dubai Frame, a slim glass structure coated with gold that contains exhibits on the present and future of Dubai, is part of this forward-looking narrative since it provides an observation deck from which visitors can look northwards towards the beginnings of Dubai in the Deira area of the city and southwards towards the towers of the financial and business district that now overshadow it.

The Museum of the Future, full of technological wizardry and immersive installations, also has a sculptural architectural form, this time rather more difficult to interpret. Torus-shaped and decorated with Arabic calligraphy, it attracts many admiring glances from drivers on the Sheikh Zayed Road. 

Leaving Dubai behind, the Weekly party set out for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, a highlight of the stay in the UAE. Built on the Saadiyat Island, one of the small islands lying just off the coast of the UAE and designated as a cultural and leisure destination, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is loosely affiliated to the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

When the Island as a whole is finished, it will house a group of museums and other institutions that will be a match for similar clusters elsewhere, among them the Museum Island in Berlin that similarly brings together multiple institutions. Unlike the museums in Berlin, however, those in Abu Dhabi are all brand new and designed by some of the world’s greatest contemporary architects.

French architect Jean Nouvel, responsible for several landmark cultural buildings in Paris, among them the Paris Philharmonic Concert Hall and the Musée du Quai Branly looking out across the Seine, was commissioned to design the Louvre Abu Dhabi building, which opened to visitors in 2017. Eventually, he will have a lot of competition, since in addition to the Louvre, the Island will also host a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum designed by US architect Frank Gehry, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum designed by UK architect Norman Foster, a Natural History Museum designed by the Dutch partnership Mecanoo, and a Performing Arts Centre designed by the late Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.  

For the moment, however, Nouvel’s building reigns almost supreme on the Island even if the surrounding area is a seemingly perpetual building site, with the rooftop fins of Foster’s unfinished Sheikh Zayed Museum being easily visible as visitors enter from the mainland. Arriving for a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the morning hours in Ramadan, the Weekly party found the carpark already full of visitors and queues snaking out of the Museum itself, which, built on the waterfront, features marvellous views across the Gulf.

Nouvel’s building makes full use of this enviable location as well as of the local climate. A massive roof structure like a shallow upturned bowl crowns a set of interconnecting single-storey buildings below, sheltering and protecting them from the elements while at the same time filtering and dappling the natural light that flows through the roof onto the open spaces between them. The effect is magical, and visitors can easily spend hours enjoying the marvellous atmosphere of the open spaces between the buildings, gazing upwards at the roof structure and following its complicated arrangement of layered geometric shapes with their eyes. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a “universal museum” modelled on institutions in Europe and elsewhere that seek to represent all, or at any rate many, of the world’s historical civilisations in different departments. Examples of such museums include the Louvre Museum in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. 

Rather than going for different departments, however, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has sought to tell a global story of human history instead, illustrating this with items taken from its already extensive permanent collection. Visitors thus start in galleries labelled “the first villages” charting the beginnings of sedentary agriculture and animal domestication before passing through rooms illustrating “the first great powers”, “civilisations and empires,” “universal religions,” and other themes before ending with “multiple modernities” and “a global stage”. 

The pieces on display, never less than expertly placed, are taken from many of the world’s different civilisations, though perhaps inevitably there is a predominantly Eurocentric feel. World history is narrativised in broadly European terms, and the items on display are mostly European, as perhaps befits an outpost of a French museum. Having arrived in the Gulf from Paris a few days earlier, and very used to Gallocentrism, it was no surprise to find the museum’s theme of the “first globalisation” illustrated by a painting of French Queen Marie Antoinette by the late 18th-century French painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and a set of heroic statues taken from the gardens of the French Palace of Versailles. 

Things became more problematic with the discovery that “multiple modernities” and a “global stage” were not really very multiple at all but were illustrated instead with paintings from a standard story of French painting highlighting works by Cézanne, Monet, Manet, and Renoir. Can themes like the “first globalisation” and “towards a modern world” really be presented without signalling what these periods were most obviously about, namely European expansionism and colonial rule?

Probably the measure of success of the new museum will be its temporary exhibitions programme and how far it is able to enter into dialogue with the other institutions on Saadiyat Island.  

MUSEUMS IN QATAR: While Abu Dhabi has apparently decided to position itself as a cultural destination, perhaps as a way of underlining its distinction from its more brashly commercial neighbour Dubai, both cities have been in some ways outflanked by Qatar, now also home to a flourishing museums sector.

Main destinations here include the Museum of Islamic Art in the capital Doha, one of the best-known cultural buildings of the late Chinese-American architect I M Pei, who was also responsible for the redesign of the entrance spaces of the Louvre Museum in Paris. There is also the more recent National Museum of Qatar, this time also by Nouvel, and one of the most successful of all the new museums in the Gulf.

Commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art in the early 2000s to house a collection the core of which originally belonged to the country’s former ruler Sheikh Saoud bin Mohamed bin Ali Al-Thani, Pei embarked on a tour of the region in a bid to discover more about its Islamic architecture. Cairo was a main destination, and Pei’s eventual design for the Islamic Art Museum draws on an architectural vocabulary that will be familiar from Historic Cairo’s Mameluke mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums, notably in their use of bands of coloured stone and massive external walls. 

Pei’s building is clad in limestone giving it a satisfying weightiness and solid presence in its position on an island jutting out in front of the Doha Corniche. Inside, bands of coloured stone enclosing a soaring single space are reminiscent of similar effects at the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrassa complex in Cairo. However, Pei’s overall design was drawn not from Mameluke architecture but from something a good deal earlier and the inspiration he found in the ablutions fountain in the middle of the courtyard of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo commissioned by Abbasid governor of Egypt Ahmad ibn Tulun in the late ninth century CE. 

His mountainous arrangement of heaped-up geometric shapes topped by a cube, all in gleaming stone, abstracts from the similar arrangement used in the building sheltering the Ibn Tulun ablutions fountain, this time topped by a later Mameluke dome. 

Inside, the museum’s permanent collections are arranged on ascending floors by theme and period, though there are also displays by place and dynasty, such as the materials from Ayoubid Syria and Mameluke Egypt presented on the third floor. The museum has one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world, with exhibits coming from both the Arab region and from other parts of the world including Iran, Central and Southwest Asia, Al-Andalus and Muslim Spain, and Muslim Southeast Asia. Temporary exhibition spaces on the museum’s ground and upper floors bear witness to its major temporary exhibitions programme.

Returning later from a trip into the surrounding desert during the visit to Doha, the Weekly party found a nearby square crowded with people eager to witness the firing of the canon out across the Corniche to mark the end of the daily fast. Families had brought young children, and the crowds formed a line three or four people deep around the centre of the square where soldiers waited to light the fuse that would fire the cannon signaling the Iftar meal.

A canon blast from 10 metres of so away is surprisingly loud, and as soon as it took place shops and restaurants in the nearby Souq Waqif area of Doha, location of the Weekly’s hotel, began their evening trade. This area is full of small shops and businesses and restaurants selling a range of different cuisines. 

The Islamic Art Museum was joined by the National Museum of Qatar on the latter’s opening in 2019, the second main museum visited during the Weekly’s trip to Doha. The architectural inspiration here did not come from the traditions of the region, as was the case with the Museum of Islamic Art, but instead is a good deal more local as befits an institution telling the story of Qatar for both domestic and foreign visitors.

Nouvel chose to base his design on the Qatar desert rose, a rose-like formation of crystal clusters of gypsum in which the rock crystals are flattened out and grow on top of each other like sheets in a pattern similar to the petals of a rose blossom. Desert roses are most often pink, though they may also be found in other colours and exist in lighter or darker hues. 

His design for the National Museum of Qatar references the characteristic form of the desert rose in a building that emphasises the horizontal rather than the vertical and appears rather like a mass of heaped up plates set at unusual angles to each other and creating the effect of desert-rose crystals enlarged to enormous size and spreading out across the ground. Next to the museum there is the original palace of the emirs of Qatar, a fort-like structure built in the early 20th century, which has been refurbished and incorporated into the museum.

The museum building is set back from the Doha Corniche in a way that is perhaps intended to evoke Qatar’s interior desert landscapes in a way similar to the Museum of Islamic Art’s positioning on an island evoking its important historical relationship with the sea. Visitors enter through a sort of fissure in the desert-rose design, almost as if entering a cave, giving them the opportunity to touch the pleasing solidity of the museum’s angled plates, each run over by dark veins to create a continuously interesting surface design.

Inside the museum does not disappoint, since in addition to the dramatically shaped gallery spaces, varied in shape, generously proportioned, and making effective use of large-scale video projections on their often-angled walls, what sets the institution apart is the quality of its collections and associated exhibition design. While there are other museums dedicated to the history and culture of the Gulf — one is planned for the Saadiyat Island development in Abu Dhabi — it is hard to think of any that do a better job of presenting its different aspects than the National Museum of Qatar.

The museum’s first galleries are dedicated to the geography, geology, and natural history of Qatar and the surrounding Gulf region. While this is absorbing, especially the presentation of the region’s fish and animal life, perhaps the institution really comes into its own in its presentation of Qatar’s history and that of the region of which it is a part. Still far too little known to many foreign visitors, this is a story of astounding transformation, carried out at enormous speed, such that photographs of Qatar taken in the earlier or even middle decades of the last century are almost unrecognisable when compared to the gleaming modern city of Doha encountered today. 

The museum uses a variety of materials to drive the speed and character of this transformation home, including photographs, video projections, interactive maps, and models. However, perhaps the most effective are the oral history interviews played in the galleries in the central part of the museum. These videos, recorded over the last two decades or so, feature older citizens of Qatar talking about some of the changes they have seen in their lives as a formerly largely Bedouin society was transformed into one of the world’s most modern and urbanised.

It was fascinating to learn of the role played by the sea and the desert in Qatar’s traditional culture and the ways in which families would move from desert grazing areas to coastal ones as the seasons changed, bringing their herds of animals with them. Watching these interviews, subtitled in English and Arabic — the speakers employed a variety of Gulf Arabic fascinating to compare to the standard transcriptions on the screen below — visitors cannot help but be struck by the hardships of these traditional lives as well as their close connection to climatic rhythms and their very evident contrast to life in Qatar today.

Economic history plays a large part in the displays in this part of the museum, with video projections showing not only the close relationship between the domestic economy and animal husbandry, perhaps explaining the great affection felt towards indigenous animal species in Qatar today, but also what were traditionally the main exports of this part of the Gulf. Like other regional countries, Qatar traditionally played an important role in trade up and down the Gulf, from the major Iraqi port of Basra at its head eventually giving access to the Middle East to the ports of Oman at its entrance. Ships would sail from here to the Indian Ocean, the rest of Southwest Asia, and the east coast of Africa. 

The National Museum of Qatar presents something of this history, showing the region’s characteristic ships that would have been used in maritime trade. Today, it is even possible to book a ride in a traditional dhow, the flat-bottomed boat once used for short-range coastal trade. The museum also explores the role the pearl trade once played in the traditional economies of the Gulf, with video projections showing rare films of pearl-diving expeditions and accompanying displays explaining how the pearls were graded, sorted, and packed for export as part of what until the coming of cultured pearls at the beginning of the last century was a roaring trade.

The middle decades of the 20th century, notably after the collapse of the pearl trade and the worldwide depression of the 1930s, were a difficult time for all the Gulf economies, which retreated inwards under British suzerainty until transformative events at the end of the 1960s accelerated the changes that gave rise to the Qatar seen today. 

One of these was political, with the withdrawal of British forces from the region and the subsequent consolidation of the different states. The other was economic as a result of the ever-greater role played by oil and gas. These commodities have made the Gulf countries among the wealthiest per capita in the world today.


MUSEUM BOOM: Commentators around the world have variously interpreted the international museum boom over recent years, with some issuing warnings about its meaning and sustainability and others more frankly celebrating it as signalling a new interest in particularly the cultural past among ever wider populations.

However one interprets the increase in the number of museums being built worldwide over the last few decades, often producing signature work by some of the world’s leading architects, the size of the increase is not at issue and nor is the amount of often public money being put into building new museums or renovating older ones and increases in the number of domestic and foreign visitors. 

European countries, notably France, blazed the trail in the late 1970s and 1980s with the museum-building programme associated with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a museum of modern European art, and the Musée d’Orsay, also in Paris, a museum of late 19th-century European art. Britain soon caught up with the Tate Modern, a modern and contemporary art museum, the new Museum of London, currently under construction, and major reconstruction and renovation work at the British Museum and other institutions to match the renovation of the Louvre in Paris.

Then there was the famous “Bilbao Effect” — a term sometimes used to describe the impact of the building of a Guggenheim Museum, a branch of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, in the northern Spanish coastal town of Bilbao in the late 1990s. The effect describes both the growth of licensing arrangements for major museum brands abroad — a path now also taken by the Louvre — and the impact that eye-catching buildings can have on the public imagination, helping to brand a sometimes largely unknown destination like Bilbao for leisure purposes.

Some of this building work has been frankly commercial — there has been less investment in provincial museums less likely to serve as magnets for tourists — but other factors have also been in play, including prestige — every world capital apparently feels the need to have a range of first-class museums — a new feeling of prosperity making more money available for institutions that might earlier have been seen as luxuries, and perhaps also a desire to consolidate and repackage the past for new and future generations.

Some such motives probably stood behind the first major period of museum building in the late 19th century, when the peak in national feeling concomitant with first Italian and then German unification in Europe led to a rash of national museums in other countries eager to rediscover their national pasts. Even countries where the national past is to say the least problematic, such as the US, joined this first museum boom after the Civil War in the 1860s, eventually producing Washington’s famous National Mall. 

The last motive might also have been behind the striking museum-building programme that has hit the German capital Berlin over the last two decades, with the removal of landmarks redolent of the city’s Communist past and the resurrection of 19th-century monuments.

What is one to make of the museum-building programme that has been such a feature of the Arab Gulf countries over the last ten years or so and seems set to continue? Greater visitor numbers have something to do with it, as first Dubai and then Abu Dhabi and Qatar have sought to position themselves as major international leisure and business destinations. There is also the element of competition, as each of the countries aims to outdo the other or position themselves in different cultural niches. 

But perhaps another motive, possibly the most important, has been to give the region the kind of institutions long taken for granted in Western capitals and some other parts of the world. The result has been the building of institutions of the quality of the Qatar museums, highlights of any visit to the Gulf.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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