Along the semicircular bay in Doha, in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, dozens of glittering new skyscrapers are rising out of the blazing desert sands. Marble-lined shopping malls and luxury hotels proliferate, while opulent waterfront apartment complexes meant to invoke the Italian Riviera and other far-flung locales are emerging alongside futuristic private villas. And just offshore, on its own man-made island, an eye-popping stone-clad ziggurat floats above the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf: the new Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, the first of at least half a dozen major art museums in the works here.
Until now, this sun-scorched city was best known to Americans, if they were aware of it at all, as headquarters of the Al-Jazeera satellite television network. But significant changes are under way. With the country rich in petrodollars, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is intent on reinventing Doha as nothing short of the cultural hub of the Middle East and the center of an educational and scientific renaissance in the Arab world. Other Persian Gulf states have been touting plans to boost their cultural offerings—most recently, Abu Dhabi unveiled a quartet of designs by celebrity architects for a lavish museum district. But Qatar’s efforts in this direction are the furthest along in reality.
This push to transform the tiny emirate’s capital (population 600,000) is all the more remarkable, given other developments in its immediate vicinity. At a time when nearby Iran, just a hop across the Gulf, is pressing to acquire nuclear technology and threatening Israel, Qatar is building cultural institutions and pursuing trade ties with the Jewish state. Qatar is a conservative Islamic society, but the emirate is committed to at least a certain degree of intellectual openness and dynamism, building schools and libraries in addition to museums, and—perhaps—laying the groundwork for a renewed and cosmopolitan Middle East.
Pei’s imposing museum is surely one of the most significant projects of his lengthy career. The geometric, tiered design of pale limestone accented with charcoal granite contains many of the distinguishing elements of traditional Islamic architecture—carved stone, domes, archways, fountains, and courtyards. Yet Pei brings them together in a way that makes the fortresslike structure seem simultaneously archaic and intergalactic. I approach the museum via a grand ramp paved with pink-granite cobblestones from Pei’s native China and four allées of palm trees between which water will cascade down a chute running the length of the processional entrance. The ramp connects to a bridge, suspended 200 feet over the Gulf, that leads to the building’s soaring atrium. When the museum opens, later this year, it will house one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic art, textiles, and rugs, assembled in just eight years by the emir’s cousin, Sheikh Saud Mohammed al-Thani.
Doha still has a way to go before it might challenge the historic cultural role of cities like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad—which, in previous centuries, exerted the greatest influence among Arabs—but the museum will boost Qatar’s position as a guardian of Islam’s aesthetic heritage. The dazzling quality and breadth of its holdings became clear in spring 2006, when a prime selection, covering more than a millennium of Islamic creativity, went on display at the Louvre under the title "From Córdoba to Samarkand." "It’s astonishing what one person with the will, the imagination, and the bankroll was able to do in such a short time," says Daniel Walker, former head of the Islamic department at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As chairman of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Heritage and Art, Sheikh Saud became a well-known figure in the auction houses and art galleries of London and New York.