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The Expanding Doha, Qatar

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Photo: Thomas Loof

The sheikh did not confine himself to Islamic art. Spending an estimated $1.5 billion in government money, he also scooped up choice Roman antiquities, Art Deco furniture, precious gems, dinosaur remains, vintage cars, and contemporary art. I met with some of the curators he brought to Doha from Europe to oversee the collections he had assembled, and they described how the artworks now fill a vast, high-tech warehouse specially built within a military base at Al-Wajba, just outside the capital, awaiting completion of the new museums.

Then, two years ago, the juggernaut of state-bankrolled treasure hunting came to a screeching halt, when Sheikh Saud was ousted from his post for alleged misuse of official funds. Accustomed to living in palaces and traveling via private jet, he found himself thrown into prison, a development that sent shock waves through the international art world, where a network of prominent dealers had been thriving on the sheikh’s patronage.

According to his aides, Sheikh Saud has since been released to live on his country estate, pending a court judgment. Though I tried repeatedly to meet with him in Qatar, he declined all comment on the case. An aide confirmed that this past spring the sheikh had traveled to London and Maastricht, but would not confirm reports that he was again buying art for the government. Qatari officials have given no details about the charges and insist that the scandal will not disrupt the ambitious museum-building program. In the meantime, the emir has overhauled the culture ministry, putting museum projects under the jurisdiction of a newly created Qatar Museum Authority, headed by his daughter Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani and aided by foreign advisers, including former British National Gallery chairman Jacob Rothschild and a top executive of the Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

"Museums are going to be pivotal to Qatar’s future," says Sheikha al-Mayassa, a 23-year-old Duke University graduate, as we talk in her office. "Education and culture give people a chance for a better life and a better life for their children. A lot of countries in the Arab world are very rich yet have a poor population. There’s a lack of innovation. There’s stagnation. Qatar is trying to become a role model. It has proven it can make a lot of changes in a short time."

From the Museum of Islamic Art, I walk along the waterfront to see the construction site of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s futuristic new National Library, an inverted pyramid poised atop three mammoth pillars. For a nearby plot, Santiago Calatrava has drawn up a Museum of Photography with two immense intersecting wings that open and close, depending on the light conditions. At the opposite end of the bay, Jean Nouvel has been asked to revamp the National Museum, a heretofore modest affair housed in a former royal palace. And Scotland’s Kathryn Findlay has designed an elegant new Museum of Traditional Costumes and Textiles.

There’s more: Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed al-Thani, Sheikh Saud’s older brother and cousin of Sheikha al-Mayassa, has assembled his own collections, which are already open to the public by appointment. These collections—the Arab Museum for Modern Art and the Qatari National Heritage Library—are currently kept in provisional structures south of Doha’s city center, waiting to move to new homes.

Sheikh Hassan is abroad during my visit, but one of his advisers, Yousuf Ahmad al-Homaid, offers to meet me outside one of the city’s newest malls, the Landmark, where women in black burkas shop for foreign brands ranging from Prada to Häagen-Dazs.

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