I ended on Doha where a more conservative population is run by a very cosmopolitan royal family. The sheikhs have been making news in the last few years for their acquisition of blockbuster auction lots. The Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) opened the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008, and it remains their crown jewel. As they rebuild the Zayed National Museum with a new vision and brand following a fire at the old museum, QMA has wasted no time in opening smaller spaces like an artist-in-residence studio space with an onsite gallery in a former fire station. Compared to Dubai, this is a museum and exhibition space city. Here the galleries are less the focus, but not invisible. There are galleries sprinkled throughout the major tourist and social areas especially in the recently opened Katara Cultural Village just outside the city center. I stumbled upon the 2nd Annual European Jazz Festival opening night where combos from Austria and Germany followed the dignitary-filled opening remarks. It was promising to see the mix of locals and expats. Here the mix was closer to 25:75, which is more than you see anywhere else in the region. Katara Cultural Village lives up to its name featuring an opera house, an amphitheater, a handful of galleries and plenty of room for growth. Qatar seems to understand that you need an infrastructure behind the museums to spur any kind of progress.

As you can see, I have a love for the region and a skeptical approach to these projects despite my strong desire for them to succeed. Doha lived up to the hope for the region on its arts projects, but it reminded me that something was missing from these projects, the locals. As great as the governments’ interest in promoting the arts and exerting soft power is, who is to benefit from it: the locals, expats and/or visitors? So far it seems like there is no roll for the locals in the arts, and there is no interest coming from the locals to have a role.

I do hope that you work the Middle East into your travels someday. Parts of the region are safe and inviting. In time, the rest of the region will settle and will be eager for you to come learn its history and its heritage, inshallah (or God willing, the ending Muslims add when speaking about the future and their hopes).

Helene’s Top Ten Cultural Things To Do in the Gulf

  1. Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
  2. Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai
  3. Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  4. Katara Cultural Village, Doha
  5. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
  6. Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, Dubai
  7. Al Quoz neighborhood (galleries outside Al Serkal), Dubai
  8. Fire Station and the Garage Gallery, Doha
  9. Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha
  10. Ethihad Modern and Antiques Galleries,  Abu Dhabi
  11. Ski Dubai*

*Kidding, but it is a fascinating look at society and people watching.

by Helene Genetos