ON THE SURFACE, the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, seemed to be all about intellectual content. “It’s not about flash and glitz, it’s about seriousness and engagement,” commented Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority, when the museum first opened to the press last Saturday morning. “The goal of the QMA is to invest in our country’s most valuable resource, its people,” propounded Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Al-Thani, chairperson of the QMA board, looking quite photogenic in her abaya. (As well as being one of the emir’s childrenhe has twenty-seven, the Christian Science Monitor saysshe is also a graduate of Duke University.)
Judging from the museum itself, which has obviously been carefully thought out—from its glorious I. M. Pei–designed building to its jewel-like collection of Islamic art—it is easy to buy the idea that Qatar is on its way to establishing itself as the Middle East’s center of gravitas.
But there was also a decidedly zany aspect to the weekend’s proceedings. It seems that when you do anything involving the royal family of Qatar, the event is likely to be ultralavish, laden with security precautions, incredibly well meaning, and—last but not least—horribly disorganized. Although the speeches and fireworks went off like clockwork, every other aspect of the proceedings seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, with plans being made, scrapped, and reconceived up to the last possible moment. “All the events that have the royals keep changing,” a local journalist complained. “There are a lot of capable people in Doha. Maybe they’re just not working for the royal family at the museum.”
One of the most curious aspects of the opening was that the fourth estate was consistently afforded first-class treatment. Journalists were ferried to the opening ceremonies by dhow (a traditional wooden Arab sailing vessel) “because they thought people would enjoy it,” said Miranda Carroll, the former communications chief of the Hammer Museum, who now works for the MIA. As our boats sailed to the man-made island the museum calls home, we lounged languidly on cushions, attended by scores of security forces and two turbaned attendants, who plied us with sweet tea and bitter Arabian coffee. When we docked, the emir let us use his own personal open-air elevator, a miraculous contraption that begins looking out across the water to the royal palace and then rotates 180 degrees on the way up, so that the passenger ends up facing the museum.
Meanwhile, common dignitaries—like Sir Norman Rosenthal, former director of the Royal Academy, and Philippe de Montebello, who is reportedly being wooed by the QMA for some undisclosed position—arrived via bus and had to walk in on their own two feet.
A fraction of the guests had been invited to celebrate the evening inside the museum with the emir’s own entourage. Rosenthal and His Eminence of the Met were not among them. Like the rest of us, they had to make do with an open-air party room outside, furnished with Persian rugs, tented areas, and red velvet banquettes laid out on the sand, from where we watched the proceedings by closed-circuit television. Waitresses sporting bobbed, Louise Brooks–style wigs passed around Coca-Colas and fresh mango and orange juice. There were sumptuous foods, and in the middle was a huge dessert table with chocolate fountains, which had to be turned off when a breeze picked up and they began spattering the guests.
Rumor had it that Nicole Kidman was checked into the local Sheraton and a Hollywood couple with six children was shacked up at the Sharq Village and Spa—clearly Brad and Angelina. But when push came to shove, the “celebs” could be counted on one hand: Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ronnie Wood, and a young blonde, presumably Wood’s twenty-something girlfriend, Ekaterina Ivanova. They spent much of the evening huddled together in the corner of a stuffy tent. (Maybe they were hiding from the renegade chocolate fountains.) But the best action was to be had in spotting the many major museum powers in attendance: Serfiraz Ergun of the Sabanci, Henri Loyrette of the Louvre, Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate, Mark Jones of the V&A, and not just one Metropolitan director, but two—Thomas Campbell, whom de Montebello jovially referred to as “the usurper.”
“Have you ever seen all of them in one place before?” a friend marveled. It was sort of like being in a room with the heads of the Five Families, except there were more like twenty.
Then, on the video screen, someone singled out Robert De Niro at the emir’s celebration. Why on earth was he there, when the heads of the world’s major museums were outside?
The next day, at another press conference, the mystery was revealed: Qatar had just formed a partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival, which thenceforth would also operate a “world-class” program in Doha. The sheikha explained that she got the idea for the project during her postcollege internship for the festival in New York; something to keep in mind, perhaps, for companies interviewing royal interns.