PRINT October 2019



Ateliers Jean Nouvel, National Museum of Qatar, Doha, 2019. Photo: Iwan Baan.

NO ONE EXPECTED the internal dispute among the Arabian Gulf states to last this long. Since June 2017, four of the states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—have severed economic and diplomatic relations with Qatar. The dispute doesn’t just exist on a government level but weighs on the minds of residents: Those living on both sides of the divide privately lament the crisis while publicly—i.e., on social media—refraining from liking posts by or openly communicating with friends from estranged countries. It has also affected the operations of the art world, both in terms of sales and in the sharing of information. A long-anticipated catalogue of Iraqi painter Dia Azzawi’s work, published by the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, took several months to arrive in the UAE, and then did so quietly, for those in the know.

The dispute has also altered the narrative around Arabian Gulf museum practice. It’s no small irony that now that two of the region’s major planned institutions—the National Museum of Qatar and the Louvre Abu Dhabi—have finally opened, political events in the area have tempered the enthusiasm (and the budgets) for the starchitect-designed international cultural museums that made headlines ten years ago. This is the result not simply of the crisis of brotherly relations, but also of the Arab Spring, the oil-price depression of 2014–15, the international backlash over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the continuing hostility between the UAE and Iran. 

In this context, it might be useful to take seriously another chance turn in the region’s cultural politics: the surprise entrance of the French architect Jean Nouvel as the man to straddle the Khaleeji divide. A little more than a year after the unveiling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which he designed to general acclaim, Nouvel was in the UAE’s arch-rival Doha, greeting celebrities at the launch of the National Museum of Qatar. Then, in the space of a few weeks, Doha’s own rival Saudi announced its own Nouvel commission: an eco-resort on the archaeological site of al-Ula, the Petra-like complex of Nabataean tombs that Saudi Arabia plans to develop as a major tourist and cultural destination. Nouvel’s blockade-hopping might suggest the economic and strategic ties that still unite the Arab Gulf countries, but in his commissions, progressing from museums to a hotel, another story also emerges: Is the moment over for the great museum projects of the Gulf?

Michael Rice and Company, Qatar National Museum, Doha, 1975. Photo: AP/Bob Dear.

CERTAINLY IN THE UAE, the tendency has been toward greater activity among private foundations and a weakening of the commercial art market. While the Louvre Abu Dhabi anchors that city’s local art scene, and the Sharjah Art Foundation remains the country’s undisputed cultural leader, in Dubai a constellation of smaller, privately run foundations provides the most energy: primarily the Jameel Arts Centre, on Dubai Creek, and the newly announced Alserkal Arts Avenue Foundation, through which the established art district is stepping up its commissioning and exhibition activity. The simmering conflict with Iran and the crisis with Qatar have led to a contraction of the art market, most notably the galleries, which now rely almost exclusively on sales abroad.

The art and education offerings in the UAE have also become denser, meaning that the prospect of the Saadiyat museums is no longer so tantalizing: Imagine if Cinderella finally arrived to the ball, only to find out that the stepsisters had been charming all along. For the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (which the British Museum formerly partnered with) and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, contracts have been renegotiated on both sides. The UAE government is now arguably in a better position, thanks to the success of the Louvre Abu Dhabi—but it also has less money, thanks to the dip in oil prices. Though cultural investment has largely withstood protests from the international community, whether by the Gulf Labor Coalition or amid the more recent resurgence of political consciousness, which flared up after the Khashoggi killing, so-called emiratization policies that promote local hiring are paying off, diminishing the need for imported expertise.

Moreover, whether the Gulf museums were ever as internationally oriented as people thought is questionable. The National Museum of Qatar, for example, the most recent museum to be built in the Gulf, sits on the Doha waterfront, within walking distance of the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei and dating from 2008. Like Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, the National Museum has a hokey design metaphor that is both high-concept and explicitly “Arab.” For the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it is the “rain of light,” like that which comes down through the slatted roofs of souks, as Nouvel told me when the museum opened. For the National Museum, it is the “desert rose,” a rock formation that appears in the Arabian Desert and takes the shape of a series of sandstone-colored discs strewn one on top of the other, as if thrown by a jubilant giant. At the center of the museum is the historic palace of the al-Thanis, Qatar’s royal family—a traditional, colonnaded building that was both government seat and family home, as was typical of ruling residences in the premodern Gulf. By literally enveloping this site, the National Museum makes its role clear: It tells a story not only about the founding of the country but about its current rulers, offering both as a symbol to unite the varying disjointed factions that constitute Khaleeji societies. The demographics of some Gulf countries are 90 percent foreign; many of these resident workers would like to stay permanently, and they have different needs and ambitions from the local residents. Even among the latter group, tribal identity remains important, and it gives everyone a stake in the current distribution of power—which often stems from agreements made among the different tribes before the countries’ official federations. Venerating the al-Thanis also means venerating the agreement that grants one’s family its land rights or social clout. At the same time, among younger locals, this tribal identity is giving way to an identification with the nation-state: Nouvel’s National Museum and Abu Dhabi’s new Qasr al-Hosn museum, which similarly sits within the historical seat of the ruling al-Nahyan family, emphasize this locally significant dichotomy in their very architecture.

Is the moment over for the great museum projects of the Gulf?

SO WHERE does Nouvel, having conquered two of the major Gulf countries, move next? Saudi Arabia has the money and the political might for large-scale museum projects, but despite its extraordinary flurry of cultural activity and investment, this does not seem to be the direction the country is taking. Plans for a contemporary-art museum in Riyadh, which would have been part of the Misk Art Institute established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have been downgraded. When I spoke to the former head of Misk, the artist Ahmed Mater, last year, he suggested it might look like a series of smaller venues resembling traditional majlises (sites for discussion) across the kingdom. The primary focus of contemporary-art investment is in Jeddah, the more liberal Red Sea city, where activity is also unfolding in private-public partnerships. The foundation Art Jameel, run by a Saudi family, has opened a contemporary-art project space near its traditional craft-making school in al-Balad, the city’s UNESCO-protected old town, and is opening a large complex containing an exhibition space and room for other cultural organizations elsewhere in the city. Christie’s is in partnership with the government for a heritage museum in al-Balad, which will also welcome the Red Sea International Film Festival in 2020. And al-Ula, too, will be part luxury resort, part cultural-festival site, when it opens in 2023.

Indeed, al-Ula will be the jewel in the Saudi-tourism crown: a collection of 131 tombs carved into the soft sandstone approximately eight hours (by car) north of Jeddah. Once part of the city of Hegra, it is at the southernmost end of a trading route followed by the nomadic Nabataeans, an Arab people, in the first centuries BCE and CE. In an unintended symmetry, Petra, which lies along the same route, and which the Nabataeans also built in the first century CE, was famously hidden from outside eyes by the Bedouins who later lived among its canyons and killed anyone who tried to come in. Al-Ula, too, has been kept in the dark—but that’s because of the Saudi opposition to international tourism, which is now changing as the country readies for a post-oil future. Nouvel’s contribution will be the eco-friendly Sharaan Resort, located within the bounds of the former Hegra and part of a wider al-Ula master plan. Last April, France and Saudi Arabia signed a ten-year agreement to develop the area as a cultural site; well-known art-world figures—including the art adviser Allan Schwartzman, Institut du Monde Arabe director Jack Lang, and Museum of Modern Art, New York, director Glenn Lowry—have consulted on the deal.

The potential effects of this shift to private funding and program development are unclear: Operationally, it will allow these organizations to be lighter and fleeter than sometimes-slow governmental bureaucracies, but it also makes them more dependent on international collaborations for funding. From a Western perspective, this might be more of the same. Lowry, for instance, has already dissociated himself from al-Ula, and even as the Khashoggi killing slips into memory, Saudi will likely continue to have a hard time setting up partnerships with international entities. It is difficult to draw connections between the Western art world’s current moment of political awareness, characterized by the boycott of the Whitney Biennial and the refusal of donations from the Sackler family, and the issues that confront its counterpart in the Gulf, which center more on residency restrictions, freedom of speech, and a say in how new regulations are unrolled—issues often of practicality rather than of the political and moral tone that is being tested in the West. One artist in Dubai told me recently that the state was over: Residents had clearly chosen consumer freedoms over political freedoms. Whether this is good or bad for practitioners in the Gulf is yet to be seen. 

Melissa Gronlund was previously the chief art critic of The National, the UAE’s main English-language newspaper. She is now based in London.