A wild accusation highlights a potent new symbol of national ambition.

Akbar Al Baker, the head of Qatar Airways, recently caused a stir with a very odd accusation. Singapore, he said,1 had plagiarized an unbuilt expanse of Hamad International Airport in Doha, his country's connecting point to global aviation, when it added a blockbuster new shopping complex to its own hub.

If the accusation had been about a train station or shopping mall, it wouldn't have made much of a fuss. Airports, though, are no longer mere transit nodes. Over the past few decades, countries throughout Asia and the Middle East have come to see them as tools for advancing their ambitions and expressing their national self-conceptions. In short order, they’ve become audacious sources of soft power.


  • 1. At first, he seemed to have a point. Hamad's planned garden-and-water design does bear a striking resemblance to a feature that Singapore Changi Airport opened in April. But it turned out to be purely coincidental: Singapore's design was drawn up in 2013 — a fact that its architect quickly pointed out.