Across the Gulf region, states are vying to build ever grander museums and towers from the world’s most famous architects.
.. but this display of soft power masks deeper ethical concerns
[these] museums and towers are at once expressions of progress and weapons in a cultural and architectural arms race. They combine good intentions and political calculation. They are signs of a hunger for identity and status in lands transformed within a lifetime by oil wealth. They are currency in the tricky and obscure negotiations that the leaders of the Gulf nations conduct, between conservative forms of Islam, authoritarian rule and selective versions of western liberalism. These states are surrounded by convulsions and conflicts in which they are themselves implicated, while aiming at home for prosperity, stability and the survival of their ruling regimes.
The physical transformations are manifestations of a fantastically speeded-up version of the processes by which cities were historically made, an evolution at x64 speed from small coastal towns to metropolises furnished with skyscrapers and universities. It is hard to overstate how radical this change is: these regions were at the limits of human habitation, made harsh and lightly populated by extreme heat and aridity. Oil and air conditioning have brought both physical comfort and influxes of migrants and expatriates, but the numbers of native Emiratis, Qataris and Kuwaitis remain small. There are, for example, 300,000 Qatari citizens, which is rather less than the 580,000-odd population of Luxembourg.
As one involved in their development puts it, these are “very small populations with very big ambitions”. They find themselves with power and influence disproportionate to their size, beyond the imagination of recent generations and outside the scope of traditional mechanisms of government. Their cities are therefore works in progress, raw and unprocessed, in which assertions of possible futures jostle for priority. Readymade chunks of imported building types – malls, museums – appear without much thought to the spaces between them. And, always, they need to deal with the environmental factor that governs everything else in the region: sheer, overwhelming, dominating heat.
Gulf cities and states are, importantly, not identical. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though both within the United Arab Emirates, differ, the former favouring tearaway private enterprise, the latter more stately public investments. Qatar, with works such as the 2008 Museum of Islamic Art, has been the most consistent patron of culture. Oman, seeking to stay out of trouble, is the least ostentatious. A number of these states are currently in conflict – Qatar is the subject of a blockade by several neighbours on the grounds that it supports extremism and terrorism. Coming from the likes of Saudi Arabia, this accusation is rich.
The New Yorker, in an article on the ethical issues of Gulf art projects, quoted the take of Mishaal al Gergawi, an Emirati intellectual, on his government’s perspective: “You sit there on the throne, thinking, My country is only 45 years old and I’m trying to fight Isis, develop a post-oil economy, foster a tolerant society by building museums and universities, and I’m getting criticised for labour issues? Give me a break.”
The dilemma in other words is that posed by China, or Azerbaijan or any number of repressive regimes, which is whether it is better to avoid or engage. Should well-intentioned and influential outsiders refuse to legitimise what should be challenged or might they hope that (for example) the conditions of migrant workers will be improved through the attention brought by the Louvre and the World Cup? Does the presence of Nabokov on the library shelves outweigh governmental support for extremism? Where on the scale from Faustian to Abrahamic is the bargain being struck?