Qatar's cultural renaissance

For a country thats only been in existence since 1971, Qatar has remarkably emerged as a cultural leader in the Middle East. The natural gas rich kingdom has their own philharmonic orchestra, an opera house, several world renowned art museums and hosts an internationally acclaimed film festival. But will these investments draw visitors? Tahira Yaqoob investigates.

As the dying notes of Aida resounded in Doha’s amphitheatre and the cast of 135 took their final bow, something remarkable happened.

The conductor may have been Italian, the soprano playing Aida Venezuelan, the chorus Hungarian and the set and costume designer a Polishman born in Germany.

But the staging of Verdi’s classic tale of love, deception and betrayal, sung in Italian with English and Arabic subtitles, symbolised much more than a cross-cultural performance.

By bringing world-class artists, singers and musicians to perform in the country’s first opera last month, the message from Qatar was clear: this was not simply a nation with economic clout but a serious cultural contender.

While this tiny Gulf nation might have lofty ambitions to compete on the same level as Paris, London, Rome and New York, can a country which has only been in existence for 41 years hope to compare with centuries-old legacies of art and culture?

Where it is lacking in age-old heritage, Qatar certainly has the financial muscle. As the richest country in the world – according to Forbes magazine, the GDP per capita is $88,222 – its wealth is built on petrodollars and the third largest reserves of natural gas on the planet.

Those riches have paid for an impressive art collection worth billions, museums, a publishing house and the Katara cultural quarter, a sprawling square mile opened two years ago.

Funded by the Qatar Foundation, a government-run organisation with a mission to transform Qatar from “a carbon economy to a knowledge economy”, Katara houses an opera house with its own orchestra, fine arts and photographic societies, art galleries and artists’ studios, Doha Film Institute, a music academy and the vast 5,000-seater amphitheatre, opened in a lavish ceremony by Jeremy Irons and Chariots of Fire composer Vangelis.

That it has sat empty since that extravagant launch in December last year and has only now, 10 months later, staged its first performance (albeit the first, it is hoped, of many) says much about Qatar’s aspirations and its philosophy of ‘build it and they will come’.

“I see no reason why our artists would not be represented in international art fairs like Basel,” says Katara president Abdulrahman al Khulaifi.

“The exposure we give them and the kind of exhibitions we are bringing here will enhance their way of thinking.”

For the country’s goals are as long-term as they are far-reaching and its focus is not simply on buying in artistic endeavours from around the world but in ploughing resources into homegrown talent.

The 4,000 tickets sold for Aida bode well for future performances. And while the 35 Qatari-based residents playing slaves and soldiers in the show were limited to the roles of silent extras, they represented an attempt, according to Emad Sultan, Katara’s director of cultural affairs, to “engage locals and expats rather than keeping it distant”.

It will, officials admit, be decades before Qataris can compete on the same level. The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra – which provided a musical backdrop to Aida – has been heralded as a prototype of what can be achieved.

It was assembled four years ago by Munich-born bassoonist Kurt Meister, the former manager of the Bavarian State Opera.

With no limit to cost, he combed the planet for the best musicians and hired 101, of which 12 hail from the Middle East.

There is, as yet, no Qatari in the orchestra but Meister says: “It will take time”.

“The message to me was to bring the best musicians, regardless of the nationality,” he says. “A full Qatari orchestra would take a minimum of 25 to 30 years.

“The target is not to have a lot of Qataris but to find a bridge between western and Arab cultures and to give Arab composers, soloists and conductors the possibility of performing with a good orchestra.”

It is not about “importing culture”, he adds, but merging the two cultures, with three-quarters of concerts performed in the opera house carrying an element of Arabic music.

“Qatar understands we have a lot of people living here and they do not just need economy, they need culture,” he says.

“If you do not have culture and tradition, you do not have a face; you do not exist.”

Last month the legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis opened Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha – the club’s first international outpost – in a bid to introduce Qataris to the musical genre.

And later this month acclaimed director Mira Nair will take to the red carpet at the fourth Doha Tribeca Film Festival, launched by the film institute in partnership with New York’s festival by the same name.

As much of a star attraction at the event will be Made in Qatar, a showcase of 19 films from Qatar-based film-makers. Among them is a take on the Filipino community in Doha and reflections on the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the eyes of hip hop artists.

It is, says festival vice-chairman Issa Al Mohannadi, a demonstration of the “concerted efforts in creating a robust film-making industry locally by identifying and nurturing local talent.

“It offers glimpses of life in Qatar and will resonate with the local community.”

Could they compete internationally though? Certainly the western world is starting to sit up and take note of the tiny nation with considerable political clout and astonishing wealth.

Last year the Al Thani ruling royal family were the world’s biggest buyers of contemporary art.

Over the last seven years they have added Francis Bacons, Mark Rothkos and Damien Hirsts to their collection while Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad al Thani, chairwoman of Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) and daughter of the emir, paid $250 million for Cezanne’s The Card Players last year, the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

Headline-grabbing acquisitions like Harrods department store and the iconic Shard building in London, the football team Paris St Germain and, of course, that successful bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup mean it is no longer an outside contender when it comes to global politics.

But simply investing in high-profile purchases is not enough. Sheikha al Mayassa, dubbed “arguably the most powerful woman in the art world today” by Forbes magazine, declares: “We aim to inspire local talent.”

QMA sponsored the recent Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern for a reported $3.2m and plans to bring his work to Doha next year. Qatari cash has recently funded exhibitions in Doha from Louise Bourgeois, Takashi Murakami and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Collectively, $25 billion is to be injected into art and entertainment to transform the country into a world-class destination in time for the World Cup – with much of the cash invested at grassroots level.

At Qatar Music Academy, Qataris are offered free lessons on instruments ranging from the piano to the oud in a bid to foster a love of music from a young age.

Anne-Marie Pigneguy, head of western music, says: “We are hoping in 20 years there will be Qataris enrolling and becoming professional musicians.

“It is not about importing culture but education.”

With a similar outlook is Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, launched in conjunction with the British publishers with the aim of producing high quality literature in English and Arabic.

Managing editor Anne Renahan says: “Our goal is to publish books of excellence. There is a huge pool of quality Arabic authors.

“This is not about throwing money at something, it is a partnership. What is happening here is of Qatar and of the region.”

The World Cup may be a decade away but the coming years will show just how successful they have been.