Abu Dhabi and Qatar Meet Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei: This Too Is Islamic Civilization?

A AAA+++ for effort.

According to the New York Times today, the royal leadership of two tiny Muslim countries, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, seeing down the road a time when they’ll need to gather brains into their cisterns rather than oil, are turning their countries’ oil revenues into hubs for global high culture:

To a critic traveling through the region, the speed at which museums are being built in Abu Dhabi — and the international brand names attached to some of them — conjured culture-flavored versions of the overwrought real-estate spectacles that famously shaped its fellow emirate, Dubai. By contrast, Doha’s vision [in Qatar] seemed a more calculated attempt to find a balance between modernization and Islam. But in both cases leaders also see their construction sprees as part of sweeping efforts to retool their societies for a post-Sept. 11, post-oil world. Their goal is not only to build a more positive image of the Middle East at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment continues to build across Europe and the United States, but also to create a kind of latter-day Silk Road, one on which their countries are powerful cultural and economic hinges between the West and rising powers like India and China. And they are betting that they can do this without alienating significant parts of the Arab world, which may see in these undertakings the same kind of Western-oriented cosmopolitanism that flourished in places like Cairo and Tehran not so long ago, and that helped fuel the rise of militant fundamentalism.

In other words, doing their best not to be left behind as the 21st century progresses, the royal leaders of Abu Dhabi and Qatar are gaming to make their countries destination points for Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus, and Western secularists to meet and trade. Isn’t this a far, far better future for an evolving Islam than the fundamentalist model? Would that Saudi Arabia dropped its Wahhabism and found its way to this. Here’s a description of some of the projects in the works for Abu Dhabi and Qatar:

[O]n the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, workers have dug the foundations for three colossal museums: an $800 million Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of its New York flagship; a half-billion-dollar outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel; and a showcase for national history by Foster & Partners, the design for which was unveiled on Thursday. And plans are moving ahead for yet another museum, about maritime history, to be designed by Tadao Ando. Nearly 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has been mapping out its own extravagant cultural vision. A Museum of Islamic Art, a bone-white I. M. Pei-designed temple, opened in 2008 and dazzled the international museum establishment. In December the government will open a museum of modern Arab art with a collection that spans the mid-19th-century to the present. Construction has just begun on a museum of Qatari history, also by Mr. Nouvel, and the design for a museum of Orientalist art . . .

And it’s not just aesthetics. Abu Dhabi, led by Sheik Khalifa, is not forgetting the critical intellect, bringing New York University into the equation. And the classes at the university satellite campus will be conducted in English. Oh, and don’t forget the film studios:

These cultural megaprojects will be joined by a campus of New York University on Saadiyat Island’s southern shore and, in a location to be determined, a four-million-square-foot development for media companies and film studios meant partly to provide job training and opportunities for young Emiratis. Sheik Khalifa and his government want all this to instill national pride in a new generation of Emiratis while providing citizens with tools, both intellectual and psychological, for living in a global society. The idea . . . is to tell a new story, one that breaks with a long history of regional decline, including the recent upheavals caused by militant fundamentalism, and to re-establish a semblance of cultural parity with the West.

Sheik Kahlifa, in other words, is using the nation’s oil wells to try to tranform his country into a mind well—a place that catches good minds (as opposed to being a brain drain, as so many Muslim countries are right now). Sheik Kahlifa is, decidedly, a hopeful sign that Islam needn’t go down a fundamentalist road. Indeed, this is part of the sheik’s apparent purpose—to discourage such a path in young people:

“There are religious extremists everywhere in the Middle East — even here,” said an Arab consultant who has worked on several developments and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired. The sheik, this person said, believes the cosmopolitan influences of the projects may help “open up the minds of these younger Emiratis before they go down that road.”

And the Louvre partnership appears to be a real one:

Of all the projects, the Louvre outpost seems the most natural fit with Abu Dhabi’s globalist aspirations. On top of a generous construction budget, the government is paying France $1.3 billion, mainly to establish an art-borrowing agreement that will ensure that it gets the pick of the Louvre’s encyclopedic collections, as well as art from several other museums. The range and depth of those collections will allow the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is being marketed as a “universal museum,” to show off the cultural achievements of civilizations from every corner of the world. And Mr. Nouvel’s design for this museum — a maze of gallery buildings and canals, all covered by a huge stainless-steel dome — is a wonderfully romantic evocation of a Middle East at ease with technology.

A Middle East at ease with technology (as well as art, film, and critical education)? Don’t we really mean a version of Islam at ease with Enlightenment modernism and postmodernism?

Is such a thing possible? Two sheiks in Qatar, Sheik Hassan al-Thani and Sheik Saud al-Thani, back in the 1980s, apparently thought it was. At the same time that Osama bin Laden was radicalizing, they were collecting art:

The three major Qatari national collections were assembled by . . . Sheik Hassan al-Thani and Sheik Saud al-Thani, who began collecting in the 1980s, when art was still viewed as dubious, even unmanly, among the country’s elites. “If I talked about modern art, no one understood me,” Sheik Hassan told me when we met in Doha. “It was impossible to even start this conversation.” In the 1990s a new emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, began to liberalize many institutions and to open the door cautiously to the outside world. In 1995 he announced plans for Education City: a sprawling campus whose programs are now run by American universities like Texas A&M and Georgetown, but with agreements to ensure that a large proportion of its students are Qatari nationals. A year later he established the news network Al Jazeera. The museum projects were also part of this liberalization effort. After Sheik Saud agreed to donate his collection of Islamic art to the state, Sheik Hamad hired Mr. Pei to design a building for it. When the resulting Museum of Islamic Art opened, it was celebrated as a successful Modernist interpretation of Islamic precedents . . .

So it’s essentially Sheik Hassan al-Thani and Sheik Saud al-Thani vs. Osama bin Laden. Here’s the vision at stake:

The population of Doha [Qatar’s capital] is expected to grow to 2.3 million by 2032. By then, with the current construction boom over, the bulk of its 700,000 laborers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, will have gone home, replaced, the government hopes, with the kind of educated, white-collar workers whom it sees as the future of the new society.

Is such a new society really going to happen—one in which the population is both majority Muslim and fully embracing globalism, the critical intellect, science, modernism, and postmodernism? Islamic civilization, it appears, hinges on these new Enlightenment oriented Cordobas. If you’re a Westerner, I think you have to wish these sheiks well and hope that they, and not Osama bin Laden, represent the future of Islam.

In my view, these two small Arab countries, in their comfort with secular modernity, pluralism, and globalism—combined with the evolving assimilation model currently embraced by most American Muslims—represent what “being a Muslim” is likely to mean for the vast majority of Muslims a century from now. It is the jihadi version of Islam that is the broken wheel here, not these other models. At least that is my hope.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Abu Dhabi and Qatar Meet Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei: This Too Is Islamic Civilization?

  1. Pingback: Abu Dhabi and Qatar Meet Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei: This Too Is Islamic Civilization? (via Prometheus Unbound) « Brucetheeconomist's Blog

  2. Pingback: Qatar and Gay Rights | Prometheus Unbound

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