DOHA: A 24-year-old jazz fan from Qatar, Hanan al-Kaabi, did not lament the closure of the Gulf state’s only jazz club this summer. Acclaimed trumpeters and pianists from New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center band had played at the club in Doha’s St. Regis Hotel, a few miles from Kaabi’s house.
A law in Qatar forbidding nationals from entering venues serving alcohol meant she could not attend the club billed as the home of jazz in the Middle East.
“I tried to go to an event celebrating the women of jazz,” Kaabi said. “It embarrassed me, the thought that I was barred from enjoying this unique art form in Qatar.”
Her experience reflects the delicate balance struck by Qatar, a future soccer World Cup host. To raise its global standing, it imports Western art and music, and incubates the region’s feature films, while also paying heed to local tradition and curbing budgets due to low oil prices.
Founded in 2011 by a Qatari real estate developer, the $20 million jazz club – distinguished by burgundy couches and a curved stage modeled on Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan – sought to cater to both expats and Qataris by holding musical workshops for children and concerts outdoors at alcohol-free venues that Qataris could attend. Few did.
In July, the St. Regis announced it was ending its contract with Jazz at Lincoln Center and opening in its place a new venue offering “more musical genres” to a “wider audience.” Officials say Qatar, a former backwater that is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter, has paired sensible spending with awareness of local tastes as it has evolved into a Middle East cultural hub.
Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar’s sister, is one of the art world’s most powerful figures. When asked at a conference in Doha in March if she feared a backlash against Qatar’s choices on the cultural front, she was diplomatic.
“As a nation that’s growing very quickly and embracing global culture ... we’re trying to bring contemporary artists here to inspire young artists ... with complete respect to our tradition,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re trying to create controversial moments. Not everybody can travel around the world, but we can organize exhibitions from the world.”
In an effort to diversify its economy, Qatar’s rulers have since the mid-2000s invested its immense energy wealth in education and the arts – opening museums, galleries and film festivals and staging international exhibitions by artists including Damien Hirst and Richard Serra.
The move to embrace art and culture has incorporated local tradition. Arab presenters host government-funded English-language radio stations. European publishing houses translate Arabic novels into English. A philharmonic orchestra founded in 2007 balances its European classical repertory with the Arabic music of its resident composer, a prominent Lebanese oud player.
It remains a tricky marriage.
In a country where modern art and Western music are still relatively unappreciated, and whose economy is under strain, some Qataris complain the ventures are costly and not to local tastes.
“People ask: Who are these projects for?” said Isa al-Mani, an engineering student at Qatar University. “A billion riyal opera house ... Yes it’s a good development for the country but it is outsiders who attend, not Qataris.”
Since the oil slump in mid-2014, cultural projects in Qatar have been axed. A partnership with British publisher Bloomsbury Publishing was terminated in December. In October, radio stations funded by the Qatar Foundation closed. A semiprivate educational organization founded by the emir’s father, QF is now facing budget cuts.
Economic problems may have prompted some of the cost cutting.
Since he took power in 2014, analysts and diplomats say, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has emerged as a risk-averse figure attuned to traditional forces that run deep in society. “He knows that projects which may have put Qatar on the map did not always jibe with the local population,” a Western diplomat in Doha said.
In 2013, a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidane delivering a head-butt to an Italian player was removed from the Doha waterfront after being criticized for promoting violence. A year later, a local newspaper published articles accusing officials from Qatar’s museums authority (QM) of abusing their power and of frequent “drinking and shamelessness.” QM denies the charge.
Despite budget cuts, the museum authority is building two new institutions to complement Qatar’s existing museums of Islamic and modern art.
Among the projects going ahead is Qatar’s National Museum, designed by architect John Nouvel and shaped like a desert rose, which will open on Doha’s shoreline and stage exhibitions on the country’s natural history and tribal wars.