Unlikely Art Hub in the Middle East - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Unlikely Art Hub in the Middle East

By Charlotte Buchen


Because it’s the softly beating heart of Islamic art.

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

Doha’s futuristic skyline rises from the edge of the Gulf, dazzling like a mirage. And just an hour or so west, across the width of Qatar, is a sculpture by one of the world’s greatest living artists: Richard Serra’s “East-West / West-East.” It’s just one example of how the tiny country has developed into an unlikely hub for the arts in the center of the Middle East.

“East-West / West-East,” made of four giant 70-ton steel plates, stands between two desert plateaus — not far from the Dukhan pump, the country’s first drilled oil well. It’s a spectacular work, yet remains little known, seen only by handfuls of intrepid visitors and Qatari residents. I visited many times, usually with some friends and a picnic, always feeling a kind of awe — both at the artwork and the surreal pairing of the ancient landscape with a master of modern art. You’ll need a good guide and a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the spot as it’s quixotically located far off Qatar’s main roads, but that only adds to the mystery of it all. 

Its four floors house one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic art, with about 800 pieces on display at any given time.

The country has come a long way when it comes to sharing its arts and culture. Five to 10 years ago, it “didn’t have much to offer,” explains Shaika Nasser al-Nassr, head of exhibitions at the Museum of Islamic Art. But now Doha offers numerous art projects and museums, all worthy of a visit. Focus on the Museum of Islamic Art, though. It’s a monumental gem and its four floors house one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic art, with about 800 pieces on display at any given time. Al-Nassr’s personal favorite? A pendant made of jade and inscribed with a Quranic verse that was worn by a Mughal sheikh after the death of his beloved. In the museum’s adjacent park, Qatar’s first Richard Serra sculpture, “7,” stands in harmony with the skyline across the bay. 

When it comes to accommodation, there are the top-notch hotels, or you might meet some expats with Airbnb lodgings. If you fancy a cocktail with dinner, stick to the restaurants inside the hotels — but expect to pay almost $20 for that beer. For more budget-friendly fare, venture out to Musheireb, the rapidly redeveloping older part of Doha, where you can grab some Indian, Pakistani or Afghan food. I love the vegetarian dosas at Aryaas, served by friendly staff in bow ties.

The large expat population is part of the reason women can feel safe and comfortable in Qatar, which, in the context of a conservative Islamic culture, is accommodating of Westerners. But some may not want to visit a country that has been accused of exploiting laborers, and others may object to Qatar’s role as host to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and radical Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. 

If you can stomach the country’s contradictions, however, you’ll discover a fascinating place where investing in art is part of the country’s hugely ambitious nation-building plan. Whether you visit on a layover in the expansive and glossy new airport (also full of public artwork, including a massive, unmissable Jeff Koons) or as a destination in its own right, try to go in the months of November to April, when the weather is quite lovely and the Serra sculpture in the desert can be enjoyed outside of an air-conditioned vehicle, as it should be.


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