Cultural places of the Arabic world - fine arts and exquisite architecture

28.02.2011 In: Travel tips

While Dubai is definitely the capital city of leisure for the Gulf, both Abu Dhabi and Doha (Qatar) compete to turn themselves into cultural destinations for travelers. Abu Dhabi’s strategy to achieve this target is in some ways quite similar to the Dubai approach: prestigious mega projects created to turn the Emirate into a destination out of the ordinary. Saadiyat Island, 500 m from Abu Dhabi Coast, will be turned into a cultural icon destination, welcoming five prestigious museums. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open its doors in 2013 – with works from French museums leased for a ten-year period - the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is due also to open in 2013. Both museums have been designed by prestigious architects - the Louvre by Jean Nouvel and the Guggenheim with Frank Gehry. There is also a maritime museum (designed by Japan star architect Tadao Ando) as well as Sheik Zayed National Museum, another iconic structure developed by Sir Norman Foster and with the help of the British Museum for the collections. Saadiyat Island development will be concluded by a stunning Performance Arts Centre, created by another star architect, Zaha Hadid.

Qatar looks also at turning into a hub for culture. But its vision differs greatly from Abu Dhabi as it still emphasizes its Arabic roots. The old town of Doha is a perfect example. Around Wakif Souq, old houses have been carefully restored while new houses have adopted traditional architectural features and are mostly restaurants, cafes, or trendy shops, which attract young Qatari and tourists every evening.

But the idea of becoming a major center for arts took off in 2008, after Qatar opened its most prestigious institution to date, the Museum of Islamic Arts. The museum is in an iconic building conceived by another star of world architecture, I.M. Pei. It houses an amazing collection of Islamic art collected during the last three decades by the ruling family of the country, the al-Thanis and comprising more than 5,000 objects. They are all precious testimonies of art from across the Islamic Empire, spanning 3 continents and 1,400 years. According to the Qatar Museums Authority, the Museum of Islamic Art welcomed in January its first half million visitors since it first opened its doors in December 2008.

Next to the MIA, another ambitious project was inaugurated in December. A unique museum of modern and contemporary art, MATHAF welcomes all artists from the entire Arabic world. Talking recently to the magazine, the Economist, Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, the emir’s daughter, who is head of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), explained that “with the opening of Mathaf, we are making Qatar the place to see, explore and discuss the creations of Arab artists of the modern era and of our own time.” MATHAF will show the evolution of Arab modern and contemporary art including some of the 6,000 art objects bought by the Emir. The museum hopes that its mission of showing modern art will go forward without taboos.

In 2013, another institution, the Qatar National Museum, will make headlines thanks to its iconic architecture designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, which got inspiration from a desert rose. Another important Qatari project is the Cultural Village located in Doha West Bay district with a total area of 99 hectares. Construction is still going on, but it is already turning into a lively cultural area with institutions such as the Qatar Photographic Society, Doha Fine Arts Society, and the Music Academy. They are all located in the cultural village premises and organize regular exhibitions and art performances.