Qatar seeks cultural edge in bid for status

By Robert Yates

Ambitious emirate wants to be global player - not only in sport, but also the arts.

"Rich is good, obviously," an eminent Qatari tells me. Obviously. "But to be cultured, well, that's something else ..."

He's talking less about individuals than states, in particular his own which is now - on a per-capita basis - the richest country in the world, a status chiefly explained by Qatar possessing plenty of what the world most wants: oil and gas.

It also now has the World Cup - or will have in 2022, after Fifa's decision to award the tournament to the Gulf state. The decision provoked plenty of commentary, little of it entirely complimentary.

A common response was "Where is it?" As for those critics who did know how to find Qatar on a map but were still not happy, they had a choice of targets from the practical (the country's extreme heat, its lack of adequate infrastructure) to the ethical (its chequered human-rights record, limited expression of opinion, indentured foreign workers).

The response within Qatar, however, was interesting. Yes, there was jubilation, but also a sense of, if not quite entitlement, then at least expectation. There was no exuberant joy and gratitude from the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, more the contentment of someone who's getting used to winning.

To arrive in Qatar, then, especially from a deflated West, is to feel yourself immersed in a place that wants to Go Somewhere or Be Something, and to do so very quickly. When Qatar's sovereign wealth fund goes shopping, it is apt to land the iconic likes of Harrods; it also owns large parts of a series of banks - Credit Suisse, Barclays and Santander - plus the London Stock Exchange.

But it's also to arrive in a place obsessed with being known for something beyond its untold wealth - a place that recognises that while money has its huge merits, it doesn't, as the song has it, buy you love.

Culture, however, might. It is in this context that winning the World Cup should be viewed: against a backdrop of film festivals and new museums, of landmark architecture and its aim to be a global hub of the art market.

To become a cultural capital is the way to the world's heart, or so runs the idea. This is not a novel notion in the Gulf, where emirates bid to be taste-makers; Abu Dhabi has its own versions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

But Qatar can make you feel you're at the centre of a perpetual whirl of power and money.

"They are keen to have a signature that's not just the Rich Gas and Oil People. It's much more interesting to be the Culture People," said Amanda Palmer, an Australian broadcaster who has become something of a player in Qatar. She is the executive director of the Doha Tribeca film festival, an offshoot of the Robert De Niro-backed New York event, whose presence in Doha reflects savvy arts connections at play in Qatar.

Doha Tribeca is not just a "trophy" festival. There's thought and imagination at work in the programming.

Naturally, driving such events is Qatar's desire to show it can attract world stars and their films, that it can put itself on the "world entertainment circuit".

But it also turns out that people in prominent positions within the cultural elite, people with access to power, know, for instance who Nitin Sawney, the British musician, is and understand, say, the charms of TED (a non-profit worldwide organisation which lays on global conferences under the banner "Ideas worth spreading") and they often turn out to be smart women, largely from the region.

Doha also plays host to a TEDx conference. That Doha now gives a berth to the very embodiment of high-end cultural chat is a mark of the ways in which Qatari power wants to nudge outsiders' perceptions.

So while the Qatari sovereign fund is busy pursuing establishment jewels the ruling family is also open to advice on the wisdom of hooking up with more left-field collaborators: Sheikha Mozah, one of the emir's wives, was instrumental in establishing the Doha Tribeca film festival.

Perceptions are being nudged elsewhere in town - in Education City, no less, where it is announced University College London (UCL) is to open a campus (joining several American institutions, including Georgetown University, which operate franchises in Doha).

The investment in education and culture prompt questions in the Gulf state: what's an education for? What are the arts for?

Consider human rights and Qatar. In Gulf terms, Qatar is judged to have a reasonable record, though last year Amnesty International called on it to strengthen guarantees of freedom of expression and to end discrimination against women; homosexuality is illegal and sentences of flogging are still imposed.

Then there are the less-than-benign conditions for many of its foreign workers. Only 300,000 of the population are natives - the rest of the 1.7 million residents are foreigners, many Asian construction workers.

Should those whose talents are hired, or given a forum at a film festival or educational establishment, say, consider themselves involved in a progressive act? Or are they helping Qatar look good and appear liberal?

"Well, the first thing you do is to not come and lecture," says Scandar Copti, film programmer at Doha Tribeca. "You have a look around, see what can be done, learn; see if you can do some good work."

Copti, an Arab Israeli, is a figure with some clout and an impressive record. He co-directed the feature film Ajami, which was nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2009; he also provoked controversy within Israel when the film began making waves by asserting he did not "represent" Israel (because Israel, he said, did not "represent" him).

Qatar is staking its claim to be a hugely powerful cultural capital, one that gains status points by attracting notable foreigners to its blue-chip events.

But remember,Copti counters, that in other ways this is just the beginning: as producers of culture, Qataris are just starting. For instance, the very first Qatari film, Clockwise - a horror film shot in the desert - was only completed last year.

To that end, in his other, educative, role at the film institute, Copti said he had visited every school in Qatar to plant the idea of film-making in young children's minds. Many from the immigrant community have become regulars at the institute.

Copti is also keen to set Qatar in a wider Arab context. For him, the Doha Film Institute, which hosts the film festival, is less of a national than a pan-Arabic resource. Qatar has plenty of money, but much of the Arab world has not, he explains.

Just as America is the hub for English-speaking film talent, why not Doha for the Arab-speaking variety? Qatar could become a place where Arab creators, in film and beyond, can find money and training.

As for restrictions, this is less of a top-down affair, suggested Copti, it was about trying to judge what will work with the locals.

Another prominent figure working in the arts points out the ruling al-Thani family are, if anything, ahead of their population in terms of liberalising Qatar: "The 300,000 Qataris are very comfortable, very well off and conservative; to be born Qatari is to win the lottery, at least in material terms, and there is hardly a great clamour from them for change."

This analysis casts the emir and Sheikha Mozar as involved in a sort of experiment to see what works.

"There's certainly a spirit of inquiry in the air," says a Qatari entrepreneur with a taste for the arts whom I meet at a fringe film event.

"And much of this comes from the top."

He adds: "Of course, we know that these big events are designed for Qatar to make an impression on the outside world. But they also become a focus for ideas and for new thinking."

LITTLE RICH COUNTRY

* Qatar has the world's second highest per capita income, after the tax haven Liechtenstein.

* Wealth comes from oil and gas reserves in the Gulf.

* Ruled by the same family for 150 years.

* Home to the Arab news and current affairs network Al Jazeera.

* Most of Qatar's 1.5 million people are non-citizen foreign workers.

* Emits twice as much carbon dioxide emissions per capita than any other country because of high energy use.

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