Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world. The $300 billion World Cup reveals its impact and its limits.

Qatar player. In the Middle East and around the world, the oil-producing nation of fewer than 3 million people plays a huge role in Political geography, media and art. Its cultural diplomacy has proven the country’s influence — and now it’s doing the same with sports.

The country’s absurd wealth is on display this month: I spent approx 300 billion dollars On stadiums and foundation work to host World Cup 2022that launched on Sunday. That money totaled over of all previous World Cups and Olympic Games combined.

Qatar It exports more liquefied natural gas from any other country. Its energy resources have made the royal family among the richest families in the world, with a presence $335 billion sovereign wealth Fund, is one of The largest landowners in the UKand owns a significant stake in the Empire State Building.

However, Qatar has arguably been a more strategic spender than they are Neighboring Oil-rich countries. It has focused on the successful construction of cultural and educational institutions for Qataris and the creation of a national identity. But it is a national identity presented by the royal family that does not tolerate dissent and does not guarantee human rights.

The achievement of the first World Cup to be held in the Arab world embodies those tensions: Qatar is a country that uses its vast wealth and power to advance itself and the region, and cares deeply about culture, yet has few freedoms.

Qatar’s elaborate hosting of the World Cup is matched by its technical prowess

Doha has developed rapidly in recent decades from a small port to a dramatic cityscape in what Qatari artist Sofia Al-Maria describes as “Gulf future. “

Yet for all she has Extravagance in spending And the foreign policy influenceQatar has managed to deflect criticism over the years for restricting women’s and LGBT rights and labor abuses, including relative silence from its Western allies. (It should help that it’s home to The largest US military base in the Middle East.)

The astounding development of the World Cup arenas reflects Qatar’s incredible investment in art. It was reported that the sister of the Emir of Qatar and the head of its museum network, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, spends about $1 billion annually on art. This is far superior to any major American museum.

Qatar has commissioned epic works by Western artists, such as Richard SerraHuge Steel Sheets in the Desert (“East-West/West-East”) f Damien HirstThe series of large bronze sculptures, about 46 feet high, of human reproduction from conception to fetus (“The Miracle Journey”). Qatar has also bought some of the most expensive paintings in the world: Rothko’s “White Center” ($70 million), Cézanne’s “The Card Players” ($250 million), and “When Will You Get Married?” ($300 million).

There was a lot of focus onstarches— American and largely European architects construct exotic structures that few other countries could afford, among them Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel.

Three large bronze sculptures depicting a pregnant fetus inside the womb.

“The Miracle Journey,” an installation by artist Damien Hirst outside the Sidra Medical and Research Center in the Qatari capital, Doha, on the day of its unveiling, October 10, 2018.
AFP via Getty Images

A large white building built on the water's edge made up of rectangular shapes stacked next to a row of palm trees.

The Museum of Islamic Art, seen on December 5, 2021, in Doha, Qatar. It was designed by the famous architect IM Pei.
Marcus Gillier/GES-Sportfoto via Getty Images

But more importantly, Qatar did not only import from the West.

It created institutions that helped shape its national identity as an Islamic and Arab country. Breathtaking minimum – Islamic art museum In the center of Doha, designed by the famous Chinese architect IM Pei, contains an impressive international collection. On the outskirts of Education CityAmong the satellites of universities like Georgetown, Northwestern, and Virginia Commonwealth is a museum: the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which contains one of the most comprehensive collections of Arab art of the 20th century. (The United Arab Emirates and Qatar participate in a The cutthroat race to buy modern Arab art from all over the Middle East.) And part of the capital has a new, old-looking downtown, called Msheireb, with several cultural museums including one Focus on the history of slavery in the country.

“Qatar has always been more connected, so to speak, with this feeling of its past and its historical memory,” Keshwar Rizvi, a professor of art at Yale University, told me. “There’s this global stage on which they want to present themselves,” she explained, but there’s also a sense that “we’ve got oil and wealth and all that, but we also need cultural capital, because that’s also part of what makes a nation.”

Perhaps because the cultural investments in Qatar have been so smart, I was surprised to show off World Cup stadiums. One of the pitches is in the shape of a traditional diagonal tent and the other is made of shipping containers. Most of the stadiums marquee for world sporting events Showy or trying to represent the culture of the host countrybut with this year everything seems too decorative or obvious.

Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, State of Qatar, is shaped like a large white rectangle with rounded corners and covered in a tapestry pattern.

A view of the facade of Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar on October 28, 2022. The design of the stadium is inspired by the Ghafia, a traditional Arab hat worn by men in Gulf countries.
Muhammed Dabbous/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A stadium that looks like a giant traditional Qatari tent.

Al Bayt Stadium before the opening match of the FIFA World Cup, was built in the form of a traditional diagonal tent.
Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The result of starchy architects in Qatar is the lowest common denominator, a country reduced to a stereotype. “I think it shows a lack of imagination,” says Rizvi. She says these new stadiums stand in contrast The modern Le Corbusier Olympic Stadium Designed for Baghdad in the fifties.

This lack of imagination is all the more astounding because much of Qatar’s soft power prowess has had impressive results in art, culture, education and media.

Can cultural diplomacy flourish without human rights?

I visited Qatar in 2016 to attend a conference of eminent artists and architects, all chaired by Sheikha Al Mayassa. Conceptual artist Marina Abramović has equated her and her royal family in Qatar with the Medicis of modern times, with funds to support artists like Serra in creating. Huge business.

This money seems to buy the complicity of powerful people. “You come in and criticize,” Abramović told me, “It’s an easy way to close a culture forever, but I want to open that culture up.”

On the sidelines of the Swiss conference at the W Doha Hotel, I did an interview with Jeff Koons, one of the most expensive living artists in the world and a frequent guest of the royal family. I asked him: Why Qatar? He told me, “I would say because of Qatar’s openness to ideas, education, humanities, psychology, philosophy and all the different things that can motivate the public to grow and develop.”

It prompted Koons to discuss reported labor violations, that his nude photos could never be shown in the conservative country, and the fact that Qatari poet He was imprisoned at the time for a protest song. “Going back to some of the problems here in Qatar and these different things, I’m naive in some respects,” Koons told me. “I know there has been a movement internationally to try to improve working conditions for workers, and I think a lot of the problems, not just here but internationally, have been addressed to try to create situations where, if violations happen, they are rectified.”

Qatar is a monarchy with a large number of expatriate and migrant workers with very limited rights. migrant workers It is not possible to join trade unions. The Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers died More than a decade, and Kenyan blogger who wrote about it was arrested in 2021.

Beyond that, women are being strangled Guardianship lawsLGBTQ people lack rightswere Internet activists Jailed. courts Is not independentthe press Can’t cover freely The country’s politics, and there are no serious elections for the leadership and No political parties.

“If you’re in Qatar, and your rights as a woman or as a gay person are trampled on or whatever, if you don’t like it, you’re thrown in jail and good luck,” Wafa Bin Hussein, a human rights attorney in Washington, DC, told me. “It’s as if you only have certain rights and freedoms if you belong to a certain class of protected people” – the wealthy or some expatriate – “and then they become not human rights.”

Qatar has largely evaded scrutiny over the years. Now that the country is getting a lot of attention, there have been some articles criticizing A double standard on which Qatar is held. But Bin Hussein said the examination was worth it.

“I am happy that an Arab country hosts one of the most lucrative spectacles in the world,” said Bin Hussain. “But it can be better, and it must be better. We must be clear about the state this country is in and aim to bring it to the highest standards.”

And it’s not just about Qatar. It is about the global systems through which Qatar operates, and the ways in which heroism serves Western interests, he wrote in The Guardian Nasreen Malik writesAt the expense of those who lack rights in Qatar.

Nasir Rabat, professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, said: “I don’t want to absolve sponsors, contractors, and builders of the amazing human rights abuses they’ve been subjected to all these years. I’m not going to defend any of these countries by saying their treatment of work is acceptable. It’s not Absolutely acceptable. But I wouldn’t blame them either.”

“Because at the end of the day, those who are making the most money from the building boom in the Gulf are companies from our part of the world, from the US and from Europe,” Rabat told me. They are responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, but we are also responsible for those deaths. And we also benefited from those deaths.”

So the World Cup – with global media fanfare and the arrival of a million visitors – exposes Qatar to new pressure from abroad. In welcoming teams and fans from all over the world, cameras may reveal country borders. Qatar’s deep investment in culture cannot shield it from criticism of the superficiality of rights there.

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