About 50 miles away, just over the Saudi Arabian border, a woman cannot drive a car or show her face in public. Yet here in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in a vast executive suite, a 25-year-old woman is running a multibillion-dollar organization. Yes, her dad rules the country, but by various accounts, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani isn’t just coasting in her position as boss of the Qatar Museums Authority, which this November will unveil its first venue, the 377,000-square-foot Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei.
Dressed in a black abaya and head scarf and seated behind a massive desk, Mayassa, as she is called informally, at first seems dwarfed by her surroundings. But rising from her chair, she grows in stature as she speaks about her museum’s mission. “There is a big misconception about what Islam is and the geographic location of it,” she says in her British-inflected English. “Originally, Islam was a culture. It wasn’t just a religion.” The objects in the collection of the MIA, as it is known, span 13 centuries and three continents, with pieces originating from Spain to Uzbekistan. “You had so many people who looked different, spoke different languages and had other religions, but all lived under the umbrella of Islam.”
One of seven children fathered by the Emir, now 56, with his second wife (he has another 20-some children with his two other wives), Mayassa took up her position nearly three years ago, fresh out of Duke University. She readily admits that her naïveté about the challenges involved made plunging in easier. “I didn’t really realize what this job required,” she says, laughing. Giving birth to a son nine months ago, following her January 2007 marriage to her cousin Sheikh Jassim, doesn’t seem to have slowed her down, either.
The political-religious stance of the museum and the unusual responsibility of Mayassa speak volumes about Qatar and how it differs from its close neighbors. A country about the size of Connecticut, it occupies a peninsula of sand dunes and salt flats that juts out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, with Iraq and Iran just across that troubled water. To the east lies the United Arab Emirates, including glitzy Dubai, which has become a sort of Mideast Las Vegas, and Abu Dhabi, which has been making a heavily publicized bid to become the cultural hub of the region, with branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim slated to open around 2013.
Qatar has been just as ambitious in its aspirations to become a cultural center, but by starting with a focus specifically on Islamic culture, the country has been doing it in a more homegrown way. Unlike Abu Dhabi, furthermore, Qatar is not renting art (the arrangement with the Louvre, for the use of its name and loans of art, will reportedly cost Abu Dhabi $1 billion). During the past decade, representatives of the Al-Thani family—most famously, an art- and antiquities-obsessed cousin of the Emir, Sheikh Saud—have purchased almost every significant piece of Islamic art that has come on the market. Meanwhile, planning for the country’s other major institution, a Qatar National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel, is well under way.
Designated a British protectorate in 1916, Qatar became independent in 1971, the same year the world’s largest natural gas field was discovered off its shores. All of this has made the Al-Thanis, the dynasty that has essentially ruled the country since the mid-18th century, spectacularly wealthy. An unplanned succession of power occurred 13 years ago, however, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani—Mayassa’s father—usurped his father, Sheikh Khalifa, and became the Emir. It was a bloodless coup (Hamad telephoned his father, then in Zurich, to deliver the news) and a very popular one. Khalifa, a largely absentee king who lived much of the year on the French Riviera, had resisted economic and social reforms. But shortly after taking the throne, Hamad, a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, gave women the right to vote (so far, the country has held only municipal elections), abolished censorship and announced that Qatar was to eventually become a democracy (it still hasn’t). He also launched the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera.
Upon my arrival at the gleaming Doha airport, the first thing I notice is the enormous queue, mostly of guest workers, who are waiting to clear immigration. (Some 75 percent of the country’s present population of 1.4 million are foreigners.) As my car approaches the city, it’s immediately obvious what all the workers are doing here. Huge cranes hover over the skeletons of nascent skyscrapers rising on seemingly every corner, making Doha appear like one big construction site, especially on the corniche along the city’s crescent-shaped harbor.
At the very heart of this, on an island just offshore, stands the massive five-story ziggurat that is the Museum of Islamic Art. Made of white stone, it forms a powerful cubistic sculpture in the harsh sunlight. Pei, now 91, was reluctant to accept the commission when it was first brought to him in 1999, having retired officially from his firm in 1990. The Emir, however, would not take no for an answer, even when the legendary architect protested that he knew little about Islamic architecture. For inspiration, Pei traveled to North Africa and eventually found a model for the museum in Cairo, at the magnificent Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun.
Pei agreed to take the job, provided that the Emir would build an island for the project, which he felt the museum would need so as not to be overshadowed by the city’s skyscrapers. A 64-acre site was duly created, accessible to the mainland by a 200-foot bridge. Pei’s distinctive edifice is clearly destined to be the city’s symbol, much like the Opera House is for Sydney—as well it should be, considering its cost, said to be $1.6 billion.
The offices of the Qatar Museums Authority are in a palacelike compound closer to the outskirts of the city. After a bit of a wait in a cool, marble-lined reception area, I’m shown into Mayassa’s capacious office, decorated with contemporary and ancient Islamic art.
“It was really His Highness’s vision,” she says of the museum. (When she speaks of her parents, it’s always “His Highness” and “Her Highness.”) Still, according to Mayassa, her father has given her a mostly free hand in overseeing the authority. “We ask him for approval on major decisions, but on day-to-day things, he trusts me. He has a country to run.”
The MIA’s collection, which includes many figurative pieces, is expected to generate controversy, since some Islamic extremists believe art should not depict the human figure. But Mayassa is prepared for debate. “Then how come Muslim artists created these works?” she says heatedly. By showcasing these artifacts, she says, she hopes to spur discussion on the true nature of Islam, which she feels has been distorted by fundamentalists: “This is a big controversy, and we need to have a debate about this. We need to go back to the original sources to try to understand our culture.”
“Hard-liners have perhaps exaggerated their position,” says Mahrukh Tarapor, associate director for exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Attitudes towards figurative art vary widely in the Islamic world. But people in that part of the world deserve to see these works.”
More than most of their neighbors, Qataris seem to tolerate controversial ideas. “When we allow debate, that doesn’t mean we adopt that policy or that’s what we believe,” Mayassa says. “But there is no harm in discussing things. If you want to convince me, you can try to convince me. But if I’m not convinced, I’m not convinced.”
According to the high-powered trustees the Emir recruited to the museum authority, or QMA, Mayassa is rising to the challenges of her post. “Creating a new museum is an unbelievably complex task, requiring skills of a high order across a whole range of disciplines,” says Lord Jacob Rothschild, mentioning Mayassa’s “unstinting leadership.” Marie-Josée Kravis, another trustee, says that Mayassa is not a mere figurehead: “Her parents, who set a very high standard and expect perfection, have given her all this responsibility, but they hold her accountable. They expect her to watch the museum like a hawk.”
Newly installed QMA executive director Roger Mandle, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, concurs. “Mayassa does her homework and expects everybody else to,” he says. “I’m barraged by e-mails from her at all hours.”
Growing up in the royal palace outside Doha, Mayassa attended a local British school. She arrived at Duke, where she double majored in literature and politics, just before 9/11. “But I didn’t feel any discrimination,” she says. “I think everybody [at Duke] understood the attacks were not a Muslim thing, but acts from extremists. America is a very open society, with people who are very kind and accepting of different cultures. That’s very important.”
She says that this lesson echoed something her parents always stressed: “They told us, ‘You have responsibility to your people, but you also have to respect people of different cultures and religions. You have to be flexible.’”
The freedom and rights of women, however, is an issue on which Mayassa is quite firm. “Women in Islam were always free,” she says.
“It’s not Islam that changed that—it’s the political structure,” she continues. “In the Koran, the Prophet’s first wife was a merchant, and the Prophet was working for her. It was she who asked him to marry her! This shows that in the past, women had a very prominent role in society. Their opinions mattered. They fought in wars, and they took leading roles.”
Much of the progress women have made in Qatar can be credited to Mayassa’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned. The second of the Emir’s three wives, she is a fortysomething dynamo who has achieved a degree of visibility and political power unheard of among women in the Gulf region. As chair of the multibillion-dollar Qatar Foundation, she oversees huge projects, including Education City, a 2,500-acre campus that houses satellites of five American universities, among them Georgetown and Cornell. All of Qatar was said to be jolted when Sheikha Mozah broke with tradition six years ago and appeared without a face covering at a public event with the Emir. But while Qataris are now accustomed to seeing her unveiled, their neighbors aren’t. When a Saudi newspaper ran a picture of a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Mayassa’s mother attended, she had been digitally erased.
In Qatar, in the end, it is all about Daddy, however. The Emir’s postcoup statements about democracy aside, he still enjoys absolute rule (elections for a national parliament, scheduled for last year, were postponed). He has even officially designated Mayassa’s 28-year-old brother, Tamim, as his heir apparent.
When it came to marriage, Mayassa chose to wed within her own culture and family. As is not uncommon in Qatar, she married a cousin. “He loves art, which makes my job easier,” she says of Sheikh Jassim, who has a position in the country’s natural gas sector. “I take him to museums and galleries. He’s very supportive.” Although Mayassa makes it sound as if she’s been dragging her husband to art shows, insiders say that this is not actually the case. According to an art dealer, Sheikh Jassim is very interested in contemporary art and has been the driving force behind many of the family’s acquisitions.
Mayassa mainly comes across as a no-nonsense woman, but it seems she does have an interest in fashion. When photographer Juergen Teller, while taking her portrait for this story, mentions that he shoots Marc Jacobs’s ads, she offers a rare moment of unguarded enthusiasm. “Marc Jacobs! I wanted him to do my wedding dress, but I couldn’t get him on the phone,” she exclaims. (Proof that all the money in the world still can’t buy everything.)
Visitors to the MIA, on the other hand, will certainly get a good glimpse of what bottomless funds can buy; on view will be the fruits of one of the most expensive art-buying sprees in decades. Since 1997 the royal family has more or less cornered the Islamic art market, snapping up nearly every available treasure, often for record-breaking sums. “We’ve competed with them many times for objects,” says a curator at a leading American museum. “We’ve lost every time. Now the feeling is, if they want something, forget it.”
For many years, the purchasing was driven by Sheikh Saud. An insatiable connoisseur, he was said to be the biggest art buyer in the world, reportedly spending about $1.5 billion within a few years. When Saud coveted an object, there was seemingly no limit to what he would pay. He spent $170,000 on an Iranian pottery tile for which Christie’s gave a low estimate of about $1,800; for a Moghal agate and garnet fly whisk with a high estimate of $14,400, he paid $1.6 million.
Saud, who lived part of the year in England, did not confine himself to the Islamic market. He amassed Roman antiquities, Fabergé eggs, Art Deco furniture, fossilized dinosaurs and more. What he was buying for his own collection and what he was acquiring for Doha’s future museums, including a photography museum and a national library (which were to be designed by Santiago Calatrava and Arata Isozaki, respectively), however, was never totally clear.
Even to the Emir, it seems: In early 2005 Qatari officials confronted Saud at his home in London, and museums and dealers soon received a letter from the government, informing them that Saud was no longer authorized to purchase for it. Saud returned home, where he was briefly incarcerated. Although the exact nature of Saud’s transgression was never made public, it was generally surmised that Saud had sent inflated invoices to the Qatari government for his acquisitions—often for objects bought for his personal collections.
The scandal, which became a huge object of art-world gossip, delayed the opening of the museum (originally on track for 2006) and prompted a major reorganization, in which the Emir created the Qatar Museums Authority to run all museums, with Mayassa as the chair of its board of trustees. Plans for the Calatrava and Isozaki buildings, said to be Saud’s pet projects, were put on hold. (Both architects say they are no longer involved with the Qatar projects.)
Not surprisingly, Mayassa avoids going into detail about the events. “I think the press has covered that already. Every time someone asks, I direct them to our attorney general, who took care of this case,” she says. “I think it mostly has to do with mismanagement of government funds. It was unfortunate because he was collecting good things for the country. But these things happen, I think, everywhere.”
Although the episode briefly slowed acquisitions, it was soon full speed ahead (for Saud as well, who has recently reappeared in Europe, where he has resumed purchasing for his private collections). Islamic art auctions in the past year have shattered all records, now fueled by heated competition between Qatar and the Aga Khan, who is building his own Islamic art museum, set to open in Toronto in 2011.
One might think that Mayassa and her family had all the art they could handle. But in May The Art Newspaper reported on its front page that it was the Qatari royal family who had purchased Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring for $19.2 million (a record for the artist) and who were most likely the mystery buyers for the so-called “Rockefeller Rothko,” which sold for $72.8 million.
Could a Qatari museum of contemporary art be in the pipeline? Mayassa will only hint that “a lot of interesting projects” are in the works. “There will be a few surprises,” she says with a smile.