A 30-year-old Qatari is the most powerful person in art—even if she didn’t buy a $142 million painting

Sheikha Al-Mayassa between tennis players Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters at the WTA Championships in Doha.
Sheikha Al-Mayassa between tennis players Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters at the WTA Championships in Doha.
Image: Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad
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Sheikha Al Mayassa, sister of the emir of Qatar, is by more than one account the most powerful person in the art world due to her position as head of the free-spending and ridiculously well-funded Qatar Museums Authority. Whenever the sheikha is in town, ”everyone from government ministers to mayors queue up to pay their respects,” said ArtReview, which ranked her at the top of its Power 100 list of the art world’s most influential people.

The New York Post, citing unidentified sources, claimed that she was the anonymous buyer behind last week’s record $142 million purchase of a Francis Bacon triptych—a report almost immediately refuted by the gallery that purchased the painting on behalf of an unnamed buyer. Still, it’s easy to see why the 30-year-old sheika, whose official title is Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, attracted such speculation. Snapping up the painting would be a characteristic move in her quest to turn tiny and fabulously wealthy Qatar into a global destination for fine art.

Quartz’s attempts to reach the sheika for comment via phone and email at the Qatar Museums Authority were unsuccessful. But here’s what we know about her background, her methods, and her biggest trophies to date.

She’s well-educated and worldly

Her mother is a middle-class Qatari who studied in Cairo, but the sheika attended primary and secondary school in Doha. In addition to her native Arabic, she speaks French and English, and double majored in Political Science and Literature at Duke University, then received a master’s in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. She is married to Sheik Jassim bin Abdulaziz al-Thani, a cousin.

Robert De Niro used to be her boss

The sheikha apparently enjoys movies as well as artwork. She interned at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions, which led her to launch the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in her homeland. That event ran from 2009 until 2012, with the partnership ending this year.

Her art budget is staggeringly large

Ultimately, her power derives from control of the world’s biggest art budget. The Qatar Museums Authority, which she heads, is said to spend a whopping $1 billion per year on artwork, dwarfing outlays from famous institutions like MoMA and the Tate Modern. The QMA administers Doha’s IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, the National Museum of Qatar, and several other institutions.

She gave a TED talk about bridging cultures through art

“Art becomes a very important part of our national identity,” she said in the December 2010 presentation, during which she wore a traditional black abaya. “Qatar is trying to grow its national museums through an organic process from within. Our mission is of culture, integration and independence.” She continued, “We don’t want to have what there is in the West. We don’t want their collections. We want to build our own identities, our own fabric, create an open dialogue so that we share our ideas and share yours with us.”

She’s paying huge sums for masterpieces

While the sheikha has said she wants to focus on Islamic art, her acquisitions send a different message. In recent years, Qatar has paid $70 million for a Rothko, $250 million for a Cézanne, and $20 million for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet—the most anyone’s ever shelled out for a work by a living artist. Qatar also has works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons.  ”They’re the most important buyers of art in the market today,” Patricia G. Hambrecht, the chief business development officer for Phillips auction house, told the New York Times. “The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”

That leads to a question: Are the purchases, details of which are closely held, made on behalf of the museums or Qatar’s royal family itself? Representatives do not comment on conjecture about acquisitions, or even ”explain how they might benefit Qatar’s citizens,” the Economist reported.

Not everyone in Qatar is open-minded about art

Some art projects installed in the capital, Doha, have been quite daring. The sheika commissioned Hirst to create 14 giant, bronze, anatomically correct sculptures depicting a child developing in a uterus. The project, called “The Miraculous Journey,” was successfully installed and unveiled outside a women’s and children’s health center.

But two ancient sculptures of young athletes to be displayed in Qatar’s National Archaeological Museum were recently sent back to Greece after objections over their nudity. And then there was the outdoor statue that depicted French soccer player Zinédine Zidane head-butting an Italian counterpart during the 2006 World Cup final. It was was removed last month after complaints that it violated Islamic principles of not depicting the human form.

She may have encouraged Syria’s first lady to seek refuge in Qatar

Last year The Guardian published a trove of emails purportedly taken from Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma. Among the correspondence was one in which the sheikha seemed to encourage the first lady and her husband to step down and seek refuge in Qatar.

In a message with the disarming subject line “hey!” the sheikha wrote, “i honestly think that this is a good opportunity to leave and re-start a normal life – it cant be easy on the children, it can’t be easy on you!” She continued, “i know at times i am too blunt – but its because i care and consider you and the family as part of our own,” and added, “the region needs to stabilize, but not more than you need peace of mind.”