Qatar’s oil boom created the world’s most extravagant art scene—and also led to its demise

Oil money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you lavish art museums.
Oil money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you lavish art museums.
Image: Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad
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Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Naomi Campbell made their way through the VIP crowd, past the fleet of Bentleys, and toward the waiting helicopter.

Hirst—the English artist best known for his multi-million dollar sculpture of a shark floating in formaldehyde—was in town on official business. Qatar Museums (QM) had ponied up over $20 million to fund a retrospective of his work and commission a series of pieces. He had spent the last hour showing QM’s chairperson, Sheikha Mayassa (who is also the daughter of the Emir), around the exhibition, pointing out exactly how her country’s money had been spent. The other two were just tagging along, presumably. Besides, the after-party sounded promising: QM had organized a pop-up Prada shop in the middle of the desert, and guests were being ferried there via private helicopter.

As the rotor blades sprang to life and the unlikely trio was lifted into the sky, the South-Asian laborers working nearby stopped to watch the spectacle. They were being paid $11 a day to swing pickaxes in the desert sun and lay the groundwork for the new Qatar National Museum.

My three years working for QM weren’t always that surreal, but they were definitely strange. When I first touched down at Doha International Airport in early 2012, construction cranes dotted the horizon and money was pouring from the sky. What was once an unremarkable peninsula jutting out from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf had suddenly struck it rich, and they didn’t mind flaunting it.

Over the past decade, the small Middle-Eastern nation had grown obscenely wealthy from oil and natural gas exports. To this day, they still hold the highest GDP per capita in the world. That meant a mad scramble to build luxury hotels, shopping malls, and housing to replace the outdated Bedouin lifestyle that had defined this former British outpost for generations. Desert sands were replaced with manicured gardens; international universities such as Georgetown and Texas A&M were invited to open local campuses at the newly built Education City; and a man-made island and residential district called the Pearl was built in the capital city of Doha at a cost of $15 billion dollars.

But Doha’s long-term vision differed from its flashy neighbors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. With most Qataris subscribing to Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, the locals didn’t want to exchange their religious beliefs for cheap tourism dollars. Instead, the Qatar royal family decided to position the country as a regional hub for arts and education. Spearheaded by the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, and his daughter, Sheikha Mayassa, QM was created in 2005 to help facilitate the arts and act as a “cultural instigator.” This was no small task in a country where the public had minimal interest in art and museums, and both were still judged on their religious merit. The local infrastructure at the time only consisted of a few small galleries and a single privately owned museum in the desert.

The Emir and his daughter required outside help to jump-start their ambitious projects. Fueled by oil proceeds, foreign professionals were poached from some of the world’s best-known art institutions and auction houses to help launch a series of museums, galleries, and exhibitions. Christie’s auction house lost several high-profile employees to QM, including their chairperson, managing director, and contemporary art specialist. The president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) became QM’s first executive director, and numerous museum professionals from institutions such as The British Museum, The Smithsonian, and The National Museum of Australia boarded flights for the allure of the unknown and a cushy salary.

And me? I found myself joining the expat contingent thanks to an old friend who was heading up QM’s newly formed marketing department. It was simple enough: He needed a copywriter, and I’d always wanted to see the Middle East. (And he also promised I could live in a five-star hotel.)

All of this was supported by a multibillion-dollar annual budget that allowed all sorts of seemingly impossible missions to be accomplished. Qatar dragged renowned Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei out of retirement for the construction of the $1.6 billion Museum of Islamic Art, bankrolled exhibitions by Takashi Murakami, Louise Bourgeois, and Richard Serra, and also went on a very, very pricey international art shopping spree. For example, although never officially confirmed, it’s widely believed that Shiekha Mayassa was behind the record-breaking $250 million paid for Cezanne’s The Card Players in 2012—the most ever paid for a work of art. It’s a record that she is rumored to have eclipsed yet again in 2015 with the $300 million acquisition of Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? Neither have ever been seen with public eyes since they were purchased: Last anyone heard, they were sold at auction (presumably to Qatar), and there’s been no mention of them since.

These purchases—perhaps destined to gather dust in a museum basement—nonetheless endeared Qatar to the international art market and provided the media with a compelling, feel-good narrative about the young princess who was helping transform the region via art and museums. That may have been true, but the reality of day-to-day life for the staff at QM was a series of temper tantrums, meltdowns, threats, and people running to the bathroom in tears. But I guess that’s to be expected when you throw a couple hundred expats into a 14-story tower in the desert, pair them up with local bureaucrats, and tell them to launch a series of ludicrous exhibitions and international conferences in a country where a single shipping form or budget request can take months to process.

Like all other aspects of Qatar society, life within the tower followed a very clear hierarchy based on a person’s passport, skin color, and surname. While Qatar isn’t as religiously conservative as neighboring Saudi Arabia, it’s also not that far removed. All Qataris are expected to wear their “national uniform” while in public (a black abaya for women, a white thobe for men). Workplaces pause for daily prayers, and fraternizing between members of the opposite sex is generally discouraged.

It took me a while to adjust to the culture’s unwritten rules. In Qatar, public perception and “saving face” are paramount, which means any differences in opinion have to be framed in the most diplomatic terms. Office hours tend to be relaxed, and schedules can be pushed back (or completely disregarded) with little more than a casual Inshallah, a common phrase throughout the region that translates as “God willing.” Team this with the constant, unspoken tension about who’s actually in charge—the Western expats hired to run projects or the local Qataris they were supposed to be training—and you don’t wind up with a terribly positive cross-cultural working environment.

QM chair Shiekha Mayassa was named one of the 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes in 2012, the most influential person in art by ArtReview in 2013, and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2014. Despite these international accolades, there was growing discontent behind the scenes, as Qatar’s strict moral code came up against Western artists and ideals.

For example, a Qatari VIP sparked an international incident in 2013 after coming across a nude statue at QM’s Olympic history exhibition. According to local gossip, the man saw the statue at a pre-launch event and demanded its immediate removal. This did not go over well with the Greek government ministers who had facilitated the loan—and who were also in attendance.

Later that same year, a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidane, created by artist Adel Abdessemed, was removed from public view after an outcry over “idol worship.” QM’s director of public art unveiled the work by explaining that the statue “shows that although we sometimes treat footballers like gods, they’re not—they’re just human beings.” This was not a view shared by Qatar’s religious community, who pointed out that any statue of a human amounted to idolatry.

The nation’s stark wealth disparity was also a source of tension. While QM’s offices offered panoramic views of Doha’s futuristic skyline, you only had to look to the streets below to see the South-Asian laborers who had made those skyscrapers a reality. Since the Qatari population barely numbers 200,000 and lacked the specialist skills—and inclination—to do any of this grunt work, plane loads of migrant workers started arriving to make up the shortfall. These were guys who had been shipped over with promises of big money only to have their contracts rewritten, their passports confiscated, and their wages slashed before being pointed toward the nearest construction site.

The Western staff that had been brought over as curators, conservators, researchers, and marketers weren’t blind to any of this. But when you’re living in a five-star hotel, getting flown business class to conferences around the world, and being handed a $5,000 allowance for a few nights overseas—no questions asked—it’s easy to overlook the injustice faced by others. I was guilty of it. We all were.

As a result, Western expats at QM eased their guilt with generous tips for the service staff and a heavy dependence on alcohol. $25 cocktails at the W Hotel were an excellent way to forget that you were in the middle of the desert, surrounded by glaring wealth disparity and labor abuses. When the booze failed to fix things, people would simply implode, getting arrested, fired, and deported for a kaleidoscope of offenses.

By 2014, the simmering tension between QM and the local Qatari community had boiled over into the media, and a series of articles appeared in government-backed broadsheets claiming the organization was nothing more than sex- and booze-addicted expats throwing their weight around. It’s important to note that Qatar’s media is very tightly controlled—criticizing an organization run by the Emir’s daughter was unheard of, and was seen as a warning to the organization’s management.

This change in attitude towards QM coincided with the arrival of Qatar’s new Emir, 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, who came to power on June 25, 2013. Unlike his father, who was responsible for modernizing Qatar and pursuing its costly global ambitions, Sheikh Tamim was seen as a fiscal and religious conservative who didn’t have any particular interest in the arts. The new Emir’s desire to reign in budgets and streamline government organizations was a concern among QM staff, but it was a red herring compared to the real threat, which was flashing across the global stock market: the price of oil.

Qatar’s rapid ascension from regional backwater to international art dealer was built on the back of huge oil and natural gas reserves. These provided Qatar with 70% of its revenue and made the tiny Gulf state the richest country in the world. But it also meant the economy was extremely susceptible to the looming oil price crash.

At the start of 2014, crude oil was a hovering around $110 a barrel, a ballpark figure it had maintained for several years. By the end of the year it had fallen to $50, and by the time it bottomed out in late 2015, the price was just $28 a barrel. This dive was caused by a sluggish international growth and a massive upswing in oil production from US fracking.

For QM, this meant the party was over. Faced with huge revenue shortfalls and public pressure to reign in the organization’s more outlandish projects, the government decided to act. QM’s 2014/2015 budget was halved. This had a knock-on effect that saw exhibitions canceled, several new museums placed on “indefinite hold,“ and the various perks enjoyed by Western expats coming to an abrupt halt. With nothing to do, and no money to do it, a trickle of resignations soon became a flood. Museum directors walked away, chief officers were told to find Qatari replacements for their positions, and the rank and file simply went to the airport and caught a flight home.

Whether it had all been a vanity project, propped up by inflated oil prices, or a genuine push to change the region into an arts hub is a debate for the history books. But for those of us who had been there to witness the organization’s moment in the spotlight, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed as we sat at the hotel bar and ordered our final rounds.

In the end, Qatar’s burgeoning art scene was cut down to size by global economic forces that see culture as numbers on a ledger. These days, the organization is a shadow of its former self, and its international staff—and ambition—are long gone. And that $250 million Cezanne and the $300 million Gauguin? Your guess is as good as mine.

You can follow Mikolai on Twitter at @mikolai. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that 4,000 people will die building the 2022 World Cup stadium. The International Trade Union Confederation general secretary who originally made the claim has since stood down from this figure, and we have therefore removed the paragraph in question.