In the current moment it is not possible to consider trajectories of museums and nation-building in the Arabian Gulf without taking into account the ongoing diplomatic crisis, or blockade that began on 5th June 2017. On this date, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt abruptly closed their borders and cut diplomatic ties with Qatar amidst accusations that the small Gulf state supported terrorism, had become too close to Iran and was meddling with their own internal affairs. During the subsequent two years, two major museums have opened, one on either side of the dispute: the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017, and the National Museum of Qatar in March 2019. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a global art history museum aiming to position the UAE as an actor within established universal (art) histories. The National Museum of Qatar shares the same architect, Jean Nouvel, and a similar desire to be a significant global player: the museum positions Qatar, through its narrative of long-standing global connections, method of local and international co-production, and high-octane opening ceremony, within a network of international relationships and alliances. Both museums celebrate and promote a cosmopolitanism within their citizenry and residents as a legacy of past relationships and activities and a desired future direction. While the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened within months of the start of the blockade, has not been overtly associated with it, Qatar, on the other side of the dispute, had almost two years to consider how to open a national museum in a reconfigured regional political world. Since I have been based in Qatar for eight years and worked on the National Museum of Qatar project for the last four years, this short piece intends to analyse Qatar’s strategic exploitation of its new national museum in this fraught context.
On the evening of 27th March 2019, Naomi Campbell admired Qatar’s historic Gulf pearl jewelry collection, while Victoria Beckham posed in front of Jean Nouvel’s eye-catching architecture at the opening of the National Museum of Qatar, thus ensuring extensive global media coverage of the event. While the international media reporting focused on the famous architect and the celebrities, regional and local media emphasized the museum’s historical content and the regional representatives accompanying the Qatari Emir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on his inaugural tour: Kuwait’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, HE Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the Minister of Heritage and Culture of the Sultanate of Oman, HE Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, and the Vice-President of the Republic of Turkey, HE Fuat Oktay, countries that have remained neutral or supported Qatar during the blockade. This was also the second time that National Museum had been front and centre in Qatar’s public response to the blockade: on 20th June 2017, HH Sheikh Tamim made his first public appearance since the start of blockade at the museum, before the museum’s opening.
The National Museum has been ten years in the making, years that have seen dramatic changes in Qatar’s economic and geopolitical situation. The project was conceptualised during the reign of the Father Emir, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose entrepreneurial leadership saw Qatar invest in and profit from Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), diverting some of these profits to cultural projects such as the Museum of Islamic Art (opened in 2008) and exhibitions of the work of artists such as Damien Hirst, Richard Serra and Takeshi Murakami. With falling oil prices since 2014, cultural projects of such magnitude have become less frequent, but the development of the National Museum has been maintained throughout this downturn and the second major challenge, the blockade.
Qatar responded to the blockade with a widely-reported display of unity, robust autonomy and creative self-sufficiency. The blockade has also been a game-changer in Qatar’s rhetoric of self-definition, with the National Museum as a platform for the re-conceptualisation of what it means to belong to the nation, a particularly sensitive topic in countries such as Qatar and the UAE, where around 90% of people have resident status only and many have limited rights. In the lead up to the National Museum’s opening, HE Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, sister of the Emir and Chairperson of Qatar Museums, the authority that oversaw the museum’s development, expressed a message of inclusivity in her public statements. For example, in late 2017 she stated: “Ours is a country made-up of diverse populations, over one hundred different nationalities live in Qatar. In such a place where many cultures intersect and people cohabit peacefully and in harmony the value of cultivating an open mind is paramount […]. The museum – she continued  – is the physical manifestation of Qatar’s proud identity, connecting the country’s history with its diverse and cosmopolitan present.” This same message was symbolised at the opening event by the singing of the Qatari national anthem by children wearing the national dress of the multiple nations resident in the country. Qatar’s emphasis on openness and inclusivity has also been expressed in other actions, such as the lifting of entry visa requirements for 80 countries in August 2017.
The messaging of the National Museum opening was not overlooked. Local, regional and international media connected the opening with the blockade, some overtly with headlines such as “Qatar museum welcomes ‘all’ amidst Gulf dispute” (Jordan Times, 27th March 2019), quoting Sheikha Al Mayassa as saying that the blockade had no affect on the development of the museum and all people were welcome to visit. Elizabeth Paton’s article in The New York Times Business Section (9th April 2019) was headlined “Qatar Fights Back With an Arsenal of Fashion and Art.” The piece commented on Qatar’s strategy of investment in luxury, sports and the arts to forge alliances with outside players and give them a greater stake in the country’s ability to remain independent (the stellar guests at the museum opening are an example of the utilisation of these relationships at a critical moment), with the blockade described as the most serious threat in Qatar’s four-decade history. As these small Gulf nations embed themselves within global soft-power networks and re-conceptualise themselves on the world stage, it remains to be seen how the rhetoric of inclusion in the nation, central to liberal cosmopolitan ideologies, will be implemented within domestic policies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
 ‘Blockade’ is the term used in Qatar and in international reporting but is not widely accepted in the opposing countries. The term ‘blockade’ will be used in this piece in line with international use.
 Some actions of the Louvre Abu Dhabi have been interpreted as influenced by the blockade, for example, the omission of Qatar from a map of the Gulf, argued by the UAE to have been an error and since rectified.
 In the Qatar Museums press release on the occasion of the visit of the Emir to the National Museum on 20th June 2017, quoted on, for example, the local information website Marhaba, ‘HH The Emir of Qatar visits the National Museum site.’
 See Exell, K. 2018. Adapting Ambitions at the Time of Crisis: Qatar’s Evolving International Cultural Strategies, in The Qatar Crisis 2017: The View from Within, edited by Rory Miller. Doha: HBKU, pp. 19-27.