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November 10, 2008

Electric Qatar

Doha’s poised to rock the art world — at a decibel not seen since the Guggenheim put Bilbao on the map.

Let Dubai have its ski slopes, and Abu Dhabi its Louvre. The independent emirate of Qatar is putting its riches toward a more authentic distinction: becoming the world capital for ancient Islamic art. Flush with money from natural gas exports (only Iran and Russia have larger stocks), the Qatari royal family has spent millions cornering the Islamic art market. Not to mention an additional $800 million on a dramatic new museum to house the collection. Opening November 22, the Museum of Islamic Art is expected to do for Doha what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao: put the city on the world map.

Built by starchitect I.M. Pei (who also designed the Louvre’s pyramidal annex), the museum rises in angular tiers from a new artificial island in Doha Bay, connected to the mainland by a palm-fringed bridge. (Qatar itself forms a stubby finger protruding from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf.) The collection contains artifacts from three continents and 13 centuries of Islamic craftsmanship — items like a thousand-year-old crystal jug auctioned by Christie’s for $5 million.

In 2008, Islamic art sales have shattered auction records, fueled largely by Qatar and its willingness to go head-to-head with the wealthy Prince Karim Aga Khan (who’s busy building his own Islamic arts museum, to open in Toronto by 2011). Following the scent of money, Sotheby’s is opening an office in Doha in the coming months. And with the world’s highest per capita income (over $80,000), the emirate should have many able buyers among its 1.5 million residents. If not, there will be plenty of lavish new hotels to support the visiting elite when Sotheby’s holds its first major auction in early 2009.

By that time, Grand Hyatt is expected to open in the style of a modern emir’s palace. The hotel is part of a new seaside district just 12 miles from the international airport — though that’s soon to be replaced in phases starting next year. The sprawling new airport, two-thirds the size of Doha, will have a shopping mall, mosque and facilities to service two A380 jumbo jets simultaneously. From the tarmac, the deepest pockets can helicopter directly to the new Shangri-La, which will have a VIP landing pad crowning its 48 stories when it opens, also in early 2009.

But for the ultimate chill scene, it will be hard to beat W Doha, debuting January 15 with a poolside Shisha lounge and outposts of Jean-George Vongerichten’s Spice Market and La Maison du Caviar. The W will also introduce the Middle East to its “Whatever/Whenever” policy — but with one clear caveat: the request has to be legal. As a pair of publicly frisky Brits just found out, in the Muslim world, the rules are a little different.

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read more: 02. Sleep | 10. Culture | art

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