We say Gulf to avoid calling it Persian or Arabian. When that placid world of pearl hunters, camel breeders and date growers became an oil lake, the old enmity between Arabs and Persians was expressed through the geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That tension extends the secular competition between the Al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi and the Al-Thanis of Qatar, who of late have used culture and sports to promote their political agendas, and this context frames the two latest iconic works: the Louvre Abu Dhabi by the French Jean Nouvel and the Qatar National Library by the Dutch Rem Koolhaas. Abu Dhabi and the rest of the United Arab Emirates are closely connected to Saudi Arabia, while Qatar has followed its own path, favoring the ‘Arab Spring’ through the influential Al-Jazeera and establishing strong ties with the Iran of the Ayatollahs.
The religious and political clash between the two branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, is reflected today in the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, which despite sharing with Saudis the Wahabite variant of Sunnism, is accused by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrein and Egypt of protecting terrorist groups and of becoming a vehicle for revolutionary ideas from Iran, country with which it shares the exploitation of natural gas sites in the Gulf. The air, sea and land blockade of Qatar, which has been formulating an ambitious policy independent from its neighbors– materialized in symbolic achievements like hosting the World Cup in 2022, which has meant building twelve new stadiums in the country – , has its latest chapter in the Saudi project to build a canal in its own territory aiming to boost touristic developments, but in the process also turning the Qatar Peninsula into an island.
In the campaign for media visibility between Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the recently completed monumental constructions in both countries play a symbolic role that one is tempted to associate with their respective strategic agendas: while the Emirate has played a conservative and traditionalist role, the friendly and ethereal curves of the museum in Saadiyat Island – ‘Happiness Island’ – speak a female language; and there is no better expression of the masculine assertiveness of Qatar than the hard edges of the library, that lifts its violent folds in the cultural district of Doha. I do not know if Rem Koolhaas is from Mars and Jean Nouvel is from Venus, but the poet Rafael Alberti titled Golfo de sombras (Gulf of Shadows) his book devoted to the female sex, and in the tangled sky of the Louvre dome many shall see Courbet’s L’origine du monde, a painting that will never be displayed in the Gulf.