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Destination UNITY!: The Nation-Building Narrative in the New Qatar National Museum
Paper Proposal Text :
All successful nation-states in the world “invent traditions” in order to establish group cohesion, legitimize institutions and authority, and inculcate particular values and behaviors in society (Hobsbawm 1983, 1–9). One of the most useful tools at a nation’s disposal is that of the national museum; as Levitt (2012, 29) argues, “Ever since the leaders of the new French Republic opened the doors of the Louvre to the general public, cultural institutions have played starring roles in the drama of nation building.” Yet only recently (e.g., Erskine-Loftus 2013) has academic attention shifted toward the use of museums for nation building in the Arabian Peninsula.

A common explanation of political stability in wealthy oil states—rentier theory—discounts the use of nation-building strategies. The explanation for political stability focuses almost exclusively on the amount of oil wealth that these states distribute to their populations in the form of subsidies, benefits, services, and gifts. These allocations buy the citizens’ loyalty and acquiescence, making non-economic nation building strategies irrelevant at best or inadvisable at worst. Luciani’s (1987, 76) original assertion argued that “[a]n allocation state does not need to refer to a national myth and, as a matter of fact, will usually avoid doing so,” a maxim he repeated as late as 2009 (Luciani 2009, 97; see also Albrecht and Schlumberger 2004, 377).

Why, then, do we see so much emphasis on national myth making and nation building through the use of museums in the Arabian Peninsula? As several scholars have argued, even oil-rich states need to avoid the trap of focusing on oil wealth distribution alone, which would create a citizenry devoid of intrinsic loyalty and support (Chaudhry 1997; Foley 2010; Herb 1999, 241–43; Tétreault 2013, 35). The states of the Arabian Peninsula have certainly engaged heavily in the process of non-economic nation building, especially through use of museums and national myths (e.g., Davidson 2005, 2012; Davis and Gavrielides 1991; Valeri 2009). As Erskine-Loftus (2013, 18) notes, “Peninsula museum developments reflect . . . governmental interests in education, soft power, and the projection of nation and national cohesion.” In this paper, I focus on Qatar’s investment in its National Museum, arguing that the state is shaping the historical, social, and cultural narrative “to produce and project political meanings and desired social cohesion” (Al Mulla, Erskine-Loftus, and Hightower 2014)—namely, a unified national citizenry.

Outside observers often point to the demographic imbalance between Qataris and expatriates (unofficially estimated at an 8:1 ratio between expats and nationals) as a common-sense explanation for why an emphasis on Qatari history, culture, and identity are so crucial for national stability. Certainly, both qualitative (Abdulatif 2012; Al-Fadhly 2013; Al Ghanim 2012, 110; Al Khulaifi 2012; Al Kuwari 2012, 209, 218) and quantitative (Mitchell 2013, 173–76; PPC 2013, 14–15) evidence shows very real concerns among Qataris over the demographic imbalance. However, there are also deep-rooted and powerful divisions between Qataris themselves. Qatari society—like all countries in the Arabian Peninsula—contains salient distinctions based on geographic origin, cultural traditions, religious sectarianism, and even economic class (Althani 2012, 46–50; Gardner 2012, 8; Heeg 2010, 90–93; Longva 2006, 171; Nagy 2006, 127–31; Partrick 2009, 20–23). This separated notion of Qatari identity—as a divided community with myriad social tensions—is the antithesis of the state’s major nation-building goal: to create a unified Qatari citizenry.

In this paper, I show specific examples of how the state is actively promoting a unified citizenry, including through emphasis on the tribal unity of Qatar throughout history, in the (re)construction of the National Museum. My research is based on interviews with project members, including at the director level, and access to official and internal documents about the still-under-construction museum. The new Qatar National Museum will consist of thirteen galleries, with three major and interrelated themes: emerging territory, life in Qatar, and founding and transforming the nation. This paper focuses in particular on Galleries 5 and 6—the interrelations between “life in the desert” and “life on the coast”—and Gallery 8—the crucial “building the nation” theme. First, the combination of the land and sea narratives can be seen as braiding together the bedu and hadar storylines into a unified Qatari narrative—what Miriam Cooke (2014) describes as “the tribal modern brand.” The “life in the desert” gallery juxtaposes the traditional Bedouin tent with the modern-day majlis (a reclining sitting area that is found in virtually all Qatari homes today), showing similarities between the two as a means of connecting the past with the present. The “life on the coast” gallery tells the story of a pearl diving community that would settle on the coast for the summer months, and then go to the desert and live off the land in the winter months—again, interweaving the two narratives of nomadic and settled life. The two galleries then join together in the “celebrating life” gallery, which creates positive and unifying feelings through an emphasis on the traditional cultural celebrations of Qataris, many of which are shared experiences regardless of hadar-bedu distinctions.

The “building the nation” gallery takes this shared cultural heritage and spins it into the larger narrative of the founding and transformation of Qatar into a unified, independent, and strong nation. Gallery 8 tells the history of Qatar’s formation and independence, including the political history of the Al Thani family. Following in the tradition of many national museums, in the Arabian Peninsula and throughout the world (e.g., Al Qassemi 2013), divisive social history is glossed over in this room. However, while seeking to remind visitors of the important place of the Al Thani in Qatari history, through a wall of touchscreen portraits and biographies, this gallery also highlights the contributions of other important families, including prominent (and historically controversial) tribes such as the Al Murra and the Al Naim. In sum, I argue that the main message of Qatar’s new national museum is a unified citizenry throughout its history. As Dr. Emin Mahir Balcioğlu (the Project Director in 2013) asserted, “We are witnessing a historic moment of nation building at its best.”

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