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Gulf Futurism? Qatar's Cultural Heritage as Economic and Political Production

Paul Christians
Ph.D. Student, Anthropology Department
Grant Year: 
Paul Christians

My dissertation research is centered on Gulf and Middle Eastern heritage, particularly Qatar’s contemporary cultural projects as economically and politically advantageous productions. Cultural heritage in the region often has been conceived in terms of nationalism and identity formation, or via traditional museum studies

frameworks. But Qatari heritage’s connections to the nation’s history, contemporary context, and geopolitical challenges all suggest these

formulations are inadequate. How, exactly, are heritage, economics, and politics connected in Qatar? More specifically, what are the driving forces for Qatar’s recent investment in cultural projects? And for whom are these projects developed? From this perspective, my initial ethnographic fieldwork approached these questions on two levels: 1) examining state-level apparatuses tasked with managing cultural heritage, especially Qatar Museums; and 2) understanding the various projects, personnel, and processes which create heritage as an intangible and material production.

My summer 2016 fieldwork in Doha, Dubai, and Sharjah took place in August and September, following intensive Arabic language study in Jordan as a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. Throughout this period I explored numerous archaeological, museum, and other cultural sites in Qatar. As an entrée into my dissertation research, my ethnographic interviews centered on academic scholars and heritage practitioners working on cultural heritage in the region; these interviews included the broader regional perspective of several interlocutors based in the United Arab Emirates. I also conducted participant observation at several major Qatari heritage sites, including Al Zubarah World Heritage site and the internationally-recognized Museum of Islamic Art (see attached photos).

These experiences have become the foundation for further academic research during my second year of anthropology coursework. For instance, the data I gathered has shaped my current research on postcolonial approaches to Qatar’s archaeology, heritage, and landscapes.

This evidence will also inform planned projects on Gulf social space and cultural diplomacy. In addition, my summer fieldwork and other academic research formed the core of a conference paper I presented on November 17 at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Titled “Nine Times Out of Ten: Fluctuating Commodities, Qatar Museums, and the Uncertainties of Public-Private Cultural Museums, and the Uncertainties of Public-Private Cultural Development,” this work contributed to a session specializing on cultural heritage titled Neoliberal Heritage Statecraft: Exploring the Heritage/Extractive Industries Nexus. As of December 2016, the session’s chair persons are currently exploring two options to expand the presented papers into a special issue of a peer-reviewed anthropological journal.

Finally, I want to extend my sincerest thanks to the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies for empowering my summer fieldwork and subsequent research outputs. This research would not have been possible without the program’s financial and staff support.