Football outscores culture as Qatar spending slumps

Museum layoffs and project suspensions gather pace in Qatar as oil revenue collapse continues

As an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art opens at Qatar’s Al Riwaq Art Space (14 March-16 July), the energy-rich Gulf state is sharply reducing its public spending, including on culture.

At the beginning of this year, with state revenues hit by the fall in global oil prices, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, approved wide-ranging cuts to the transport, energy, health and culture budgets. Qatar Petroleum had already laid off 3,000 people in 2015, while 1,000 nurses and pharmacists lost their jobs with the state-owned Hamad Medical Corporation in January.

According to the Financial Times, 240 staff members at Qatar Museums, the authority responsible for cultural institutions and heritage sites, have been let go, while personal allowances and internal spending have been curbed. Fewer than 800 employees remain of the 1,200 in place two years ago, the newspaper reported. Qatar Museums declined to confirm the figures or comment on the culture budget.

These cuts will not necessarily have any impact on the Qatari royal family’s personal art buying. There appears to be no museum planned to display their purchases, which are believed to be private, including Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? (1892), bought in 2015.

Sources in the region are notoriously reluctant to go on the record, for fear of compromising working relationships, and employees sign stringent confidentiality agreements. However, two people close to the situation confirm the FT report, adding that while the costs of the Museum of Islamic Art are ringfenced, budgets have been slashed elsewhere. For instance, spending has been cut on Katara Cultural Village, a government-funded complex that includes performance halls and cinemas, which is eventually expected to become profitable. 

Building projects halted One source claims that a further 400 jobs are under threat at Qatar Museums and that the planned children’s and Orientalist museums are “not happening for the foreseeable future, as the staff running those projects have left”. Qatar has a collection of Orientalist art but no building to house it; its curator, Olga Nefedova, left in 2015. A pearl museum also seems to be on hold.

“Sheikh Tamim Al Thani is looking at everything and cutting costs everywhere but it doesn’t seem very structured or thought out,” a source says. The sheikh replaced his father as emir two years ago.

Fighting on two fronts The Qatari government is faced with a double whammy: its revenues have slumped and some projects are proving more expensive than anticipated. Costs for the gargantuan Hamad International Airport, for example, have soared beyond initial expectations to $15.5bn. The National Museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, reportedly cost $434m but has been delayed and is now due to open next year, according to a spokesman for Qatar Museums.

The country now seems focused on delivering the infrastructure for football’s World Cup in 2022, a project that has been bedevilled by allegations of corruption and bid-rigging. “Qatar will argue that everyone’s bid was rigged. It is rushing ahead with building as much infrastructure as possible, so that it can argue that it must retain the cup as it has done so much work on it already,” says another source. “Everything else is taking second place to this.”