No one knows how many masterpieces of Western art Qatar has bought. It is reported to have splashed out billions of dollars on works by blue-chip artists: Picasso, Rothko, Matisse, and Cezanné, plus contemporary must-have names. But if you think that the new Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar was built to house them, think again. The kingdom’s trophy art remains under wrap. There isn’t a Rothko in sight.

The US-educated emir’s sister, who has masterminded Qatar’s ambition to build “the Smithsonian in the sand,” holds the secrets of its major art acquisitions. Today’s big reveal in Doha is, instead, a museum that celebrates Qatar’s archaeology, natural, its people and the sheikhs who threw off their colonial “protectors” to build a nation. Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the chair of Qatar Museums, led the way at the press preview yesterday, accompanied by the French architect.

Nouvel, the go-to architect for mega museums that express soft power and a sovereign fund measured in trillions, has done his royal client proud. The building is an impressive symbol of pride, although the local story told inside its mile-long progression of galleries may feel anticlimactic in places.

Building a new Museum on the doorstep of the “old” one was signed off by al Mayassa’s father, the former emir. She then got the project rubber stamped by her older brother, the new emir. The upbeat and patriotic tone gets a royal seal of approval today when the ribbon.

Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar is a vast new landmark in Doha. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Special guests include a bevy of museum directors, including LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Whitney’s Adam Weinberg, and Mikhail Pitrovsky of the Hermitage. The artist Doug Aitken flew in from Beijing, via LA. Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, and Philippe Parreno are confirmed speakers on an expert panel, while KAWS is said to be on his way. Star architects in town include Rem Koolhaas, whose team in Doha pulled together the inaugural temporary exhibition about the city’s explosive urban growth completed and planned. 

When you sit on top of the world’s third-largest reserve of natural gas, plus trillions of barrels of oil, which until fewer than 100 years ago lay undiscovered, you can understand a country’s desire to celebrate the sources of its newfound fortune and build edifices for as far as the eye can see, part of a spending initiative that has delayed but not stopped Qatar’s museum production line.

The Museum, which has been Nouvel said at the press preview has gained added political symbolism over the past two years. The building has been completed despite the ongoing blockade of Qatar led by its much bigger, and more aggressive neighbour, Saudi Arabia. The boycott is supported by its allies, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. But it seems to have royally, boosting Qatari pride and the young monarch’s popularity.

Waving the Flag 

The mile-long gallery that snakes through the Museum is due to be completed in the fall with a final display about Qatar today, including the blockade, Sheika al Mayassa said. In the meantime, it is impossible to miss Qatar’s red and white flag flying above the museum’s huge inner courtyard. The flag pole is held aloft bronze hands and brawny arms. The monumental new sculpture is the work of the Qatari artist Ahmed Al Bahrani. Other patriotic sculptures by Qatari artists are named Motherland and Wisdom. For light relief, the French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel has created Dozens of black steel beads sprout in an artificial lagoon that every half hour comes alive with more than 100 fountains.

Doug Aitken’s film installation The Coming of Oil is a highlight of the National Museum of Qatar. Photo by Danica O. Kus.

As a piece of monumental architecture, Nouvel’s Museum of Qatar ups the ante in the Gulf, a region not known for understated taste in buildings. His mega structure is in fact an expansion of the “old” museum founded. Housed in a former palace that has been painstakingly restored, the structure dates when Qatar’s main industry was pearl fishing. Nouvel’s ground scraper of a building takes museum expansion to a whole new level.

Nouvel said he wanted to constantly surprise visitors with his building. He has done that and then some with a structure that is extraordinary inside and out thanks to the more than 500 large and extra-large disks which he calls “blades” intersecting at idiosyncratic angles. Inspired by the crystal structure of a rock formation known as the desert rose, Nouvel maxed out on complexity but in an elegant way.