Petro-patronage: How the Middle East is Buying Its Way to the Top

Class has just ended at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.  Several students stroll out of their lecture hall, chatting in Arabic.  They walk down a block of gleaming, white, futuristic buildings and meet up with friends who go to Cornell, University College, and HEC.  The students discuss their classes and the recent Champions League matches while having a picnic lunch under a grove of palm trees.

This could be happening right now at Education City in Doha, Qatar, where the oil-funded Qatar Foundation has assembled a formidable collection of branches of top Western universities.  Over the past few years, the small states of the Persian Gulf, in particular Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been using their money to buy their way onto the world stage.  Unlike previous rising powers who sought military or economic muscle, these petro-kingdoms have been seeking cultural influence – and they have plenty of money to back their bids.

Chief among the Gulf’s imports are prestigious Western educational institutions.  Starting with Virginia Commonwealth University in 1998, an impressive array of universities has opened branches in Education City, a complex on the outskirts of Doha which seeks to “support Qatar on its journey from a carbon economy to a knowledge economy by unlocking human potential.[1]”  Abu Dhabi has welcomed the Sorbonne and New York University to its shores.

An area of investment with far more global recognition is the Gulf’s fervor for football (soccer).  Last year, FIFA chose Qatar as the host nation for the 2022 World Cup, with more than a bit of grumbling from other bidders about the massive budget supporting the Qatari bid.  As is often the case with large modern sporting events, Qatar stands to take a massive financial loss from the Cup in exchange for the prestige and publicity, with a large number of stadiums needing to be built only to be torn down after the tournament and donated to poorer countries.  At club level, the sheiks of Qatar and the Emirates have staged an invasion of European football – Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi took ownership of Manchester City F.C. in 2008, followed by Qatari takeovers of Paris Saint-Germain and Malaga in the past year.  All three clubs are seen by many as attempting to buy sporting success by injecting a colossal amount of cash for player signings and wages.  Other high-profile clubs including Barcelona and Arsenal have Middle-Eastern sponsors.

Walk down any street in downtown Doha, Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, and you will see the final major area of cultural investment – art and architecture.  The stratospheric needle of the Burj Khalifa, the sail-shaped hotel Burj Al Arab, and the futuristic, sculpture-like Opus in Dubai were all paid for by Emiratis but designed and built by Westerners in a decidedly Western aesthetic.  Next door in Abu Dhabi, a strange UFO-shaped building is under construction, to house the controversial Louvre Abu Dhabi, perhaps a fitting symbol of the entire cultural investment project.  A highly prestigious Western institution, literally out-of-this-world design, and as always, a huge pile of money.  The Louvre signed a $1.3 billion contract with Abu Dhabi, giving monopoly rights to the name “Louvre” throughout the entire Middle East, a rotating artwork exhibition deal, and assistance in developing curatorial and restorative expertise in Abu Dhabi.  The plan has both heralded praise as a coup for French art and culture as well as condemnation for “selling out” to the commercialization of art, as well as perceived support of a regime with a spotty human rights record.

This degree of focus on cultural investments is unprecedented in the history of the rise of nations.  For most of history, rising powers devoted their resources toward military hegemony, as exemplified by Britain’s naval dominance starting in the 16th century and the pursuit of nuclear weapons by various nations over the past seventy years.  More recently, with a lessened risk of war among developed nations, rising powers spread their influence economically, like with China’s recent investments in Africa.  The Persian Gulf states themselves have done this to a massive degree, with upwards of a trillion dollars in assets controlled by Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds[2].  However, the cultural activities of Qatar and the UAE are truly unprecedented.  When Mitsubishi purchased Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall in 1989, the Japanese investors were buying control of an existing piece of real estate on American soil[3].  But what the Gulf states are doing now is essentially buying branding rights – trading cash for names to bring back home.  Rather than simply developing their own educational and artistic institutions from the ground up, various sheikhs have found it more worthwhile to pay an existing institution millions of dollars to get a piece of the prestige and authority built up by these Western brands over centuries.

The mind-boggling sums of money involved beg the simple question, why?  Are Qataris really just such big football fans that they will spend $220 billion[4] (150% Qatar’s annual GDP) to host the World Cup?  Is this simply a case of billionaires spending their money how they wish?  While certainly the investments in football clubs are more toward the recreational end of the investment spectrum, there are a host of practical considerations at play.  The leaders of the Gulf states realized long ago that their countries could not rely on oil profits forever, thus leading to the development of their cities as finance and tourism hubs.  In many ways, all of the institutional investments can be seen as semi-economic decisions.  The mission statement of the Qatar Foundation specifically cites the transition away from a fossil-fuel based economy as a primary reason for the creation of Education City.  Better educated workers, as well as more vibrant cultural institutions will draw more commerce as Gulf cities compete with other parts of the world as well as with each other for business.  In a more devious context, the building of luxuries serves as a way to pay off the populations of dictatorships and keep them content.  The UAE and Qatar were the only two Arab countries not affected by the Arab Spring.  When you look at the resources that the two regimes have offered their citizens, it is easy to see how they could remain content under absolutist governments.

From an international perspective, the most pertinent comparison to these investments is China’s recent activities.  The 2008 Beijing Olympics were used as a massive welcome party to greet China’s arrival on the world stage as a major power – to exhibit China’s wealth to the world.  To China, as it appears to be to Qatar and the UAE, money is of secondary concern to how much it can impress the rest of the world.  All of China is structured along similar lines.  The first thing any foreigner sees upon arrival in any Chinese city is a gorgeous new airport, complete with artificial waterfalls between the duty-free luxury boutiques.  Connecting Shanghai’s airport to its central train station is a state-of-the-art Maglev train which hits 400 kilometers per hour.  Its operation loses millions of dollars annually, but profitability is not the primary concern.  Any visitor to China is sure to be impressed by the technology.  For the Gulf states, their cultural projects follow the same philosophy.  Their advantage lies in their tremendous resource wealth, their weakness in a lack of prestigious institutions and international reputation.  Neither the Shanghai World Financial Center nor the Burj Khalifa is anywhere near full capacity, but both buildings are also more imposing symbols of economic might than any building anywhere in the West.

So what should the West think about the endeavors of the Gulf states?  In some quarters, the reaction is fuelled by the natural tendency to feel pride in one’s national jewels and to recoil when outsiders gain control over them.  Others raise genuine concerns about brand image.  Sorbonne Abu Dhabi lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith was arrested last year[5], prompting concerns over civil liberties and causing other universities to question their projects in countries with far more restrictions on expression than in the West.  Is the building of “islands of freedom” like the university branches simply giving students ideas that will prove dangerous to them once they leave the free environment of academia?  Critics of the Louvre project are concerned that displays will be censored based on religious and moral criteria, tarnishing the image of the Louvre in Paris by association[6].  Though the Emirati developers pledge “respect” for artistic expression, artists and dealers have complained about being shut out of art fairs in the past because of the content of their works.

Though some may complain about the sale of integral parts of national identity like the Louvre or a well-supported football club, the dynamic between the Gulf and the West is about as mutually beneficial a relationship as could be designed between rising powers and the establishment.  Small countries like Qatar or the UAE just don’t have the population to be able to develop a powerful military presence or a domestic economy past a certain limit.  Thus, the natural course of expansion is to the cultural sphere, which is inherently less of a zero-sum game than war or business.  When one nation builds nukes, its neighbors feel less safe.  When one nation gains in economic competitiveness, others lose.  However, Qatar building a branch of University College in Doha doesn’t make the London campus disappear.  Western institutions get large amounts of money as well as the chance to expand their brand presence overseas.  The Gulf states are paying the West to spread Western culture to the Middle East – a win on all fronts for the West, particularly if the presence of Western institutions helps to plant the seeds of democracy in the Middle East.  A population educated in institutions where freedom of thought and expression is respected will demand those same rights everywhere in their countries.  More pertinent to the West itself, placing Western institutions on such a high-profile pedestal will improve the image of the West in the eyes of the population, lessening the appeal of anti-American extremist groups.  A Qatari whose parents were educated by an American university is less likely to join a terrorist group than an Afghan whose parents were killed by an American bomb.  Often, the West is criticized for forcing its culture upon other countries, but here, it is being paid to do so in the Middle East.

The only Westerners who could reasonably complain are the fans of football clubs unfortunate enough not to have been bought by an oil magnate with a bottomless bank account.







One thought on “Petro-patronage: How the Middle East is Buying Its Way to the Top

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