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Courtney Freer

May 14th, 2020

Religion and Heritage in the Gulf: Significant in its Absence?

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Courtney Freer

May 14th, 2020

Religion and Heritage in the Gulf: Significant in its Absence?

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

by Courtney Freer

Qatar’s Doha skyline viewed from the Museum of Islamic Art. Source: Sarfraz Abbasi, Flickr

It has been well documented by scholars of rentier state theory that governments create distributive obligations for themselves through the creation of political clients. In the same way, though, these states also include cultural and religious actors into distributive arrangements, thereby accruing similar such obligations outside of the strictly political realm. Indeed, heritage in the Gulf is almost exclusively managed by apparatuses linked to the central state, with limited grassroots initiatives emerging under a rubric of state control. Similarly, religious life across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is managed by ministries of awqaf (endowments), and state authorities accrue religious clients through patronage, just as they accumulate political clients by means well documented in current scholarship. While both religion and heritage are managed as part of rentier bureaucracy, they constitute distinct branches of it, which is perhaps best exhibited by the absence of religion in heritage sites, namely museums that we visited in Kuwait and Qatar.

When it comes to nation-branding strategies that often drive state-led heritage industries, Kristin Smith Diwan has argued that the state-propagated nationalism in the GCC has become increasingly assertive, linked to military prowess and requiring service of citizens in recent years. This vision is also, rather notably, secular. Diwan posits that ‘[t]he new nationalism is distinguished by its participatory nature, mobilizing citizens in support of the country and its leadership.’ Although this new nationalism has included, for instance, conscription and greater involvement of citizens in the workforce, it is unclear whether it will translate into political participation as well. Since oil prices fell substantially in 2014, Gulf governments have sought to redraw social contracts in such a way to diminish public spending and citizen reliance on the state, yet these policies have tended to involve ambitious economic visions and personalistic nationalism centred on state leaders rather than on heritage or religious tropes.

While religion was at the forefront of national projects in the Gulf at the start of the  twentieth century, most clearly in Saudi Arabia and dating back even farther with the Ibadi Imamate in Oman, heritage sites in Kuwait and Qatar, at least, contain very limited references to religion. Certainly, religious politics can be oppositional – something that I have written about in detail elsewhere. When it comes to Kuwait and Qatar, though, there has been more space for religion but not within the heritage sites. Indeed, Qatar is famous for hosting bodies like IslamWeb and the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), and Kuwait has long hosted influential portions of the international Salafi sphere. These actors, though, remain separate from mechanisms of heritage or discussion of it in heritage sites; part of this division is due to the fact that religious and heritage sites have different intended audiences.

The first generation of national museums, the first major heritage sites in the Gulf, were meant for local populations. They recorded the ancient and recent past side by side and were ‘determinedly local in their agenda of capturing and presenting traditional lifeways and archaeology.’ In this sense, Kuwait remains in the first generation of national museums while awaiting completion of the new museum. Its present National Museum, currently under construction, primarily depicts scenes of everyday life, with a focus in particular on merchant life in the port, though it also houses a number of historic copies of the Qur’an. In the representations of daily life in the museum, we see students memorising the Qur’an and of a woman praying, but there is nothing explicitly stated about religion – or even about Kuwait’s place in the larger Arab or Muslim world. It is only in the Martyrs’ House in Kuwait where we see reference to religion, though only as related to sacrifice in broader political terms during the Iraqi occupation rather than in a purely religious sense.

New national museum projects have existed on a much larger scale and are considered to represent governments’ commitment to globalisation and engagement with the outside world – something which Matthew Gray cites as critical to the evolution of traditional rentier states into more advanced late rentiers less reliant on hydrocarbon revenues for their well-being. Sites of heritage have become increasingly marketed to international audiences, taking into account the power of such institutions for national branding as well as the increasing importance (and presence) of non-national populations in these states; as they have become more internationally focussed, so too have they become more secular. Sarina Wakefield posits that the concept of cosmopolitanism has driven forward many of the efforts at creating new sites of heritage, specifically those linked to Western brands like the Louvre and Guggenheim, and in so doing highlights the tension between the local and global (which often mirrors tensions between non-elites and elites) in Gulf heritage projects. Indeed, heritage sites in the Gulf face the challenge of ‘expressing the need to be part of the global world, and at the same time by highlighting the need to experience and retain cultural peculiarity.’ A great deal of that cultural peculiarity is, or has historically been, religious. Indeed, the Qatar National Development Strategy explicitly states that: ‘While a large expatriate community broadens perspectives on other cultures and lifestyles, it also threatens traditional Qatari values founded in Arabic culture and Islam.’ Such a statement demonstrates the extent to which, as John Fahy puts it, ‘in Qatar, Islam can be, and often is to some degree at least, conflated with “culture.”’ Meanwhile, Kuwait’s National Development Plan fails to mention religion explicitly or the protection of values, but talks about the need to ‘accentuate values’ without detailing what these are and what their protection would entail.

Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art perhaps represents one effort to redress the increasing lean towards secular cosmopolitanism, as it places Qatar within the context of the broader Muslim world – something that Qatar has also sought to do, arguably, through its associations with IUMS, IslamWeb, IslamOnline, and clerics like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The collection itself is much more about design and scientific innovations linked to Islam rather than about religion itself; it is also de-centred from Qatar, focussing instead on the Muslim world at large and thereby creating something of an Islamic cosmopolitanism. Interestingly, across all of the heritage sites we visited in Qatar, including the new National Museum, the only reference to religion explicitly, was in the Qatar Foundation-funded Msheireb Museums’ Bin Jalmud house, which traces the history of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula and features a quote from Surah 49:13. One label further claims that ‘The arrival of Islam had a positive influence on the way enslaved people were treated as it advocated kindness and encouraged manumission.’ It is in the designated religious spaces of state mosques, then, that religious content as such has a place, while in heritage sites, religion remains a vague referent rather than guide. Further, Qatar’s Ministry of Awqaf also prints a variety of religious pamphlets and books available in Souq Waqif, another popular heritage site, but that entity remains very much separate from Qatar Museums.

In Kuwait and Qatar, then, we see two distinct models of engagement between the heritage and religious spheres. While in Kuwait there is a clearer separation between the religious and heritage spheres, in Qatar we see limited efforts at integration in some spaces and attempts to reach international audiences through a greater emphasis on secular cosmopolitanism in others.


This is part of a series emerging from a workshop on ‘Heritage and National Identity Construction in the Gulf’ held at LSE on 5–6 December 2019. Read the introduction here, and see the other pieces below.


In this series:

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About the author

Courtney Freer

Courtney Freer is Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the Middle East Centre. Her research focuses on domestic politics of the Gulf states, with particular interest in Islamism and tribalism. She tweets at @courtneyfreer

Posted In: Conferences | GCC

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