The case of bilateral cultural years

Qatar is a very small country, having a population of approximately 2.5 million inhabitants, of which 85% are expatriates. Nevertheless, it has proved very ambitious in the last decades, to make itself visible on the world stage. Its large reserve of national gas makes it one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income (US$ 66 000). The Qatari government has decided to invest these resources in ambitious nation branding. For example, in 1996, it launched the news media outlet Al Jazeera, which has become famous all over the world for covering conflicts in the Middle East. Qatar also invested to organise mega events, like the 2006 Asian games or the forthcoming 2022 football World Cup.

Culture has represented a key element of the country’s strategy. In fact the country has made investments in many world-class museums, cultural districts and festivals, to promote its traditional culture and put itself on the world stage. In 2010, Doha held the title of Arab Capital of Culture, which is a programme managed jointly by UNESCO and the Arab League aimed at promoting cultural cooperation in the Arab world. Qatar was elected at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2011 and joined the International Council of Museums the following year.

“Qatar Museums” is the organisation that oversees the management of the majority of the country’s museums and is also in charge of the Years of culture programme (launched in 2012). Such kind of bilateral initiatives have been conducted in many countries for a long time and consist of festivals, exhibitions, and various types of collaborations that take place over a year to celebrate another country’s culture and to develop ties among the cultural actors of both countries.

According to the Director of Strategic Cultural Relations at “Qatar Museums”, the objective of the Years of Culture initiative is to bring “world cultures to Qatar and take Qatari heritage, art and traditions to the world”. Various activities have been organised as part of this programme: for instance, world famous artists like Takashi Murakami were invited for exhibitions, Qatar set up numerous exhibitions in cultural institutions of partner countries, as well as educational programmes and competitions. Such initiatives enhance cultural similarities and differences, encourage discussions and exchange of ideas, and aim to nurture long-term partnerships and relations.

Many are the countries that since 2012 have partnered with Qatar within the framework of this programme: Japan, the UK, Brazil, Turkey, China, and Germany. The year 2018 is dedicated to the relations with Russia, while 2019 and 2020 will engage India and France. The initiative serves the purpose of creating links with countries with which ties are limited, such as Japan and Brazil, as well as to celebrate and strengthen historical relations, such as in the case with Turkey and the UK. Qatar developed these partnerships both with established cultural powers like Germany and the UK, but also a lot with emerging BRICS countries: China, India, Russia, and Brazil.

Let us look at the case of the China-Qatar year, held in 2016. The leading organisations involved were the “Qatar Museums” and the Qatari Ministry of Culture on one hand, and the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the Chinese Embassy in Qatar on the other. The project aimed at “connecting people in the State of Qatar and the People’s Republic of China through exploring the contemporary and traditional cultures of both countries, through innovative cultural exchange activities, exhibitions, festivals and educational programmes”.

The exhibition projects that were organised as part of this Year of Culture reflected an effort to celebrate a central element of the other country’s tradition and stress cultural connections. : The “Silks from the Silk Road” exhibition that was organised by the China National Silk Museum in Doha, presented the Chinese silk making culture and industry, and brought 100 silk products to explain the silk production cycle and silk art. The decision to organise an exhibition on silk was not a coincidence, as silk is one of the major symbols of the millenary culture of Imperial China. For a long time, it was in fact used to make diplomatic gifts by Chinese emperors who kept its fabrication secret. The exhibition also explicitly referred to the Silk Road, which is both a trade route that connected China and the Middle East and, more importantly today, part of the “One Belt One Road” project central for the new Chinese geopolitical ambitions. The Qatar-China Year of Culture celebrated also a fundamental heritage element of Qatar with the “Pearls” exhibition, which was displayed at the China National Museum in Beijing. Pearling, in fact, was the main economic activity in the country until the sector collapsed in the first half of the 20th century, and before oil and gas exports became a significant source of revenue (1970s).

As the above examples illustrate, for the two countries cultural cooperation consists in promoting national heritage and serving strategic purposes, such as diversifying partners in the case of Qatar, and competing with the US influence in the Middle East for China, as well as strengthening their bilateral relations in fields like security and trade.

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Has your country ever engaged in a cultural year celebration with another country? Do you think it is an efficient way to strengthen relations?

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Cultural Diplomacy

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