Qatar’s new Islamic art museum, designed by famous American architect I.M. Pei, is the latest effort by this tiny, oil-rich nation to compete with rival Gulf countries for international attention and investment.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates also have spent billions during the last decade to transform themselves from small desert towns to sprawling international cities. Much of the initial investment was in business, entertainment and sports, but there has also been a push toward promoting arts and culture.

Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art is the first of ambitious cultural project in the Gulf to be realized. The five-story stone building sits atop an artificial island like an imposing fortress half a mile off the Qatari capital of Doha.

Museum representatives said Pei’s design was inspired by Islamic architectural history, especially the 9th century mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. The Pei museum opened Dec. 1.

“The Museum of Islamic Art will be the starting place for the Qatari cultural experience,” Abdulla al-Najjar, head of the Qatar Museums Authority, said in a statement.

Other designs by 91-year-old Pei include the Louvre’s glass pyramid in Paris, the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong and The East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Pei was born in China but moved to the United States at age 17.
Visitors will discover that, while the museum exterior is truly magnificent, the collection inside is equally inspirational,” said al-Najjar.

The museum’s 800-piece permanent collection includes books, manuscripts, ceramics and other items brought to Qatar’s capital from all over the Middle East and also from India and Spain.

The third floor, home to the Journey of Islamic Art gallery, is divided by regions and centuries, spanning the 14th through 19th centuries and covering Turkey, India, Iran, Central Asia, Egypt and Syria.

The second floor explores the Language of Islamic Art. Highlights include a celestial globe from India in the science wing and mosaic tile panels from Iran, an example of arabesque, a defining element of pattern in Islamic art. Here, artifacts also illustrate calligraphy and the depiction of figures in domestic and nonreligious art.

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