Qatar’s new Islamic art museum, designed by the 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 have also spent billions over 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 also has been a push toward promoting arts and culture.

Abu Dhabi will soon be home to satellites of New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Paris’ Louvre Museum. Dubai is planning to develop a local equivalent of New York City’s famous Museum Mile, a stretch of Fifth Avenue that includes the original Guggenheim Museum building with its famous spiral shape, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art is the first of these ambitious cultural projects 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.

Representatives of the museum said Pei’s design was inspired by Islamic architectural history, especially the ninth century mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. The 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 the 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,” al-Najjar said.

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 first temporary exhibition is called “Beyond Boundaries: Islamic Art Across Cultures” and runs until the end of February.

Reading Eagle Press

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