Why Soft Power Is in Style in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar — Victoria Beckham came from London. Diane von Furstenberg and Alexander Wang from New York. Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino flew in from Rome, while Olivier Rousteing of Balmain and Giambattista Valli came from Paris. So did Carla Bruni, with her husband, former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, firmly in tow.

They were part of a pantheon of the biggest names in fashion that descended upon Doha last week, dressed in black tie and ball gowns to mix with Qatari dignitaries and socialites in flowing abaya and thobe and act as judges for the inaugural Fashion Trust Arabia prize.

Open to emerging designers from across the Middle East and North Africa, it was celebrated with a lavish awards ceremony at the Doha Fire Station. Twenty-four hours earlier, the same group — alongside the artist Jeff Koons and the soccer manager José Mourinho, as well as celebrities including Johnny Depp and Sonam Kapoor — had attended a star-spangled opening event for the new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel, featuring Bedouin dancers, musicians, singers and flag-wielding horseback riders.

Few, if any, of the boldface names at these gatherings had ever been to Doha before. Their en masse arrival, however, on the invitation of the ruling Al-Thani family for these back-to-back occasions, was not merely about paparazzi shots and celebrity gold dust.

It was an unmistakable demonstration of the unlikely influence of Qatar, a tiny Gulf state where vast natural gas resources were discovered almost 60 years ago, helping to make it the most wealthy country per capita in the world.

It was also the latest move in a cultural and architectural arms race raging in the Gulf. Rival nations that stem from the same Bedouin roots, share the same religion and eat the same food compete to establish distinctive national identities and status amid political volatility, colliding cultures and intense economic upheaval.

“Qatar is a very small but hugely wealthy state surrounded by countries that have long sought to minimize its potential to ascend as a major player in both the Arab region but also the greater world at large,” said Giorgio Cafiero, the chief executive of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based consultancy.

“Qatar’s investments — especially in luxury, sports and the arts — aren’t just about prestige and profits,” Mr. Cafiero said. “They are also about hearts and minds, and anchored in forging deep alliances that give outside players a greater stake in the continuation of Qatar as an independent state.”

The importance of shoring up soft power as part of a broader national security strategy has grown in importance for Qatar lately, as it faces the most serious external threat in its four-decade history. Since June 2017, a land and sea blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and including Bahrain and Egypt, has cut the kingdom off from its neighbors.

Unsurprisingly, both brands emerged as major sponsors of the F.T.A. prize, which was founded by Sheikha Mozah; its co-chairs are Sheikha Al Mayassa and Tania Fares, a Lebanese philanthropist and British Vogue contributing editor who founded the Fashion Trust in Britain.

Many countries would have buckled under the type of restrictions imposed on Qatar by its larger and more powerful neighbors, but Qatar has refused to capitulate, albeit by spending heavily and dipping deeply into its $340 billion reserve funds to establish new trading partners, build up domestic industries and, in some cases, create new ones.

Nevertheless, the kingdom’s fledgling tourism industry has taken a hit, leaving hotel rooms empty and a glut of retail space in malls. At the same time, consumer prices have gone up, cutting into the budgets of the foreign workers who make up 88 percent of the country’s population of 2.4 million people.

“The biggest impact of the embargo has been that rather than spending abroad, more and more of those Qataris are opting to spend at home, partly for reasons of practicality and partly through patriotism,” he said. “Even if things stay slower in the short-term, the expectation is that things will definitely pick up significantly ahead of major high-profile events such as the World Cup.”

Observers such as Mr. Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics and Dr. Coates Ulrichsen of the Baker Institute say it is the blockading countries, rather than Qatar, that have found themselves on the back foot in recent months.

While Qatar is hardly immune to international criticism, which has largely focused on evidence of exploitation of its migrant workers and government support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia was publicly condemned across the West after the killing last fall of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

The murder has tarnished Saudi Arabia’s reputation in Washington, and in much of the Western world, with a dark shadow cast over previously heralded plans for economic and social reform in the country, championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

At the same time, Dubai’s economy is teetering on the brink of another downturn thanks to a shaky real estate market, its reputation as a sun-and-shopping haven dampened by sluggish travel demand in the region. The disappearance of Qatari wallets hasn’t helped.

“The biggest loser from the blockade is not Qatar, it is Dubai, where Qataris both spent a lot of money recreationally and used the city as a logistics hub. Now all that money is gone,” Mr. Cafiero said. “While the blockade initially hit the Qatari economy hard and officials had to spend billions of dollars restructuring trade routes, they appear to have done so in a relatively short period of time. It may have a very small population, but Qatar continues to hold very big ambitions.”

“Like other branches of the arts, fashion enables us to dream and express ourselves,” she said. “This prize will now anchor fashion as a major creative field in Qatar and across the Arab world.”

She acknowledged, as well, the complicated situation that was the backdrop for the festivities. “At the time this prize was conceived, political realities were different than they are today,” she said. “As a nation, we have remained open to applications from all countries. It is unfortunate that in this day and age, some individuals can hinder the course of progress and prosperity for millions of people without being held accountable for their whimsical and detrimental actions. We, on the other hand, have chosen not to follow suit.”

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