Across the Gulf region, states are vying to build ever grander museums and towers from the world’s most famous architects. But this display of soft power masks deeper ethical concerns

On the Doha corniche, on the route into the city from its airport, a monumental pile of fibre-cement discs is nearing completion. It is the new National Museum of Qatar, where the country’s “cultural heritage, diverse history and modern developments” are to be displayed. It will, says its silver-tongued Parisian architect Jean Nouvel, “symbolise the mysteries of the desert’s concretions and crystallisations, suggesting the interlocking pattern of the blade-like petals of the desert rose”. It does indeed look like the clusters of sandy crystals that go by that name.

This is the same Jean Nouvel whose outpost of the Louvre opened last year in Abu Dhabi, which for now is one of Qatar’s enemies. He also designed the 238-metre Burj Doha, completed in 2012, which is from the same genre of anatomically suggestive towers as his Torre Glòries in Barcelona and Norman Foster’s Gherkin in London. The burj is the most memorable building in an instant downtown called West Bay, an extravagantly variegated constellation of vertical glass of a type now familiar from China to the Gulf to the US to London.

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