A leading human rights organisation has warned British museums to exercise “extreme caution” in their dealings with Qatar. The remarks have been made in response to the plight of Mohammed al-Ajami, a Qatari poet serving a 15-year prison sentence for reciting a poem in support of the Arab uprisings. He has also called for Arabs to rid themselves of “imposed regimes”, which Qatari prosecutors claimed amounted to an incitement to overthrow the emir.
Al-Ajami was arrested in November 2011, after a video of him reciting his poem “Tunisian Jasmine” was posted on YouTube. He was condemned to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced on appeal in February this year. The poet’s lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, says he will launch a further appeal to the Supreme Court.
The case, which raises serious questions about freedom of expression in the Gulf state, comes as many UK museums are strengthening their ties with Qatar through sponsorship deals, touring exhibitions and cultural advisory services. And it is not the only example of a growing crackdown in the region on perceived security threats inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. Last month, 94 alleged Islamic fundamentalists went on trial in the United Arab Emirates accused of trying to overthrow the government, which they deny. Meanwhile, escalating violence across the Middle East, with riots in Tunisia in February and in Bahrain in March, has led to increased tensions in the region.
The British Council is co-ordinating events in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority, which is overseen by the emir’s daughter, Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, as part of Qatar UK 2013, a year-long initiative to “showcase the depth and breadth of relations” between the two countries. The Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) are partners in the programme, which includes a show in Doha of work by Royal Academicians, organised by London’s Royal Academy of Arts; an installation at the Serpentine Gallery in London by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, paid for by Qatar; and a three-year programme to digitise archive material at the British Library in collaboration with the Qatar Foundation.
“If you’re going to take money from an organisation or a country that displays values that are antithetical to your own, you should exercise extreme caution to ensure that you are not part of a public-relations exercise that is used to gloss over the reality of what’s going on in the country… to gloss over serious human rights violations,” says Nicholas McGeehan, a consultant for the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
“The Qataris [have] projected an image of themselves as progressive and enlightened—whether it’s investment abroad or the hosting of the football World Cup. But when you actually analyse Qatar’s record on human rights, particularly in relation to migrant workers, it’s problematic. What we’re seeing with the Al-Ajami case is that the mask is slipping slightly,” he says.
We asked all the museums participating in Qatar UK 2013 for their response to the imprisonment of Al-Ajami, and why they expressed solidarity for the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei when he was arrested but have remained silent about the Qatari poet’s detention. All of them declined to discuss Al-Ajami.
A spokeswoman for the V&A says that the museum “has relationships with cultural organisations around the world [related to] our collections. The aim of our involvement in Qatar UK 2013 is to share knowledge and promote understanding of one another’s cultures.”
The Tate and the Serpentine say that they support artists and freedom of artistic expression. The Serpentine’s Fischli/Weiss installation has been commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority and will be permanently installed in Doha next year, according to a statement by the London institution.
The Tate says that its board of trustees “has an advisory committee that takes into account ethical considerations in respect of partnerships and sponsorships”. With regards to Ai Weiwei, a spokesman says: “We felt the need to support an artist with whom we have had a long relationship and whose work we were showing at the time.”
The Royal Academy echoes these views. Its secretary and chief executive, Charles Saumarez Smith, says: “[We have] been very involved with Ai Weiwei in that he was elected as an honorary member in May 2011.” He adds that the institution has chosen to “open up a dialogue with artists throughout the whole of the Middle East” and has “favoured creating relationships with the Gulf states, not just Qatar, through the establishment of museums and the exchange of exhibitions”.
The British Library stresses the educational importance of its collaboration with the Qatar Foundation, which is run by the emir’s wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. A statement from the library says: “We [have] always operated on the principle of freely promoting information to as wide an audience as possible. In supporting the digitisation of half a million historic items, and making them available on the web, our partnership with the Qatar Foundation constitutes a major step towards these goals. We believe that the foundation shares our aims.”
The British Council says it “works in and with more than 110 countries to build partnerships in education, English language and the arts. The aim of our work is to increase mutual understanding and trust between the UK and the countries in which we operate. Our work is not political in nature and does not imply an endorsement of different governments’ policies.”