In the small sheikhdoms along the Arabian Gulf, big political questions are rarely visible in everyday life. But now, the region’s politics can be seen from 5,000 feet above the ground. When approaching Doha by plane, passengers can see the face of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al–Thani, sketched into 78,000 square meters of desert sands.
Revealed on Qatar’s National Day in December, the image is an enlarged replica of Qatari artist Ahmed bin Majed Almaadheed’s Tamim Al Majd (“Tamim is glorious”) mural. Since June 2017, the mural started to appear on car bumper stickers, walls in public spaces, and banners on buildings along Doha’s skyline. Now, it’s taken the form of a desert portrait vying to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for largest portrait ever made.
The mural is a visible sign of a recent surge in popular support for the Emir since three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries turned their backs on Doha. Citing Qatar’s purported support for terrorism and religious extremism, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha last June and issued a trade and travel embargo on their small neighbor. A few days later, the blockading powers handed a list of demands to the Qatari government that included curbing ties with Iran, shutting down a Turkish air base, and closing the popular Qatari news network Al Jazeera.
This isn’t the first time Qatar has been isolated from its neighbors. In March 2014, the same countries withdrew their ambassadors after allegations emerged that Doha was interfering in their internal affairs. What’s special about the current context, however, is the visibility of the “Tamim is glorious” mural and the support for the royal family that it represents. In fact, most local news outlets speak of the mural as an expression of national loyalty and support for the Emir and his 2030 National Vision.
But the rapid replication of the mural isn’t just a sign of spontaneous domestic support for the leadership. Over the past seven months, it has also become part and parcel of Qatar’s far-reaching image politics and its leadership’s conscious effort to reshape its national and international “brand.”
Riding the wave of political support, a number of official institutions in Qatar quickly began replicating the mural. For example, the state-run Qatar Museums (QM) held a “Tamim al Majd: Celebration of National Unity” pop-up exhibition last August in the Museum of Islamic Art park featuring murals from all over the country. Calling the mural’s popularity a “significant moment in Qatar’s history,” QM’s actions have helped tie Qatar’s national identity to the face and vision of its ruler.
Another creative engagement with the “siege” was QM’s “100 days of blockage” initiative launched last September, which asked local artists to produce artworks that “best express how they feel about the present political situation.” This may seem an unusual request in a society that’s long been characterized as inherently apolitical and where government subsidies are said to “buy” political support. But it’s actually a calculated strategy to highlight Qatar’s open and inclusive political climate in contrast to its neighbors.
In the days leading up to Qatar’s national day, the Doha Film Institute hosted an exhibition called “Le Blockade” that put on a similar display of nationalist sentiment. Featuring responses from citizens and residents about their views on Qatar, the exhibition reflected widespread support for the Emir and his policy of persistence.
Attempts to use the crisis to distinguish Qatar from the “sieging nations” go further than the display of art projects. The leadership in Doha has also started to use the moment of isolation to present Qatar as a force for good in the region by emphasizing changes to its kafala labor and sponsorship system. First announced in December 2016, the proposed changes came after years of fierce international criticism for inhumane conditions for thousands of migrant workers and allegations of slavery in Qatar. If the new contract-based labor agreements are put into practice, they will have a significant impact on Qatar’s expatriate population, which makes up over 99 percent of its private sector workforce and 90 percent of its residents.
Last October, Emir Tamim took the opportunity to reiterate his commitment to recognizing the important role of non-citizens in Qatar before the U.N. General Assembly. In a statement that was certainly a departure from the norm in the Gulf, Sheikh Tamim thanked both the Qatari people and the multinational and multicultural residents of Qatar, thus positioning himself as an open and accepting Emir who represents the diverse segments of his country’s population.
But while the current crisis has enabled the image-conscious leadership in Doha to present Qatar as an open and outward-looking state, it may also force Qatar to look inward, thwarting further regional integration with its neighbors. A few years ago, for instance, there were plans to build a railway connecting Gulf capitals from Kuwait to Muscat. But now, Doha is testing its own domestic rail systems—with some trains featuring none other than the Tamim is glorious mural.
Much can still change as the Qatar-Gulf crisis continues into 2018, but one thing is clear: Qatar’s current political landscape seems bound—quite literally—to the vision of Sheikh Tamim.