When Abu Dhabi unveiled plans to establish a multi-billion dollar cultural centre on Saadiyat Island three years ago, it chose to link up with the France’s Louvre museum and the US’ Guggenheim in an attempt to tap the brand appeal of leading international cultural icons.

Bahrain, boasting a heritage dating back more than 6,000 years, has taken a different strategy in marketing itself as a regional cultural capital. Lead by Culture and Information Minister Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, the kingdom is looking to capitalise on its domestic cultural strengths, rather than import Western cultural assets.

The country has developed a series of cultural attractions, creating a National Museum in 1988, the Qalat al-Bahrain (Bahrain fort) and building spaces for exhibitions.

Since 2002, the plan has gained traction, as Sheikha Mai leveraged the islands’ untapped cultural assets in a wider refashioning of the country’s image.

Revisiting culture

In January 2002, Bahrain opened the Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Centre for Culture and Research in Muharraq, as a forum for debate and exchange on cultural, social and political issues. The centre is built on the land of the majlis of Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, a 19th century intellectual. Sheikha Mai personally oversaw the reconstruction of the house, even putting some of her own money into it.

The Sheikh Ebrahim Centre has since then taken on the responsibility for a series of restoration projects of traditional buildings in Muharraq – the former seat of the government and centre of the island’s historic pearl trading activities. The area is now being transformed into a thriving cultural district that makes the most of its distinctive architectural heritage.

The first restoration project in 2003 was the Abdullah al-Zayed House for Bahraini Press Heritage, renovating a 100-year-old building belonging to Bahrain’s first journalist. Since then, another eight traditional houses have been restored in Muharraq, with a further three at the planning stage.

Bahrain’s cultural ambitions go beyond restoration projects. The country’s cultural investment programme is currently focused on a number of major new developments, including a national theatre and two museums, that will showcase 21st century architectural techniques.

In 2011, Bahrain will host the first regional summit in 12 years of the World Heritage Committee of Unesco, which recently chose the kingdom as the headquarters for the Arab regional centre for world heritage (ARC-WH).

The national theatre, designed by France’s Architecture Studio, is a multi-purpose venue with an 18-metre-wide stage and a 1,000-seat capacity over three levels, along with a 144-seat auditorium/exhibition space.

The local BWS is the project manager and expects to break ground on the project in 2010. The completion date of the scheme is June 2012. 

A 10,000-square-metre Museum of Contemporary Arts, designed by UK-based architect Zaha Hadid along with partner Patrik Schumacher, will be situated on a narrow coastal strip on the Gulf of Bahrain. The building’s design will draw inspiration from the traditional Islamic architecture found close to the site in Muharraq. The building will be completed by 2012.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando has, meanwhile, been commissioned to design a new archaeological museum – to be named the Saar Museum and Research Centre – at the Saar archaeological site, and will comprise an exhibition area, a lecture hall and supporting facilities. The total area of the project, sponsored by the kingdom’s Durrat al-Bahrain, covers 14,000 sq m.

Corporate support

The contract for the interior design of the ARC-WH building has been awarded to the local architectural firm Habib Associates, while the exterior architectural treatment work has been awarded to Swiss architect Daniel Kobel, in collaboration with AGID Bahrain. BWS is also project managing this development, which is due to open in December 2010.

The US’ PWP Landscape Architecture has been appointed to carry out the landscaping of the cultural strip that extends from the Cultural Hall through to the National Theatre.

Corporate sponsors are also coming out to support a raft of new cultural projects in the pipeline. The local Unicorn Investment Bank is backing Search, a new building from the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre, which will provide state-of-the-art research facilities for the study of literature, poetry, culture and history. It will also house the centre’s art collection.

Local investment bank Gulf Finance House is sponsoring the restoration of the House for Architectural Heritage, another Sheikh Ebrahim Centre initiative. It will showcase drawings and photographs on the architectural heritage of Muharraq district.

The Mohammed Bin Faris Music Hall, sponsored by Bahrain’s Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, is planned as an extension of the existing Mohammed Bin Faris Sut Music House in Muharraq and will be used as a venue for musical performances. A new visitor centre along the Pearl Pathway in Muharraq, and a new Children’s Museum next to the National Theatre, based on designs by Jordan’s Faris & Faris Architects, aim to strengthen Bahrain’s credentials as the Gulf’s cultural capital.

Economic benefits

The cultural investment drive is intended to support the kingdom’s economy. Bahraini officials see cultural tourism as a key contributor to future growth, and with good reason: in the European Union the culture sector’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at 2.6 per cent, and now exceeds the contribution of the chemicals, rubber and plastic products industry.

With tourism due to double its share of Bahrain’s national income over the next 10 years, an array of prime cultural assets is regarded essential to get economic dividends. 

“Our economic development and culture are mutually dependent, not exclusive,” says Kamal Ahmed, chief operating officer of the Bahrain Economic Development Board. “The fact that Bahrain’s economy has adapted many times – particularly in the shift from pearling to oil – can help in guiding future progress in diversification.”

Sheikha Mai’s strategy of developing local cultural assets is central to this plan. Janan Habib, head of Habib Associates, one of the main architects tasked with realising the minister’s vision, says: “Bahrain is a real country with real history. It doesn’t need to bring in foreign brands – Bahrain itself is the brand.”

Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed al-Khalifa,Culture and Information Minister

Do culture and arts deliver economic benefits to Bahrain’s economy?

Absolutely – our rich history and culture is at the heart of what makes our country so attractive to international business and tourism alike, both playing a key role in achieving the ambitions of our Vision 2030 and National Economic Strategy. Tourism plays a big role in Bahrain’s GDP and currently represents 12 per cent of total income, with this figure expected to rise to 25 per cent over the next 10 years.

In 2011, Bahrain will host the 35th session of the World Heritage Committee Meeting, which will be the first regional summit in 12 years following Morocco’s hosting in 1999. The kingdom has also been chosen as the regional headquarters for the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH) under Unesco. Bahrain will also be the capital of Arabic culture in 2012, which should lead to significant economic benefits.

Tourism plays a big role in Bahrain’s GDP and currently represents 12 per cent of total income

How can Bahrain leverage its distinct cultural assets?

The kingdom has a particularly rich and unique history, with an archaeological heritage dating back 6,000 years, and there is a duty to protect it and make it accessible to the public.

Bahrain has been particularly active in protecting its cultural heritage to allow visitors a journey through the historical sites. Manama’s Souq has been famous for 100 years; Qalat Arad (Arad Fort) dates back to the 15th century; Qalat al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) – once the capital of the ancient Dilmun civilisation – is a Unesco World Heritage Site; Bahrain National Museum displays archaeological artefacts of Bahrain’s history; and a restoration programme on the island of Muharraq – former capital of Bahrain – aims to preserve the kingdom’s pearling heritage.

Events such as the Spring of Culture and Bahrain Summer Festival attract tourists and promote openness to new ideas and an exchange of knowledge, and also inspire Bahraini artistic creativity. By increasing the number and diversity of cultural events, the hope is to attract an ever wider audience, especially younger visitors, and to make culture a way of life.

What differentiates Bahrain from other Gulf centres? Is it its strategy to capitalise on local cultural strengths?

That sums up the plan perfectly – this approach makes sense for Bahrainis, as it fosters pride and increased understanding, while for tourists and visitors, it helps preserve the environment and atmosphere that makes Bahrain so unique. The kingdom’s tourism strategy is particularly focused on intra-regional visitors, who make up 90 per cent of current tourist numbers, and I think they, in particular, are interested in the history and culture of the region.

Can private investment be deployed in the cultural domain? Are local investors getting involved in any of the schemes?

It’s not just a case that it can be deployed, it’s that is has already been and must continue to be. The aim of Vision 2030 is to make the private sector the engine for growth, and I am pleased that many companies realise that with that opportunity comes responsibility to return to the communities that they work alongside.

The financial sector has proved to be a particularly strong supporter, with a number of different institutions continuing to play an integral role in funding and supporting the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre and restoration project of the traditional houses in Muharraq. One of the most important projects supported by the private sector include the ARC-WH, which aims to provide support for Arab countries in matters of world heritage.