A Qatari royal hailed as one of the most powerful men in art after spending more than $1bn creating a collection to rival the great European galleries has died suddenly in London aged just 48. Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, a former Qatari culture minister and cousin of the current ruler of the oil-rich Arab state, passed away at his residence in the capital on Sunday. The cause of death has not been revealed.
Once widely regarded as the world’s richest and most powerful art collector, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani of Qatar died suddenly at his home in London on November 9, age 48. Details of his death have not been announced, although initial reports say it was from natural causes. A cousin of the Qatar’s current Emir, Sheikh Al-Thani served as the country’s president of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, from 1997 to 2005. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of the oil-rich nation’s ambitious plans to build an extensive network of new schools, libraries, and museums. He also spent well over $1 billion on art purchases during that period, more than any other individual, according to many art-market observers.
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Shafik Gabr’s Woodley Park home is filled with paintings once written off as paternal, even racist, images of the Middle East as seen through the eyes of 19th-century European artists — a world of daring snake charmers, menacing harem guards and exotic women. But Gabr, a restless Egyptian industrialist who keeps three iPhones and a BlackBerry stacked on a desk in front of him, sees something else. He regards Orientalist painters such as Charles Wilda, Johann Discart, John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Leon Geromeas intrepid early globalists who put themselves at risk to document a new world opened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition from 1798 to 1801. They have compelled him to launch an initiative to improve East-West understanding.
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Egyptian collector of Orientalist art, Shafik Gabr, believes that Orientalism embodies a dynamic and continuing dialogue between East and West. “The Middle East has always been a crossroads between these worlds,” he says. “We owe the Orientalists a great debt, because although much of what they painted lives on today in our streets and villages, we constantly need to be reminded of the richness and value of our culture. For many years we Arabs did not reconcile ourselves to Orientalism. Now, from those paintings we’re getting to know about our own traditions.”