Challenges in managing cultural heritage in Qatar
July 05 2014 11:42 PM
An aerial view of Doha.
An aerial view of Doha.


By Alice Bianchi and Ferhan Sakal


The remarkable urban development in Qatar and the Gulf region poses a great challenge to those who are responsible for the safeguarding, conservation and management of heritage assets at regional level. Urban growth affects the territory and represents a threat to the country’s widespread heritage.

The new development reshapes not only empty spaces but also intervenes in those areas where towns and settlements have already risen or where evidence of older occupation persists. If, on the one hand, development responds to the new needs and requirements of an evolving country with a growing economy and an increasing population, for cultural heritage managers, on the other hand, the questions are how development interacts with the cultural heritage assets in the territory, how the past may live on in the present and how continuity and change may influence decision-making so that many heritage assets will be defined and preserved.

The Department of Archaeology, Architectural Conservation and Cultural Tourism is the section within the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) in charge of managing, conserving, protecting, enhancing and promoting the archaeology and cultural heritage of Qatar.

Heritage assets considered as antiquities:

According to Antiquity Law No 2, in force in the State of Qatar since 1980, article 1 defines what has to be considered heritage as follows: “An antiquity is considered anything left by civilisations or left by previous generations, … which dates back more than forty years’; meaning that heritage assets existing before 1940 are considered to be antiquities and, as in article 4 of the same law, they have to be documented, safeguarded, protected and promoted.

The achievement of this aim begins with and focuses on the documentation of all heritage areas and assets legally considered antiquity. The implementation of the recording procedures occurs through various steps which range from surveys, i.e. collection of data, to more detailed documentation carried out through excavation or systematic recording of many specific elements of a heritage asset, its historic, architectural or environmental context, its construction techniques, its materials, etc. The basis of an efficient and successful documentation methodology is the application of a coherent system of standards and well-defined working procedures, to which the Department of Archaeology, Architectural Conservation and Cultural Tourism is committed and has established based on international standards and best practices.

Projects that will reshape the landscape:

The records about a heritage area also allow its significance to be determined and its value and importance classified according to specific criteria. When the value is high the asset is untouchable, must be restored and monitored, whereas a medium to low value may impact the existence of the asset, i.e. the asset must be fully documented and recorded and, if it stands in the way of a relevant infrastructure project, it may then be dismantled. The classification of heritage areas supports informed decisions at municipal level for strategic urban planning and allows an integrated approach to infrastructure projects.

Before the present urban development the landscape of the Qatari peninsula was unchanged by human action. There was no major agriculture nor a highly developed web of streets or railway lines. Therefore many archaeological remains and heritage assets are still undisturbed.

This is a unique situation that is also a challenge for archaeologists, as many large-scale projects are under way simultaneously. Notably, the Hamad International Airport (2,200 ha), the New Port Project (2,650 ha), the Qatar Rail Development Program (17,000,000 m3 of excavation), the Qatar Local Roads and Drainage Programme, the Inner Doha Re-sewerage Implementation Strategy (IDRIS), the Qatar–Bahrain Causeway Project, the Sharq Crossing Project, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee Projects for Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup™, Lusail City (3,800 ha), will reshape the landscape and have an impact on existing heritage areas.

The best method for documenting this impact is pre-development research based on desktop and field surveys. The Qatari peninsula attracted foreign researchers who started extensive surveys as early as the 1950s. While those first surveys mainly discovered archaeological areas with extensive remains, others are still not recorded. In co-operation and on behalf of the QMA, major foreign projects have, over the last five years, undertaken a systematic survey of the whole peninsula. The respective projects are the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project (QIAH) of the University of Copenhagen (Denmark); the Qatar National Historic Environment Record (QNHER) project of Birmingham University (United Kingdom) and the South Qatar Survey Project (SQSP) of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI).

QMA’s No Objection Certificate

The collected data have been archived in the QNHER database, which harbours over 5,000 records of all kinds of archaeological or heritage areas. Despite this impressive amount of data, several areas of the country still need to be surveyed in detail. As already mentioned, the majority of the heritage areas are not yet under legal protection and their footprints are not available in the system of the Centre for GIS, the country’s Geographic Information Centre. Therefore real-estate companies, as well as the local authorities who run the country’s major urban development projects, still have to collect this information from the QMA’s Department for Archaeology, Architectural Conservation and Cultural Tourism through the so-called No Objection Certificate (NOC).

A building or development permit procedure of a real-estate project begins in the design phase. The application letter handed in at the department must include detailed maps and design sketches of the project. Through a preliminary desk-based assessment and the results of earlier surveys, the project’s effect on known heritage areas will be analysed. In a second step the area, if not yet surveyed, will be surveyed by members of the department or in co-operation with one of the projects mentioned above. The results of the survey and the mitigation suggestions for individual heritage areas will be discussed within the department and then presented to the developer. In certain cases the developer has to change the design of the project according to the results of the survey and the mitigation decision by the department.

The NOC process has clear advantages for both the developer and the Department of Archaeology, Architectural Conservation and Cultural Tourism. While the companies may, already in the design phase, be informed about the impact their project is going to cause, they have the opportunity to include heritage areas in their design or to change their design according to the existing heritage areas. The procedure clearly helps to avoid long delays in the development. For its part, the department benefits from this procedure by being incited to undertake systematic soundings, excavations and detailed

‘Mapping Old Doha’ project

The old city of Doha is not excluded from the transformation and development process, and the buildings constructed in the first half of the last century as well as the Early Modern ones (built in the 1960s and 1970s) are threatened.

The mapping of the old city of Doha provides an example of survey and documentation in an urban context. Based on a previous workshop on ‘Mapping Living Heritage’, held in October 2012, the Department of Archaeology, Architectural Conservation and Cultural Tourism picked up the baton and has organised a further systematic data collection of the old urban fabric in the heart of Doha. The first phase of the ‘Mapping Old Doha’ project was carried out in co-operation with the University College London Qatar (UCL-Q), the Ministry of Municipality & Urban Planning (MMUP), Msheireb Properties, the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS), Qatar University (QU) and Carnegie Mellon University.

The aim of ‘Mapping Old Doha’ is to record in a consistent and complete way the heritage assets in the core of the old city, starting with two central quarters (Al Asmakh and Al Najada). Each building within the selected areas has been documented on a form following a series of criteria regarding building type, use and structural condition. Three main types were distinguished:

•Traditional Building With Courtyard and Arcades or Without Arcades (mainly dating back to the first half of the 20th century);

•Early Modern Building (1950s to 1970s);

•Modern Building (after the 1970s).

In addition, the exact location of each building, the interior features of the traditional buildings and all decorative elements were recorded.

The textual documentation on the ground is completed by aerial marked-up photos and plans, and images of each building and its attributes. The collected data is entered in a GIS-based database, and the evaluation of the recorded data has already provided first results that has became the framework for informed decisions about interpretation, conservation and rehabilitation/reuse, and management of the heritage assets in the old city of Doha. Moreover, the data is available for all stakeholders thus making possible a good co-ordination of strategies and plans in terms of restoration, demolition and a new architectural approach, and the new data will stimulate informed decision-making in the framework of sustainable urban development that takes into account the still existing cultural and historical components that nourish the collective memory of the city and the country.

Alice Bianchi is Manager of Archaeology and Heritage Database, Qatar Museums.
   Ferhan Sakal is Head of Archaeological Operations, Qatar Museums.

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Unesco’s quarterly magazine World Heritage. For reading the full issue, please go to: To subscribe to the magazine, please go to:




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