Martin Roth gazes out of his airy office onto peaceful London gardens bathed in early spring sunshine. The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is just back from one of many trips to the Gulf he has undertaken in recent years to foster links with what he calls a "completely fascinating part of the world".
If springtime London feels a long way from Qatar, where the perky, German-born Roth signed off a new exhibition with the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), then he's not showing it.
Qatar and the region have become an increasingly important area of interest for the V&A in recent years, although this hasn't been a sudden shift. The museum prides itself on having one of the "world's greatest collections of Islamic Art" but, in fact, acquisitions began in 1852. There was great fanfare about the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic art wing, which opened in late 2011, but the V&A opened its dedicated Middle Eastern section in 2002. Four years later, the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art superseded this space, followed by the Jameel Prize (see box), which aims to "explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today".
Indeed, the first exhibition space people come across after coming through the main entrance is the Light from the Middle East photography collection, which has attracted more than 200,000 visitors since November. The V&A has had to reprint the accompanying book numerous times, such has been the interest.
But what makes these developments so encouraging is the impressive two-way conversation at play: the V&A's contemporary Middle Eastern curator, Salma Tuqan, previously ran the Artists' Projects at Art Dubai. The Jameel Prize isn't contained to London; it's been on tour to Sharjah, Istanbul and Damascus. And the forthcoming Pearls exhibition, which aims to explore the history of natural pearls from the early Roman empire to the present, is organised and curated in partnership with the Qatar Museums Authority.
"There are a lot of different strands coming together now," says Roth. "We have a beautiful, very well-researched collection of Islamic art so it felt like we must work together with QMA. But they feel like colleagues; this is not a museum far away for us. And its Museum of Islamic Art [MIA] genuinely sets new standards, too. It feels like something unique and interesting is going on there. You don't forget it when you go."
Roth admits that the V&A doesn't usually bring in exhibitions from outside but because of the high quality of the work already achieved on a previous version of Pearls by the QMA curator Hubert Bari at MIA in 2010, Roth says it is "exactly what we need at the V&A: a very unusual show but one that feels completely appropriate". It's certainly the highlight of Qatar UK 2013, an initiative that "aims to forge new partnerships in education, sport, creative industries and science while promoting an awareness and appreciation of each other's culture, achievements and heritage".
And Roth is keen to point out that Pearls isn't just about a necklace Marilyn Monroe wore. It's an exhibition exploring natural history, science, work and trade, too. In fact, pearls are what made Qatar, not fossil fuels, so perhaps in a small way perceptions of the region can be changed.
"When people ask me about the cultural dimension of the Gulf, then I say to them that development and change need time," he says. "In Doha, they're now seeing migrant workers going to the MIA. It's not just something for tourists to enjoy any longer. And yet people expect that to happen immediately. It's true, people talk about what this huge expansion of museums in the region actually means, but come on. Shouldn't we really be celebrating the fact that governments in that region are actually interested in culture and museums?"
Roth firmly believes that art and culture help a society to grow up. Not just in Qatar but also in terms of people coming to London, visiting an exhibition and maybe thinking differently about a part of the world they'd only seen in news headlines.
"Museums support cultural education," he says. "And whereas in the past all the artefacts might have been in London, now that's not so much the case. Working with QMA, we're trying to support the idea of a global community who can enjoy culture that speaks to them, wherever that might be."
As Salma Tuqan prepares to announce the shortlist for the 2013 Jameel Prize this week, the curator and prize manager explains why it has become so important
People think that we're trying to encourage a dialogue between East and West but we've always been clear that this is a global prize open to any age group, religious group or nationality. In 2011, we had Monir Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian in her 90s but still producing, alongside Noor Ali Chagani, a young artist from the miniature school in Pakistan, and you wouldn't usually sit those artists side by side.
All we ask is that the work is broadly inspired by Islamic art, but that's completely open to interpretation. That's why the shortlist is very different each year. In 2011 they were mainly visual artists but they were using brickwork, mosaic or felt. This year we've had many more nominations from the world of design, so that will probably be reflected in the shortlist.
This prize is about inspiring people, reminding them that Islamic art can be a source of innovation, that it can reflect contemporary concerns. When you mention the idea of Islamic arts, people automatically think about calligraphy, which is fine, but there's so much more than that.
And the other important part the Jameel Prize has had to play is the subsequent international tour, which allows us to engage with a whole new set of people in each city we visit.
Tuqan will talk about the Jameel Prize with a judge and nominee at Design Days Dubai on March 20. Visit www.designdaysdubai.ae. The Jameel Prize shortlist will be announced on Thursday
Follow us @LifeNationalUAE