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Row over RIBA decision to honour UAE ruler

Sheikhsultanalqasimi crop
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An RIBA honorary fellowship awarded to the sheikh ruler of a city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has come under fire amid claims of a conflict of interest in the judging process and on separate human rights grounds

Earlier this month, the RIBA announced that Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, would be one of nine recipients of a 2019 RIBA honorary fellowship, an annual accolade for non-architects who have helped advance architecture.

It has now emerged that Hopkins Architects, whose founding partner Patty Hopkins was one of five people on the RIBA committee that selected the fellows, is working on two projects for Sheikh Sultan in Sharjah: a geological museum and a turtle sanctuary.

While Hopkins’ website describes the projects as being commissioned by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority, it also says the geological museum is ‘for the Ruler of Sharjah’ while his personal website reports him launching the museum scheme in January and ‘personally supervising’ development of the turtle sanctuary.

Despite this, the RIBA confirmed that during deliberations by the committee – which was chaired by RIBA president Ben Derbyshire – no conflicts of interest were declared in relation to the Sharjah ruler.

Derbyshire said today: ‘We understand from Hopkins Architects that Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi is not a client of theirs. We’d have to defer to the practice to explain how this relates to any work that they have in the area but I can confirm there were no conflicts of interest declared in relation to the Ruler of Sharjah.‘

Former RIBA president Jack Pringle said this raised serious questions about the institute’s decision to honour Sheikh Sultan.

‘The RIBA may well have rules but, apart from that, you are expected to declare conflicts of interests and indeed interests,’ he said. ‘Honouring a client is in my mind an interest and it would be up to the rest of the judging panel to decide how to handle that.’

Simon Foxell, a member of the RIBA’s new Ethics Commission, agreed and called on the RIBA to investigate.

He said: ‘It’s important that the RIBA is as transparent as possible and I’d expect them to look into this.

‘The RIBA has to be seen to do the right thing and if serious questions are raised then I’d expect them to produce straightforward answers.’

The decision to honour Sheikh Sultan, a member of the UAE Supreme Council, has also been criticised on the grounds of the UAE’s human rights record.

While the country today pardoned British student Matthew Hedges following an international outcry over his life sentence for alleged spying, Amnesty International says authorities in the UAE continue ‘to arbitrarily restrict freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics and a prominent human rights defender’.

Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins and an advisor to the Ethics Commission, told the AJ that, as a member of the RIBA, he was ‘deeply uncomfortable’ about the honorary fellowship, particularly given the recent furore over Hedges’ imprisonment.

He added: ‘Cases like these show the urgent need for the RIBA to have clearer ethical guidelines, something that should be provided by the forthcoming report of its Ethics and Sustainability Commission.’

The RIBA is planning to open a new office in the UAE, a development which was reported in leading Middle Eastern English language news source The National the same week that Sheikh Sultan’s honorary fellowship was announced.

Derbyshire reportedly told the newspaper: ‘Opening an office in the UAE – something we are considering in the near future – will help us to work more closely with the industry to promote quality, sustainable architecture and provide additional support to our growing number of members.’

While the RIBA has refused to say who nominated Sheikh Sultan, it has released the citation for his award, which says he has ‘stamped and shaped Sharjah with its own individual architectural character’ since becoming ruler in 1972.

The citation adds: ‘Through his own passion for creative design and Islamic architecture, personally working closely with architects, he has commissioned a strong and distinctive body of work based on his strong advocacy for preserving cultural heritage and traditional vernacular architecture to an extent unparalleled in other Gulf cities.’

Hopkins Architects refused to comment.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I won't bite my tounge on this one - This really does come under the category of 'Lost The Plot'. In my view the Honorary Fellowship is about acknowledgeing and promoting 'shared values' in the built environment. This is an alienating decision promoting patronage over our much vaunted sense of social responsibility. Danni Kerr RIBA Role Model

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  • This is all a bit weird. Architects have always nominated people they have worked for as Client if the Year, without anyone making a fuss. I have never met the Ruler, but have been impressed by his patronage of architects and artists over many years. The geological museum and turtle sanctuary sound great. Some of the critics should consider their own histories and whether they have promoted people they know, like or have a relationship with. It’s not just about money.

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  • Is it weird Paul? Of course architects nominate their own clients for Client of the Year. The point is the judging panel has to be objective and understand who has done the nominating and why. Presumably this judging panel did know the identity of the person nominating Sheikh Sultan but we don't because the RIBA won't tell us. What's really in question here is whether the judges knew of the link between him and one of their number.

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