Relics, the biggest ever show of work by Damien Hirst was recently unveiled in the tiny, energy-rich state of Qatar, in the Persian Gulf. As well as the provocative artist’s spot and spin paintings and his signature medicine cabinets, the show boasted the biggest pickled shark he has ever made, weighing in at a gargantuan 76 tons, and his diamond-encrusted skull, a piece that he once boasted was the most expensive artwork ever made by a living artist. The exhibition was staged in Qatar’s capital Doha, in the Al Riwaq exhibition space, a building which had been covered with coloured dots for the occasion. But that is not all: outside an as-yet-unfinished medical centre, Hirst had placed The Miraculous Journey, a series of 14 massive bronze sculptures charting a foetus from conception to birth. The project cost a reported $20m. The sculptures were seen as highly controversial in Qatar, where shop mannequins still sometimes don’t have heads, because of the Muslim unease with anything figurative. But they were ordered by the sister of the emir, Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al Thani, who is determinedly driving forward a culture programme which challenges traditional notions in the conservative Islamic state. As well as bringing a whole series of keynote exhibitions such as the Hirst to Qatar, the country has also underwritten exhibitions abroad. In 2010 it funded an exhibition by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami in Versailles, which infuriated French purists, who felt that the artist’s colourful pop-meets-manga style was totally at odds with the graceful interiors of the hallowed palace. And last year Qatar stepped up to the plate for Hirst, underwriting his exhibition at Tate Modern. Each show was followed up by an even splashier rendering in Doha: Murakami last year, and Hirst now. Sheikha Al-Mayassa is not just sponsoring exhibitions. She is best known for being the biggest art buyer in the world, paying colossal sums to snap up the top artworks available on the market: some estimates suggest she is spending up to $1bn a year on art, although this figure may be exaggerated. Qatar never comments on its acquisitions, and all those who work with the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which is headed by the sheikha, sign stringent confidentiality contracts. But news inevitably filters out and it is reliably believed that she paid the highest price ever given for a work of art in 2011, acquiring Cézanne’s 1895 version of The Card Players directly from its Greek owner for $250m. It was the last of the five paintings on the theme not already in a museum and is considered one of the most important works of art by the artist. As well as the Cézanne, Qatar – the royal family or the QMA, it’s not quite clear – has snapped up works by Rothko, Hirst, Warhol and many other modern masters, paying huge prices at auction or through dealers. Persistent rumours in the past have maintained that Qatar’s sovereign fund was also interested in buying the auction house Christie’s. This would make sense, since actually owning the shop would give the country even better access to works of art for sale. And Qatar likes trophy assets: among its purchases are Harrods and the French football club Paris St-Germain, and it possesses substantial holdings in Volkswagen, Porsche and Tiffany. However, while the Christie’s deal does not seem to have come off, the QMA has acquired some of its ex-employees: Edward Dolman, former CEO, is now in charge of Sheikha Al-Mayasssa’s office, while art specialist Jean-Paul Engelen is now director of the public art programme. He has been responsible for placing, among other works, a 17ft (5m) high statue by the artist Adel Abdessemed of the footballer Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi. This is now installed on Doha’s waterfront. What remains something of a mystery is where all of the art Qatar is acquiring will go. It is hard to know for sure what is intended for the royal family’s personal collection and what will go into a museum one day. Qatar already has one sensational showcase, the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the famed Chinese-American architect IM Pei, who built the Louvre pyramid. Work continues day and night on the National Museum of Qatar, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, which is due to open at the end of next year. Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, is up and running, as is the art space Al Riwaq, where the Hirst exhibition is being held. Other institutions are planned, and Dolman has often said, without offering more details, that Qatar will be producing some “sensational surprises” to coincide with the World Cup in 2022. Preparations for the World Cup, meanwhile, have projected Qatar into the news for another reason, and not one connected with art. Human Rights Watch has slammed the conditions of workers preparing the infrastructure for the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, with Nepalese builders reported to be dying at the rate of one a day this summer. Such problems are not unusual in the region, where workers toil in conditions of near-slavery: nearby Abu Dhabi, which has its own ambitious museum building programme, has also been criticised for the same practices. In this case, the artists themselves called for a boycott of the projected Guggenheim museum until conditions were improved. In Qatar, however, there seems to have been no such disquiet so far.