Hedging all the way to the bank
It is always difficult to write about a place that you visit for only a week or so, but Qatar poses unique problems: Qatari citizens represent perhaps 10% of the population. The rest are foreigners, brought in from India, Pakistan, Kenya, Nepal, Spain and virtually every other place on earth. They make up the vast bulk of the work force, often living here in group dormitories while they send money home to their families. An Indian restaurant manager told me he could double his salary coming here (and there are no taxes). A Nepali told me he misses the green and the mountains, but living here is okay. A Spaniard rated it higher than that. Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians (hiding out here from the restored military regime) also gave Qatar the thumbs up. Of course there is little risk to a foreigner in giving the place high marks, but the responses seemed genuine.
I’ve garnered a few data points on the Qataris themselves. This really is an absolute monarchy at the national level, where a few people make all the key decisions. There is no system or habit of consultation with tribal leaders, as in Bahrain. Only at the municipal level are there elections, but the issues there are strictly local ones.
Among the 200,000 or so Qataris, everyone knows everyone else’s family ties, even if they don’t know the individuals. Some families are more prestigious than others, but others may be wealthier (e.g., those that spent time in Iran after a war with Bahrain and came back with trading and other business skills). Sectarian relations are less problematic than in Bahrain because both the monarchy and the majority are Sunni. Most men content themselves with one wife. Most women cover in public, but to varying extents. The presence here of South Asians is regarded wryly: before natural gas made Qatar wealthy, Qataris used to go to Pakistan and India to work.
Many view the monarchy, which has no religious function, as reasonably wise and benevolent, which isn’t surprising given the sky-high per capita GDP. Even the scandal regarding Qatar’s successful 2022 bid to host the World Cup does not appear to be generating a lot of interest. The international press coverage of World Cup labor practices has raised consciousness about the unfairness of tying immigrant visas to specific employers (which we happen also to use in the US). Support for education and infrastructure is very much in evidence: new roads, mass transit and universities seem ubiquitous. So too are giant shopping malls, luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, and Ferraris parked by the curb. Cranes and yachts everywhere:
I am reminded of a radio ad for a men’s clothing store from many years ago: “money talks and nobody walks.” There are sometimes sidewalks, but only the foreigners use them. Electricity and water are free, for everyone. I turned off the air conditioning in my hotel room upon arrival and haven’t turned it back on. Few complain about the heat outside because no one goes there, though most Qatari men dress in thobes and assure me it is much more comfortable. It is often still above 100 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight.
Qatar does not yet have anything like Bahrain’s fabulous national museum, which displays ample evidence of its pre-Islamic civilization. I am told a national museum is under construction. But Doha already has a fabulous Museum of Islamic Art that reminds a Westerner of how much brighter the so-called dark ages were in Muslimdom than in Christendom. Here is just a random sample that had the virtue of not being behind glass:
A large portion of the iconic museum’s holdings are Persian and Turkish, but there is lots of good stuff from North Africa, Syria, Iraq and on into central Asia. The message is clear: Qatar is not just a tiny kingdom, but a vanguard of civilization for the entire Islamic world, transcending national, ethnic and sectarian distinctions.
Doha, which houses 80% of the kingdom’s population, is more Brasilia than Amsterdam, at least from a visitor perspective. Its forests of oddly shaped and designed twenty- and thirty-story office buildings flashing light shows at night give way on the outskirts to low rise villas behind high walls. The Souq Wakif is pleasant enough, but clean and orderly to those who have enjoyed the market places in Cairo, Damascus or Aleppo (in better times). Doha’s version feels more like a pleasant World’s Fair pavilion. At the high end of commerce there is “The Pearl,” an artificial island of fasionable shops, luxury apartments and big yachts.
While the world is focused on the collapse of Iraq, less than 500 miles northwest, Doha seems calm almost to a fault. Has someone here helped to finance the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is wrecking havoc there? Or are they financing the more moderate Islamists tring to counter ISIS? I’m not likely to discover the answer to that question, as the Qataris who know such things haven’t been accessible to me.
Reserved to a modest fault, the kingdom nevertheless prides itself on getting along with everyone (especially Iran in addition to the US) and generally succeeds, except for the Saudis, who are arch rivals, at least for now. Hedging is the classic diplomatic strategy of small countries. Qatar’s rulers are good at it. The place is thriving.