A Visit to the Rising Qatari Empire, A Prelude to North Korea
September 17, 2015
Last March, my brother and I flew to Doha, Qatar to visit our parents, who were transferred there in January for a work assignment. It was our first time in the Middle East. We spent just under a week in Doha, before flying to Dubai for the weekend to see what all the hype was about. When I returned to American soil, my co-workers would ask me, "How was your trip?" The only response I could come up with was, "It was weird."
Weird is an understatement to Qatar and Qatari culture. The entire place seemed like a facade. Nearly everything was fake. The city was populated with grand, manufactured, man-made buildings that rose high into the sky. There are a lot of malls-- those are often considered "tourist attractions." Don't get me wrong, it is an impressive sight to see. But just like any other concrete jungle in the world, human appreciation comes from the eccentricities the city has to offer. What is it about Qatari culture that makes Doha unique? Is it the beautiful Persian Gulf coast that lines the edges of downtown? Or is it more about the concept that this city is actually built on top of a desert?
The downtown area of Doha is like the oasis at the center of the city. If you were a tourist, there just for a business meeting, you'd probably be impressed by what Doha has to offer. Surrounded by an array of 5-star hotels with gorgeous views of the blue Persian Gulf waters, restaurants with every ethnic cuisine imaginable, life in Doha for a few days seems like one fit for a king. But travel down the road into one of many roundabouts in the city and you'll find yourself in a much different place. (There is no organized system for street numbers, addresses and postal codes in Qatar, so it's hard for me to explain exactly WHERE you should go, but as long as you leave the downtown quarters, you'll start to notice something strange.)
Everything else outside the immediate downtown area is barren. It's like driving away from civilization and into the reality of the location of the city: a desert. Everything is flat. There is a lot of sand. No glimpse of the beautiful, blue Persian waters in the distance. No cool breeze. You can arguably see actual tumbleweeds rolling by when you're stopped at a light-- like something out of a cartoon. The colors of the buildings and its surroundings outside downtown are gray and brown-- colors you would not usually associate with the word beautiful. The residential areas and suburbs look like war zones with high walls and spiked fences. Each residential compound has its own personal security gate armed with guards at the entrance.
There is so much construction happening at every corner in Doha. Construction happens day and night in attempts to build new stadiums to maintain the Qatari's goal at becoming a mecca for all sports including tennis, soccer, horse and camel races, as well as create a diversity of activities for visitors. The city will soon become overcrowded when it hosts a number of massive, international sporting events like the World Cup in 2022. But there is a significant lack of hotels and things to do, especially considering the harsh summers that basically write off any outdoor plans. So the simple solution is obvious. Build, build, build.
Sometimes it felt like this was all propaganda. Was I in a society where everything is done for image? For a moment I wondered if this is what it feels like to be in North Korea. I can only imagine how much more shocking it must be to walk into a grocery store where the fruit on display is plastic.
I like to compare Doha and Dubai to Vegas. All three cities were constructed in the middle of the desert with no other "natural beauty" to enhance its infrastructure. Everything implanted within its limits were mere imitations of some other grand and notable culture, ie. indoor skiing at the Dubai Mall, a Venetian gondola ride, Dubai musical fountains, etc.
You can look at this in one of two ways. One, what an amazing feat for these cities to accomplish. They have created phenomenal places out of absolutely nothing. People around the world talk about how they one day aspire to visit Dubai and experience its magic. Historically, the Qataris are fishermen. Little to no culture of their previous existence exists. At the Islamic Museum of Art, there are thousands of art sculptures, drawings and caligraphy pieces dating back centuries from Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and a few other countries in surrounding areas, but where is all the Qatari art? Caligraphy at the least? For desert cities with little to offer except lots of sand (and oil), looking at what these cities have become is a treasure. Or should we instead look at how strange it is that this brand new, mini empire is attempting to fabricate a history and culture for themselves.
There is also a large discrepancy in Qatar's population. In 2013, Qatari nationals were measured to make up just 12% of the total population, meaning nearly 90% of Qatar is made up of foreigners.
The local Qataris are treated like golden children. They are above the law, extremely wealthy and always right. Those aren't things that are necessarily said out loud, but instead, implied. Segregation exists. Not just the typical gentrification that happens in residential zones, but even at restaurants. There is a place for the local Qataris to sit, and then there is seating for everyone else. There is an obvious hierarchy to the population, with local Qataris at the very top, holding high-paying government jobs; then come the ex-pats and white collar workers (usually in oil and gas); then of course, the lower-class immigrant workers like the Filipinos, Indians and Nepalis, which work the blue-collared service jobs that make up a large sector of the economy. Those workers are all treated like second-class citizens, but they are the backbone of the country, working long hours for low pay in stressful and physically strenuous jobs like construction, (remember that there is A LOT of construction in Doha), and service jobs at hotels and restaurants.
For a few days in Qatar, I wasn't even sure if I had seen a local Qatari. They seemed so mysterious to me, and almost non-existent in the city. The restaurants were often quiet, and had no customers. We had nearly five lunches during the week as the only people present in the restaurant. All the people that showed us to our tables, waited on us, and served us were all either Filipino or Nepali. The Qatari's didn't work in those kinds of jobs-- that was all left to the foreigners. It wasn't until I started paying close attention to my surroundings at the mall, (the only place I had an opportunity to run into them), did I start to notice. The obvious giveaway is that they are dressed in their traditional dress-- the men in their all white garments, also called thobes, and the ladies with their all black attire and hijabs covering their heads.
And where are all the police and firemen? In my five days wandering around the city, I saw maybe one ambulance and I'm fairly certain that was in Dubai, not in Doha. Maybe there is not a lot of crime that occurs in Doha. Or maybe they do not feel the need for street patrols. For whatever reason, it felt like the local Qataris were mythical creatures, appearing only so often. I could look but I could not touch, could not interact, could not stare. They did not stare back or smile. The most interaction I had was with a customs and immigration officer at the airport. But even that interaction extended only to the guy telling me to take off my glasses and look into the tiny webcam. He stamped my passport and I left.
There are many things to question about Qatar, Qatari culture and its people. A country this tiny and with this much new wealth, is an extremely powerful one, and one that will surely attract the attention of businessmen and eager tourists around the world. But how will they keep up with the influx of new visitors? Certainly a few museums and shopping malls cannot be the solution. Any seasoned traveler will likely wander outside the skirts of what's presented to find out more about "the real Qatar." Where do the foreign workers live? Qatar is not a cheap place to live, and the standard of living there appears to be quite high. How do foreign workers who don't make much money afford to live a sustainable lifestyle there? Is there an immigration problem? Or a problem with the rights and humane treatment of foreign workers. How is it that the majority of the country is run by a minority of the population, who control both the wealth and the power in government ordeals? That system sounds awfully familiar. Or is Qatar simply doing what it does best-- imitating what is popular and known to have already achieved success from great nations in the past and present.