doha-qatar

Qatar: everything I learned while visiting the wealthiest country in the world

Joe is a friendly Filipino private car driver who has lived and worked in Doha, the capital and dominant city of tiny Persian Gulf country Qatar, for the last decade. He forces a laugh and answers “maybe” to any question I ask him that seems to make him uncomfortable.

Last month, I was in Qatar to mentor at a hackathon organized by Aljazeera, the global news organization based in Doha. Leading up to and during my time there, I did a lot of reading about the Gulf. I had a couple dozen conversations with people who live there, like Joe, and I did a fair amount of exploring parts of Doha, or at least as much as I could considering I spent most of my short few days there inside a convention center.

I found the country so interesting (and complicated) that I wanted to share nearly everything I learned about the Arab desert nation state. Find that below.

map_middle_east

In a country with 2.1 million residents as of July this year, according to the CIA, fewer than 300,000 of them are Qatari citizens — a remarkable 94 percent of the country’s workforce hold foreign passports. The rest are foreign nationals, including wealthy investors and businesspeople, well-cared-for educated professionals, skills-based workers (like Joe) and the far worse off laborers, who do the physical work in the construction, chemical and other industries.

Global attention from the controversial announcement that this hot desert country with a limited soccer tradition would host the 2022 World Cup has brought greater scrutiny of these hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, largely from Southeast Asia, who are building the city.

After some pleasantries with Joe, my polite Filipino driver, I decide to ask his thoughts on the whole affair. With its size, climate, infrastructure and Islamic liquor laws, do you think Qatar is the right place to host the World Cup?

“Maybe,” he laughed.

By many measures, Qatar is the wealthiest country in the world, since it is one of the world’s largest natural gas exporters. But that isn’t without complication. Like other Gulf countries, nationality is not taken lightly. Only those born to male native Qataris are able to access citizenship with any certainty. Otherwise, there is no clear path for naturalization, only by emir edict, like as has happened for athletes Qatar has paid to join their Olympic weight-lifting, track and soccer programs.

Watch this ESPN documentary on Qatar’s foreign workers.

Propped up by the royal family’s government, it is almost difficult for Qataris to not be wealthy — guaranteed sovereign wealth fund payments, subsidized housing, cars and utilities, free education and more. Many others, including Western businesses, profit by selling to Qataris, and with one of the lowest tax rates in the world and high wages, most everyone is there in an effort to make the most money they can (the country has less than one percent unemployment, the world leader). But others feel stuck, thanks to high cost of living and, for many among the lower paid classes in the kafala system, complicated immigration issues, including unscrupulous employment agencies and restrictive work visas.

Foreign workers who don’t make enough can only get individual visas (not ones for loved ones), meaning an entire subculture of ‘bachelor’ labor camps exist, where mostly men who left families behind in India, Pakistan or Nepal, live on the outskirts of Doha and in the shadow of industrial facilities to send money home. More than $13.8 billion in foreign remittances flowed out of Qatar in 2013. But the total is tempered, as some feel lower wages haven’t kept up without a minimum wage.

So I ask about Joe’s experience. I say to him, as I sit in the back of his BMW and he nervously looks back at me in his rear view mirror: Are you able to save more money here than you would in the Philippines?

“Maybe,” he laughed.

The country is developing a bad reputation for how it’s treating foreign workers, excluding its better paid professionals (largely, but not exclusively, seen to be rich Western business people). Some employees get caught in a spiral of delayed wages and sketchy debt, owed to their employers who own their visas, hold their passports and often fail to meet employment contracts. Of a handful of Filipino drivers during my trip (including Arvin and Bayani), all said some stipulation of the contract that first brought them to Qatar — things like lack of annual pay increases and other benefits — had not been fulfilled. Other slightly better-off foreign workers just struggle with whether coming to the Gulf was worth it at all, thanks to the expensive lifestyle and other demands.

I hesitate, but then I ask Joe the question I’m really wondering: Are you able to leave Qatar for good and go back home to the Philippines if you wanted to?

He waited a moment. “Maybe not.” Then he laughed.

Watch this video report from the Guardian on Qatari foreign workers.

###

For the first half of the 20th century, Qatar was peopled almost entirely by small pearl-diving villages and largely poor tent communities, including often nomadic Bedouin tribes, which have largely influenced the Gulf aesthetic. It was a country of just 11,00 in 1940.

As was happening elsewhere around the region in the 1950s, oil was first discovered and extracted from Qatar — a similar timeline as the neighboring United Arab Emirates, with whom Qatar was almost in union after they began transitioning their independence from the United Kingdom in the 1960s and so has an on-going rivalry of sorts.

But Qatar remained a relatively poor, under-developed and sleepy country well into the 1990s, when Qatar Petroleum first bolstered infrastructure to access its enormous liquid natural gas reserves in the waters of the Persian Gulf. In the first decade of the 21st century, the resulting building boom, both funded by and servicing its newly liquid wealth, created a population surge. The country’s population went from 200,000 total residents in 1980 to its nearly 2.2 million residents today.

Fourteen percent of Qatari households are millionaires, the world’s largest proportion. Even including the 85 percent of its 2.2 million population that is made of foreign nationals imported for work, fewer than one percent live below the poverty line.

And the Royal Family intends for that growth to continue, aiming to diversify its oil-based economy with cultural-infused tourism, not unlike what rival UAE cities Dubai and Abu Dhabi have done. The string of international sporting events it has scheduled leading to the 2022 World Cup and its push for the Summer Olympics is impressive.

During a short few days in Qatar, I left the plush confines of central Doha for just one pilgrimage to the desert. The road south to Mesaieed was lined with billboard public service announcements, cautioning against litter and spitting. This moral highway is straight and busy with trucks of imported workers driving between industrial outposts and the glittering Doha skyline with hotels and museums they built.

Watch below this interesting 2012 report on Qatar by 60 Minutes.

 

###

For a country funded by fossil fuels, it should be no surprise that the city of Doha is being built into a sometimes traffic-clogged race track with the only obstacles being glassy skyscrapers and Nepalese laborers scurrying across the streets with plastic bags full with tiny claims to commerce. Look at the West Bay neighborhood, full of many of the city’s largest and newest skyscrapers.

Along the busy, wide Conference Centre street, with its many lanes and honking taxi cabs, I walked passed the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning, which operates “under the enlightened wise leadership of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, The Emir and the Crown Prince his Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and under the directives of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs His Excellency Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al Thani.”

I peer up at the top of the building and see a figure. Maybe he was this country’s leader for urban planning. I try to decide what kind of man he might be, an SUV-wielding member of the Royal Family or a deeply compromised urbanist battling influences far greater than his own, celebrating small wins like the occasional traffic light countdown for pedestrians or nice, expensive pavers for sidewalks that few people use.

To be fair, the country has already awarded $32 billion in contracts to develop the country’s first high-speed rail network throughout the Doha region, in part a response to growing traffic thanks to a climbing population (and $1 a gallon gasoline). There is talk of planned density around its transit system, but there’s not much evidence yet, outside of a few scattered areas that haven’t been entirely redeveloped for valet parking, like the popular and historic Souq Waqif outdoor market area, which was renovated in the last decade and serves as a glimmer of urbanism. Would you want to walk in 120-degrees Fahrenheit summer heat?

West Bay the neighborhood, for example, is an opportunity lost. There are the glittering skyscrapers and Western hotels, but there is no urbanism. The cars move fast, the intersections are intimidating and most skyscrapers have driveways. I pause, on a narrow median, and then dash to a sidewalk soon lost to a construction barricade blocking another bulging development site. They have to make room for the cranes and bulldozers.

Watch a 2012 CNN video about plans for Doha

 

###

The al Thani royal family, which has led this country for 150 years, has a new emir as of last spring, hoped to be a sign for even further moves toward openness. He was given the rule by his father, an impressive and well-liked man who took control from his own father.

Though there is a prime minister and advisory council and local elections were last held in 2011, Qatar is still ver much an absolute monarchy

Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, maligned in the West as radicals, and was the brief home of a Taliban foreign policy office. The country is governed by Sharia Law, with its corporal punishment. Poet Mohammed al-Ajami remains imprisoned for a relatively tame poem he wrote inspired by the Arab spring in which he called Arab governments a “gang of thieves.”

Watch a 2014 CNN report on rebel groups fundraising in Qatar.

In short, the al Thani family does what they want. And it works because they provide stability, consistency and are flush with cash. If you’re a Qatari citizen, you are treated exceptionally well. And the royal family is doing interesting things with their wealth — check out their water desalinization program in this TED talk.

Outside the corner glass of my room at the swanky W Hotel in West Bay, I see what I understand to be Doha.

I spot no fewer than five skyscrapers under construction, a half dozen cranes swinging about, some appearing to help lay the foundation for another building altogether. Two wide, massive and fast-moving, multi-lane streets are split by a narrow pit of rocky desert sand, piled along what amounts to several city blocks.

Alongside it, is a patch of neatly manicured green grass, here in the desert, serving as the back porch of one of the many Western-style, glassy hotels, maybe 30 stories or more. There, off to the north, over the embassies of Pakistan and Iran, is the light blue Arabian Sea, as it separates this portion of West Bay from other new construction and, further along, Katara Island and the Pearl, a $15 billion man-made island that served as the country’s first land open for ownership by non-native Qataris.

What desert country Qatar doesn’t have, it gets. It’s the will of wealth.

With such outside influence, there is naturally some concern about what is lost. (Dubai city, for example, is known as a truly place-less, culturally homogenized place). Like there, with residents from around the world, English is the most widely spoken, common language in Doha, as many residents told me, not Arabic.

Some older Qataris, in particular, I’m told, feel like they’ve woken up in a different place. Globalization and culture-enfused homogenization is to be expected (and sometimes encouraged) but the Qataris appear to be paying for the privilege of being culturally steamrolled. Its speed and excess is what feels dangerous and exciting. And maybe sad.

On that trip to Mesaieed, my driver John flipped on the radio. I asked for a good station with music in Arabic. He turned on one before the signal was quickly lost as we drove away. Then another. When a third didn’t last long, he flipped on 97.5 — “very popular” he said.

The radio stations playing Arabic music were fuzzy. The one with the American pop music format came in as clear as day.

 

###

The al Thani royal family has a strategy: leverage its staggering natural resources to modernize, with the help of foreigners while paying off its citizens for support, affording them lavish lifestyles.

Making citizenship essentially a birthright only means most ex-pats don’t have a deep commitment to see moves toward democracy and openness. And so long as Qataris are happy, they’re unlikely to do much pushing for change.

But, as the BBC has put it, what one generation appreciates, the next takes for granted.

One way it seems the sheiks hope to maintain power is through this strange mix of modernity and conservatism. There are skyscrapers and Western food, technology, an innovative global news organization in al Jazeera and many relative freedoms but the country still maintains many Islamic traditions.

  • This year, Qatar began promoting a dress code suggestions for traveling foreigners.
  • Public displays of affection are an arrestable offense.
  • Traditional dress has remained common because of the status symbol it represents. In a country of foreigners, one way to often correctly spot a Qatari national is his stark white thawb, and though common elsewhere, the black shayla headscarf (or sometimes burka) for women.
  • Women first voted in 1999.

 

###

That conservatism seems to be more present in Qatar than in, say, UAE, particularly very Western-friendly Dubai.

Thousands of years of shared human history on the Gulf ties this region together, but there is a particularly modern and unique bond between Qatar and the nearly adjacent United Arab Emirates. For one, while transitioning from British rule in the 1960s, leaders were negotiating to have Qatar be one of the emirates in the union, given their similar culture and language and geography. Those negotiations broke down but their histories since have at times mirrored each other: oil was first found and developed in the 1950s in both countries and that surging wealth has developed complicated cultures in which modernity and excess are tempered by conservatism and social modesty.

UAE, particularly its largest city Dubai and its capital Abu Dhabi, first developed a global reputation for modern excess (please read this 2005 GQ feature by George Saunders, one of my favorite pieces of writing ever). But that seeming Brewster’s Millions-style imperative to spend down vast oil and gas wealth now to develop a Vegas-style cultural destination in the desert for the future spilled over into Qatar too.

But there are clear differences, which cause tension. Most broadly, Qatar is far more sympathetic to Islamist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, while UAE remains more uncomfortable as it aims to attract Western money. They play a strange role in foreign relations. Qatar is now more expensive than the UAE (though there are other advantages) but the latter is for now still the better known of the two, at least among my American peers.

Qatar seems very interested in changing that.

###

The global reach of Doha is quickening. As of April, Qatar Airlines launched weekly nonstop flights to Philadelphia, its fifth American city.

Having only ever flown economy (including restless trips from Philadelphia to Tokyo, Athens, Rome, Beijing, Panama, Ghana and others to California and Europe), the quirk of fortune that got me in business class on one of the world’s best airlines Qatari could not be more pronounced. I’ll say nothing of the Doha airport, including its extravagant business lounge (I went to the airport early just to experience it) and $6.8 million giant, drooping, saddened, lamp-lit Teddy Bear public art.

But I will remark on how distinct the experience was. Despite how still amazing the idea of plane flying is, I have never much enjoyed the experience. Until, that is, I flew business class with Qatari Airlines. I can now likely say that one of the best quality and perhaps fanciest restaurants I ever went to was on board that plane. First class is always ritzy, of course, but the way in which Qatari Airlines seemed to always be heavily and carefully staffed, the excess of it all, felt particularly Qatari.

I was given plush pajamas, and I felt rattled by how out of place I felt. When I bumped into my very sweet flight attendant, making her drop a glass of water soundlessly on the ground, I felt this minor lack of grace marked me as otherworldly for the extent of the trip. I wouldn’t have thought twice about having done it back with the cattle in economy.

Aljazeera, too, has aspirations, despite lagging complaints about its perceived bias in domestic coverage. It is a media company seemingly without budget constraints, not unlike how I saw Qatar Airlines, despite the two industries they’re in.

Qatar is simply different, a peaceful and complex autocracy with wealthy and educated residents and a vastly silent labor force. But there seems to be an interest in doing great with what they have. It is, after all, a country with no water.

I am so thankful for the chance to have visited, which prompted my rather obsessive research. I look forward to writing more about the country now that I’ve exercised my note taking tic.

24 hours in Qatar

36 hours in qatar

Leave a Reply