Qatar is a tiny Middle Eastern country that juts into the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf and shares a border with Saudi Arabia. One royal family rules the country under Islamic Sharia law but the culture is considered liberal for the region and the government is a long-standing ally of the United States. Qatar is perhaps best-known as the home of Al Jazeera, the pioneering Arabic news network, and increasingly, cultural attractions like the new I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
For a long time Qatar was a dusty backwater whose main industry was pearl diving. But in recent decades the discovery that the country sits on massive reserves of natural gas has sent its economy rocketing into the stratosphere. Today its GDP per capita of $145,300 is the highest in the world. Comparisons are often drawn between its capital of Doha and the oil-rich cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though Doha is less developed and smaller than either. For now.
“Those there,” said our driver as we pass two side-by-side buildings wiggling into the sky, “those are the tallest zigzag towers in the world.” Naturally this leaves one wondering about the competition. It’s the first of many such statements we’ll hear over the next few days in Doha. Like in the UAE, it’s all about the superlatives: The best, the tallest, the biggest, the longest, the costliest, the anything –est in the world.
There are several interesting things to do and see in Doha, but the point of visiting now is largely to see a city in the making. Here in the desert, in a country smaller than the size of Connecticut, a great experiment is underway: Take fantastical amounts of money, a forward-looking government, a very small population, and access to unlimited technology, and build a city from scratch. What would it look like? At the moment, the skyline is a jumble of futuristic-looking buildings and cranes—many cranes—furiously at work.
In addition to witnessing a modern day creation story, another compelling reason to visit Qatar is that it feels very safe and calm. Essentially the population is so small and the country is so wealthy that everyone is taken care of. “Anytime of night, anywhere in the city, you could walk around and not be hassled,” our guide Badir said. There is no visible poverty and seemingly no theft. Gerry Friend, the general manager of the Grand Hyatt, said that people leave their laptops sitting out in the lobby or by the pool when they go for lunch and always return to find them intact. At the souk, the city’s traditional market, I didn’t feel the need to cling onto my belongings, there were no shoving crowds, and the venders selling wares were polite, never pushy. In a larger sense, Qatar has been noticeably absent from the recent upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa. Earlier this year, The Economist published a “shoe-throwing index” to predict where unrest would strike next in the region based on factors like GDP and levels of democracy. Out of 17 countries, Qatar came out as the number one most stable. The unemployment rate is just half a percent. Of course, not everyone in Qatar is wealthy—especially not the many, many immigrants in the service industry—but no one is desperately poor. In exchange for unwavering loyalty to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, no one pays income tax and everyone is treated to free healthcare, utilities, and subsidized education and housing. Moreover, both the ruling family and the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims, meaning there is no sectarian strife.
Doha has its share of Dubai-esqe artificial islands and theme-park malls, but the ruling family has repeatedly asserted its commitment to investing seriously in education, business development, and culture. This country wants nothing less than to be the intellectual leader of the Middle East. At the base of this aspiration is a professed commitment to being a free zone of openness and stability. Every week, there is some sort of conference or forum on sticky topics like religion or Israel and Palestine. Twenty years ago there was just one university, the University of Qatar—now there are nearly 30 including satellites of Cornell, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgetown.
That said, in many ways it still feels and looks like a conservative Islamic country. A vast majority of the men and women wear traditional dress, the men in flowing white robes and headdresses and the women in full black burqas. Some even wear veils to cover their eyes. From my fellow travelers at least, I learned this is not something you see often in Dubai. Alcohol is outlawed outside the hotels and visitors are advised to dress conservatively. But unlike in other Islamic countries, women here are allowed to drive and are encouraged to work and go to university. Many locals mentioned that Qatari culture is notably respectful of women and no harassment, verbal or otherwise is permitted. Indeed, not once was I or the other women on the trip on the receiving end of stares, catcalls, or any other annoyances that can sometimes plague travel in this region.
Again and again, it was striking to observe the audacity of vision taking place in Doha and moreover, how hugely ambitious projects are actually getting accomplished. I found it hard to wrap my head around Qatari projects like the Pearl, a residential development so large that it’s already being hailed as the “new Doha.” Already a fourth of the way built, the Pearl is composed of man-made islands spanning four million-square-meters that will eventually house luxury high-rise apartments, condos, villas, and private island estates. For now, anyone can walk through the Pearl but I can’t imagine visiting holds much appeal for Americans, beyond ogling its ambition and perhaps ducking into any stores and restaurants you don’t have at home. For now, it feels polished, empty, and artificial. In fact, this feeling pervades much of Doha—in a city that’s being built a mile a minute, perhaps that can’t be helped. The if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality seems to rule everything. From my brief glimpse, much of the city gleams but as of yet lacks much vibrancy or substance.
One exception to this is the souk, the traditional marketplace in the city center. Everyone goes here: tourists, ex-pats, locals, and even the emir, who usual visits on Friday mornings to enjoy a relaxed cup of tea. The stores and stalls stay open til about 11 p.m. but even after that, many people linger at the numerous outdoor cafés, smoking hookah and enjoying the cool night air.
On our last night, a friend and I found ourselves on the rooftop of such a place, sipping Moroccan mint tea. A soccer game lit up one wall and heavy raindrops occasionally plunked down on the grateful crowd, who sees maybe 10 days of rain a year. At one point, our Moroccan friend, who had been living in Doha for over a decade, showed off an acquired skill: “Anyone who walks in here, I can tell you where they are from and where they work.” After several correct guesses, he pointed out two beautiful girls who were perfectly put together in an effortlessly chic way. “Qataris” he says, “And they work for Qatar Airways.” One check with the owner confirmed this was true.
The recent announcement that Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022 has thrown the city’s rapid growth into overdrive. Day and night the city pulses with huge ideas: In one part of the city, there’s a plan to create giant sand dunes topped by studios where artists can live and work for free. To combat the searing summer temperatures during the World Cup, Qataris are working on creating artificial clouds. And after the tournament, the new stadiums will be disassembled and, in a grand philanthropic gesture, rebuilt in developing countries.
Early 2012 will see the debut of the new Doha airport, whose opulence, after seeing these current fine facilities, is hard to fathom. Many details of the new structure are being kept under wraps, but a representative hinted at a few plans for the new lounges: a hair salon; a full spa and gym; squash courts; a swimming pool. The airport itself, which will have a separate terminal just for the royal family, is set to be the second most-trafficked airport in the Middle East behind Dubai’s. Currently, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, some 40,000 workers build away. Like a mirage—like the very city itself—the structure is rapidly rising from the blank desert, shimmering gently in the heat.
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