Opinion Forum

Qatar promotes identity and culture, with a modern look


Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Doha’s skyline is seen through the Moorish arches of the Museum of Islamic Art.
Doha’s skyline is seen through the Moorish arches of the Museum of Islamic Art. Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Visitors to this most-modern of Middle East cities struggle to find authenticity, anything historical, anything that wasn’t built a day ago.

Yes, but that’s missing the point.

Focusing on the historical is the wrong approach. What’s interesting about Doha is, well, what’s new: the investments in the arts, education, health, infrastructure – and sports, that its rulers expect will propel it into the upper ranks of global nations.

Qatar, under a boycott from neighboring countries, is making a concerted effort to draw U.S. visitors to its capital: its national airline, Qatar Airways, has daily flights to Doha from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.

I climbed aboard and spent a few days here last month in an effort to understand the country's ambition and what it's doing to make it happen. Can a visitor from the U.S., wandering the streets and buildings as I did, see this in play?

Once a jumble of Bedouins

Qatar is a thumb-shaped bit of sand, about the size of Connecticut, that juts into the Persian Gulf. For centuries, it was a jumble of Bedouins tribes. Later, Qatar was administered by the Ottomans, then by the British.

Qatar gained independence in 1971, but its enormous wealth only emerged in the 1990s, as it developed a technology to liquify and export its vast pool of natural gas. Now, 20 years later, Qatar is the richest country on Earth and spending big.

Just 15 percent of the country’s 2.6 million residents are citizens – called Qataris. The rest are guest workers – most of them male laborers – drawn from other Arab countries, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They sent $13.4 billion of their earnings to their families last year, according to government estimates

Most Qataris who work do so in the public sector – the myriad ministries. It’s these Qataris, led by the Al Thani family, who are building Qatar today and figuring out the country’s future. And, by the evidence I observed, they’re thinking big, very big.

Focus on the 2022 World Cup

Much of the world is focused on how Qatar’s sports-obsessed emir is spending an awful lot of its money on a soccer match – the 2022 World Cup. This is the first World Cup in the Middle East. “A very, very deep caldron of passion” for soccer, is expected to draw 1.2 million visitors, says Hassan al-Thawadi, the Qatari in charge

Evidence of the preparation is everywhere. Most noticeable to visitors: the 100-station network of Doha Metro, 180 miles of driverless trains, below and above ground. When completed next year, it will link every area of Doha with every important institution in the city – including the World Cup stadiums.

Also noticeable to visitors: the pools of non-Arab laborers, hundreds of thousands across the eight stadium and other construction sites, wearing reflective vests and hardhats, living in barracks-like labor camps, and a continuing source of tension between the government, human rights and labor groups.

The only one I met told me he was a Pakistani, in Doha on a six-month labor contract, living with six others and, as yet, not working and unpaid. He was panhandling visitors like me in front of a shopping mall.

But this focus on the World Cup – significant as it is – masks what Qatar is spending in so many other areas – that may matter more. Everything that is being built for the World Cup, many told me, was under way before the World Cup bid, or would have been built anyway, as part of a bigger plan.

Qatar is using the World Cup “as an opportunity, as a catalyst, for the country’s growth,” says al-Thawadi. “We re-prioritized certain projects, obviously, to fulfill the World Cup requirements, but that’s just a milestone in the country’s overall development.”

What visitors notice

Here are some very-noticeable examples, some jarring, others contradictory, all interesting:

I stayed in West Bay, which is the city’s diplomatic quarter, home to its five-star hotels, and its much-photographed collection of skyscrapers, a dazzling display of architectural exertion. It’s minimally walkable, but taxis are cheap, and the Ferrari drivers seem to obey traffic signals.

There’s sand, construction dust, and little greenspace.

Gracious friends of a journalism colleague invited me to a dinner party my first evening in Doha. I asked them about the large banners of a stylized man who looks like the singer Robert Goulet, pasted on West Bay skyscrapers.

Ha, ha, they said. They are images of the emir. And, you better not publish that story until you’ve left the country, they said. It’s a crime to ridicule the emir.

Turns out, the images are not the manifestation of the emir’s ego. Rather, they are a nationalist reaction to the blockade seven months earlier by four of Qatar’s neighbors: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

I never met the emir, but may have seen him the next day: his motorcade passed in front of my hotel, a diamond-formation of white, Lexus SUVs, said to be the emir’s vehicle of choice, preceded and followed by security vehicles.

Across the bay from where I stayed is the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, opened in 2008. A plaque at the entrance to its permanent collection asserts that Islamic Art “begins with a desire to establish a distinct identity,” and that its Louvre-curated collection “reflects the diversity of many cultures and ideas within one civilization.”

It is the stunning, opening move by the emir’s sister, who heads Qatar’s museum authority, to “firmly position our country on the global map as a progressive, knowledge-based economy with a long and rich history and give Qatar a voice in the world.”

Visitors I observed treat the building and its collection with enormous respect, but the much-touted, outdoor sculpture by U.S. artist Richard Serra was heavily tagged with Arabic and English graffiti.

Qatar’s press is labeled “not free” by Freedom House, for its laws that criminalize libel and prohibit criticism of the emir. Yet, Qatar owns Al Jazeera, the feisty, rambunctious, global news network, which is increasing its watchful eye on Qatar. T-shirts that read “#defendfreepress” are sold in the Museum of Islamic Art. And, Qatar invited – indeed subsidizes – the leading U.S. school of journalism to teach its students U.S.-style freedom of the press.

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism is one of six U.S. universities which comprise Education City, a 15-acre campus of architecturally significant buildings open to visitors. Building after building, just walk in.

Education City demonstrates Qatar is “deeply committed to education,” says Everette Dennis, dean of Medill. “It’s an open place for a lot of people to come.” The effort, led by the emir’s father, costs $320 million a year, according to the government.

Doha has been compared with Singapore as a shopping capital. One of its malls, the Villaggio, reminds visitors of the Venetian in Las Vegas, with its canal and gondolas. Seth Sherwood describes it as “a fascinating mish-mash of cultures and makes for some of the city’s best people-watching.” Some of the smartest shops in the world occupy its “posh end,” as one adherent described it to me.

But the more interesting shopping place is the Waqif Souk. Built in the early 20th century, and restored by the emir’s parents in 2008, this traditional Arab market is human in scale, an antidote to the skyscrapers.

A maze of stalls, some inside, others in the open, sell traditional garments, spices, vintage crafts, and souvenirs. Most visit for a day, taking lunch in restaurants that specialize in tagines, food cooked in earthenware pots. Others stay longer in one of the souk’s boutique hotels.

The souk touches the senses in ways no mall can. The flutter of fabrics, both worn and for sale. The smell of perfume, spices and sweets. The sound of metal scoops digging into bins of pistachio nuts. Many voices, of tourists and locals, children and old men.

This is authenticity Qatar style: promoting identity and culture – even if built a day ago.

Greenman publishes the travel site www.36hoursincolumbus.com. He is the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer and is the Carter Professor and Chair in Journalism Emeritus at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.