Doha, the sandy capital of Qatar is in the midst of an ambitious building boom. In 1998, the only tall building was the government-owned Sheraton hotel. Now, tall buildings jut across the landscape in a glass and steel disconnection from the surrounding environment.
Photo: Jochen Tack
In 2008, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani issued a message: Qatar’s development would be significantly accelerated and based around four pillars: social, economic, environment and human development for both the predominantly Sunni Muslim minority ruling population and the many foreign nationals required to make things function. The vision of the country for 2030—“May Allah guide our steps”—includes everything from improving primary education and healthcare (as in other rich countries, obesity and diabetes are increasingly problematic) to incentivizing greater productivity, improving work-life balance for women and developing high-quality artistic talent.
The Middle Eastern country has made attempts to increase its influence in the region, positioning itself as a rational, non-partisan business model. In Doha, there is both trade with Israel and plans for a Taliban embassy (the latter now temporarily suspended), and Qatar is gaining a reputation as a peacemaker between local warring factions such as Hamas and Fatah. There are also plans for a Gulf common currency to be shared with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, but nothing has yet been minted. Qatar recently won the 2022 FIFA World Cup, widely seen as a step towards an Olympic bid. And with the blessing of the Qatar Foundation (the education and culture ministry that serves as the pet project of the Emir’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned), outposts of several American institutions have set up shop, including Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern and Texas A&M.
The expansion of Qatar Airways mirrors this aggressive strategy for growth and influence. A brand new airport—Doha International is currently the region’s second busiest airport—is slated to open this December. Qatar Airways currently flies to 116 destinations, with a plan to expand to 170 destinations within three years. Plans were recently announced to double the U.S. flight network, adding Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Detroit to Houston, Washington and New York routes. To help meet the demand, more than US$50 billion in aircraft is on order, including 60 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
Doha is within five hours flying time of three billion people, and the 15-year-old national airline hopes to make Qatar’s capital a hub for business and leisure passengers. “It goes without saying that it fits hand-in-hand and is complementary to the many initiatives embarked upon by the State to project Qatar in the public spotlight in key areas such as education, sport and culture, aside from its rich natural resources,” said Akbar Al Baker, CEO, Qatar Airways.
Sixty years ago, after the conclusion of the Second World War, Qatar barely existed. Oil was discovered in 1941, and the state gained independence from Britain in 1971. But the tiny nation of pearl divers, sitting atop a glorious pool of crude, didn’t truly industrialize until the 1970s. A traditional but very wealthy local elite has emerged. Qatari men and women mostly stick to the white dishdasha and black abaya. Some airlines permit men to fly within the region with a falcon strapped to their forearm. The women accessorize their embellished black cloaks with $5,000 purses, but they are not permitted to enter hotel bars.
Only 20% of the population is Qatari; the rest is a hodgepodge of foreign workers, from the American and English expats who inhabit a detached world of celebrity chefs and five-star hotels (the only places where alcohol can be consumed) to the South Asian labourers whose work conditions have been likened to modern slavery. Besides oil and gas, nothing is seemingly made in Qatar. Asking for a local souvenir in the shiny new souk elicits chuckles, and the best bet for an authentic souvenir is probably a bag of sand.
Though the domestic pearl industry was long ago lost to Japan, one of the biggest signs of Qatar’s affluence and ambition is “The Pearl,” an enormous, mixed commercial and residential project on 985 acres of reclaimed land. The retail vendors are mostly high-end and European: Ferrari, Stella McCartney and even Agent Provocateur (where the female staff don fishnets that do not adhere to local standards of dress). The Italian-inspired Pearl complex has homes for more than 41,000 “international residents,” and the project will offer the first freehold ownership to non-Qataris. Another community, Lusail, is being built for 400,000 inhabitants.
These are huge communities, brand new cities even, in a country with a population of fewer than two million people, and it is unclear at this point who will be buying. (The views of the massive yachts are nice, but the Pearl is dry, and the one habit that Western expats appear to pick up in Gulf countries is, ironically, heavy drinking.) When I asked a local tour guide where so many prospective owners are expected to come from, who will fill all of the office and apartment buildings cropping up across the waterfront, he said, with more than a little pride: “We don’t know yet, but they’ll come from everywhere.”
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