The eyes of the world are on Qatar right now. In just forty years, this small Gulf state has been catapulted from one of the poorest countries in the region, to the richest (per capita) in the world. Vast natural gas and oil resources have brought vast wealth to the Qatari population, and the country is developing at breakneck speed, with everything from universities to shopping malls, five-star hotels and football stadia – in preparation for the 2022 World Cup – are springing up among the desert scenery.
Qatar is pretty much a city-state at present; 50% of the country’s population live in and around the capital and most other towns are Qatari Oil compounds; strange, quasi-communities built for foreign workers. There are stretches of beautiful beach on the western coast, in places like Dukhan, and in the south of the country the spectacular dunes of Khor al-Adaid add a little natural beauty to the manmade charms of the city.
In spite of the astonishing wealth, Qatar remains a deeply traditional country – and it is this dichotomy that makes it such a fascinating place. On the surface, Doha looks like a little sister to Dubai; gleaming international hotels, vast malls and man-made sandy beaches. But Qatari culture has far more in common with its neighbour across the border, Saudi Arabia. International hotel bars may serve alcohol, but no Qatari women are allowed to enter them. Falconry and camel-racing are still the pastimes of choice for many Qataris – although shopping sprees in Chanel and Dior probably run a close third.
Traditional it may be, but the Qatari Emir is also a moderniser; the country is set to get its first elections in the autumn of 2013, and along with the iconic Museum of Islamic Art, the Katara Cultural Village and MATHAF – the city’s Museum of Modern Art – are ensuring that Qatar has more in the way of culture than some of its Emirate neighbours.
Qatar is the ultimate land of have and have-nots. Wealthy Qataris drive around in the latest 4x4s, spending entire days in shopping malls buying Western designer labels, while vast armies of immigrant workers live six to a room to build the glittering skyscrapers and work in poorly-paid roles as staff to expat workers and Qataris. Like Dubai, it’s a melting pot of races and communities – all drawn by the lure of seemingly infinite money, and the chance for a better standard of living. How many of those who come to Qatar actually get to live their dreams is another question altogether. Vexed, contradictory, hypocritical and challenging, Qatar is never less than fascinating.