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. Fuelled by oil and natural gas revenue, Qatar is developing at breakneck speed, and everything from universities to shopping malls, 5-star hotels to football stadiums (in preparation for the controversial 2022 World Cup) are springing up along the desert floor.
Modern Qatar is, for all intents and purposes, a city-state. Over half of the country’s population lives in and around the capital, Doha. Most other towns are Qatari Oil compounds – quasi-communities built for foreign workers. The country does also have its share of natural beauty. Gorgeous beaches line the western coast in places like Dukhan, and the spectacular dunes of Khor al-Adaid in the south complement the city’s many inorganic charms.
While the skyscrapers, malls and manmade beaches suggests that Doha is an understudy to Dubai, in reality Qatar remains a deeply traditional country, sharing far more in common with neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Thus, even as international hotel bars are permitted to serve alcohol, Qatari women are forbidden from entering them; and even as Qatari’s indulge in shopping sprees at Chanel or Dior, falconry and camel-racing remain popular pastimes.
Amidst this contradiction of custom and modernity exist a few notable spaces for reflection. The iconic Museum of Islamic Art, the Katara Cultural Village and the Museum of Modern Art give Qatar a cultural edge over some of its Emirate neighbours.
However, the country exemplifies the divide between haves and have-nots. Wealthy Qataris cruise around in the latest 4x4s, spending entire days in upscale shopping malls, while vast armies of immigrant workers serve as poorly paid staff or live six to a room as they build glittering skyscrapers. Paradoxical, challenging and hypocritical it may be, Qatar is never less than fascinating.