Photo by: JASON LARKIN / PANOS
Nowhere near as religious as its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, nor as bling-obsessed as nearby United Arab Emirates, Qatar has astutely observed the paths other Gulf states have chosen, and then cherry-picked what seems to work best.
This careful approach has led the country to almost unimaginable success. Since Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani took power in 1995 (ousting his father in a bloodless coup), Qatar has expanded its economy, mainly based on gas and oil, to the point where the nation has the second-highest GDP per capita in the world, just behind Liechtenstein. This wealth is fairly evenly distributed amongst nationals too: you will be hard pressed to find an impoverished or even working class Qatari, as the government provides most citizens with such generous benefits that some need not be employed at all.
Those who do work can still not feed the country’s hungry economy, and so the majority of the country’s small population are expatriate workers. Most seem content in Qatar (or rather, the capital, Doha, which is the temporary home for almost all) as salaries are comparatively high and conditions are generally good: healthcare, education, and sometimes even housing are free, while water, gas, electricity and some foodstuffs are subsidized by the state. However, strict health laws require that all incoming workers are screened for communicable diseases, including HIV and AIDS, and those infected are barred from entering. Islamic codes must also be followed, so that public displays of affection are frowned upon, homosexuality is taboo and, while alcohol can be consumed, drunk driving is harshly penalized.
The Emir recently allowed a new constitution that permits the election of municipal governors, and Qatar was one of the first Gulf countries to extend voting rights to women. Nonetheless, the reforms resulted only in a weak Consultative Assembly rather than a Parliament, and political parties are still illegal. There is no freedom of assembly, and freedom of association is sharply circumscribed. In addition, Qatar, like most Gulf states, uses the kafala (‘sponsorship’) visa system, which means that employers have a great deal of power over their employees’ work permits. This can make it difficult for workers to change employers, even abusive ones, and without their employer’s permission, such workers are also unable to leave the country.
Furthermore, society is sharply divided into male and female realms and roles, with both sexes wearing traditional dress in the abaya (for women) and the thobe (for men). Women sometimes cover not only their hair with a black scarf, but their faces as well, including their eyes, and older women from the coastal areas can often be seen in a gold mask called a battula. Several public places, such as spas, hairdressers or gyms, have areas that are gender segregated.
Culturally, Qatar is friendly to the West, but certainly not dominated by it. Al Jazeera was created here to give the Arab world a liberal, global voice, and there are a large variety of local newspapers, many of them in English. There is no doubt that Qatar is making a concerted attempt to lead the Gulf states in terms of culture: Doha boasts architecture by some of the world’s leading names, including Zaha Hadid and IM Pei, who designed the impressive Museum of Islamic Art, and further galleries and museums are being planned.
Due to urban planning, dust storms and incredibly hot summers when temperatures can reach as high as 50oC, Doha is as addicted to the car and to air conditioning as Los Angeles. Subsidized petrol means that most people can easily afford to drive, but this has also led to incredible traffic jams, despite the small population. Water is scarce and Qatar is counting on energy-intensive desalination plants for future supplies.