Qatar, a small peninsula country in the Middle East, is difficult to understand*. Ruled by an Emir, Qatar once was one of the poorest countries, but now it is one of wealthiest. This change happened in a very short time thank to oil and gas.
92% of its + 2 million inhabitants live in the capital city of Doha. But the strangest fact is that only around 10% of the population is Qatari. The remaining 90% is expats, mostly from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries where men seek work. These foreign workers run the stores, clean the hotels, drive the taxis and build the buildings and roads.
Qataris were a nomadic people until recent history. Living a difficult life in the desert was no longer necessary once oil was discovered. Those three letters changed life forever here. The desert was reshaped into an ultra modern city with all of its conveniences. The Emir, the ruler, decreed that all Qatari would receive an income from the profits of oil. No one over the age of 18 needs to work, although Qatari do hold government and managerial positions. The daily chores are performed by people who come from all over the world to find work and who send home their income to support families overseas. The young man who drove me while in Doha put two sisters through school in Bangladesh and supported his mother in raising her family there.
The buildings of Doha are incredible. It reminds me of how my husband Kees once worked with a group of high school students to help them design the skateboard park of their dreams. He gave each one a bit of play dough and told them to shape their favourite jump. Doha feels like different people dreamed up their favourite building and then just built it. The skyline is made up of vase shaped skyscrapers, at night highlighted in different colours. The torch hotel is shaped like a torch. The new Sidra hospital resembles ships sailing into port. The national library made me think of a gigantic airplane. Each building is executed in marble, glass, chrome – with dazzling results.
In the process of changing lifestyles, Qatar runs the risk of losing its heritage. On my first night here I was lucky enough to witness the Dhow Festival. Dhows are long, sleek traditional wooden boats that plow the waters of the Gulf. Along the Corniche, the boulevard that skirts the water, were demonstrations of traditional skills: opening pearl oysters, handmaking fishing nets, buildings boats, making palm leaf baskets. Older men sat crosslegged on carpets to demonstrate these skills. However, they had all been brought in from Oman because Qataris no longer have or practise these skills. Different shaped head dress or different coloured outfits indicated people from different Middle Eastern countries. There was singing and dancing, even the playing of conch shells. Strong coffee was brewed in copper kettles on hot coals while thousands of people strolled along, in a sea of white (men in starched thobes) and black (women in abbayas). Little boys in spotless white thobes ran along, free as birds. Flocks of young, veiled women giggled and strolled along the boulevard. It was an enchanting, Arabian night! I always like knowing, during festivals in the Middle East, that there is no drinking of alcohol involved. I always feel safe because there is virtually no crimes here. Severe punishments ensure that no one steals. I was even told that you can leave your bank card in the ATM machine and no one will take it…. I didn’t test it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. There is virtually no pickpocketing!
The temperatures were amazingly perfect while I visited. In summer it can be 40 or even 50 degrees C but now it was a beautiful 24… Qatar has one or two days of rain each year and, as luck would have it, I experienced both of these days. Rain fell so furiously that, within an hour, streets were flooded. Homes, even the airport, flooded. This happens each year. Traffic comes to a screeching halt as roads flood and are impassable. Two days later, it’s all dried up for another year…
In my next blog I will tell you about some special sites to visit if you are in Qatar.
* A note of caution: as with my stories about any place I visit, I do not pretend to truly know Qatar after only visiting there for 2 weeks. My stories are merely aimed at sharing my personal experience there, and I might well get much of my understanding wrong.