Impressions of Qatar

Today we decided to take a spin around Doha. As is our custom, we opted for the local hop-on hop-off bus, though in this case our hopping was limited to the start and end of the ride. If there’s one thing that stands out it’s that Doha (and by extension Qatar) is a place under construction.

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What promises to be a stunning new Qatar National Museum. A little behind schedule, but definitely taking form.

As tourists there’s no doubt we get a skewed view of life in any country we visit, so take all of this with a grain of salt. That said, here’s what strikes me about Qatar after our first few days.

Coming here, my expectation was to find a mini-Dubai, just a few years behind in it’s construction. What we found was more interesting. In many ways Qatar does have a lot in common with Dubai. It’s a small country in the Middle East that became very wealthy, almost overnight, thanks to some good fortune.

In this case, the discovery of oil and liquid natural gas helped revive a country hurt by the slow collapse of the pearling industry. Both now have very urban populations where the vast majority of people are expats. Here in Qatar that means only 20% of the population are nationals. The rest are expats, either the lucky white collar wealthy variety (mostly Western) or the labour from Nepal and South East Asia who form the engine behind the amazing growth taking place here. This article from Business Insider provides an interesting series of ‘then and now” shots illustrating the vast change in Doha.

Despite these similarities, my impression is that there is something that Qatar is getting right that Dubai seems to have missed. Where Dubai feels manufactured and sterile, almost like a prefabricated ultramodern city was literally dropped in the desert, Doha feels more liveable, like an actual city. It’s hard to explain why but it just feels that way. I think one element is that the old and new, at least for now, seem to be better integrated. For instance, the appearance of our hotel in the souk (Souk Waqif Hotel) hasn’t changed all that much in the last 60 or so years, but I’m pretty sure the luxurious interior is new.

More than the buildings are changing

Katy and I agree that we could probably live here quite happily for a little while, but only for a little while. I say that because that’s how long we’d be welcome. Despite the vast number of expats, they are here to serve a purpose, not to become part of society. Welcome guests, to be sure, but not family. Coming from a country where I can probably count on one hand everyone I know who doesn’t have at least one parent who is an immigrant, if they aren’t one themselves, this seems odd to me.

We had a chance to have dinner with some expats currently working on a hospital project here in Qatar and it sounds like this is exactly the case for them. They’ve got great work and nice lives at the moment, but they won’t be here long. Amusingly, they have a permit that allows them to buy bacon and booze at the government run shop; apparently the former is more frowned upon than the latter. In general though, its sounds like their interaction with real nationals is limited.

One of the things that stood out during our bus tour was the repeated assertions that Qatar is modern and more open than many other Middle Eastern countries… but that move to liberalism will need to be balanced against “family values”, i.e. religion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means suggesting that this country should become Canada, or any other for that matter. However, anytime you need to say something over and over, it suggests a certain unease.

I’ll be fascinated to see how Qatar evolves over the next 10-20 years and I’m optimistic. They’re definitely doing some great things. From what we’ve seen in our short time here, there is a recognition that the current wealth is fleeting so they’re working to diversify their economy and build infrastructure now while there’s the resources available. There’s a subway and train system being built which should ease the traffic, they have special economic zones under construction and Qatar Airways promotes itself as a gateway to other countries.

I mentioned to Katy that it would be interesting to come back in a few years to see what it’s like when many of the current projects are finished. Maybe we’ll even come check out the World Cup. Whether we make it back that soon or not, we’ll be watching…

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In the meantime, here are a few more pictures from our tour around Doha and Souk Waqif. Ella was quite pleased with all of the animal sightings – camels, horses and falcons – all based within the souk.

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