Qatar is like Chicago in 1900 – but with less crime and better weather
A few fascinating facts about the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar. It is awash with oil and is home to about 15 per cent of the planet’s proved reserves of natural gas. Consequently, it is one of the two or three richest per capita countries on Earth, its economic growth rate of more than 13 per cent is set to be the highest in the world this year, ditto its rate of immigration, which will raise the population from around 1.2 million to possibly 2.2 million in three years. Fewer than 20 per cent of them will be native Qataris. A century ago the population was 27,000.
There are no visible signs of recession. Cranes are everywhere, trucks carrying sand and gravel fill the roads nose to tail; most of Doha, the capital, is a building site. Chicago in 1900 might be analogous, except that the crime rate here is rather lower. And the weather is better: a pleasant 25C at the moment, although rising close to unbearable a couple of months from now.
Native Qataris enjoy reverse taxation: their Government pays them not to swan off to Mayfair or the South of France. They also get free gas and electricity. Petrol, unsurprisingly, is cheaper than water. You can fill a monster 4×4 for 50 rials, roughly a tenner. Manual work is done by Sri Lankans, Indians and Nepalis; the service sector is staffed by Filipinos; engineers, accountants and lawyers tend to be Westerners; the locals meanwhile kick back and buy another Bentley. Or another bank. Qatari jobs for Qatari workers is not a meaningful political slogan. Indigenes, indeed, would be horrified by it.
Qatar also has the highest per capita rate of CO2 emissions on the planet. Not far south of Doha, you pass mile after mile of refineries, the flare from the burn-off vents leaping 40-50ft into the sky. No question here whether you left the gas on or not. You definitely did, the air is thick with it. Car parts litter the verge. All manner of things simply lie where they fall.
Toyota has supplanted GMC as the world’s largest car maker, thanks in no small part to Qatar. Land Cruisers are ubiquitous; a popular pastime is to take them to the desert in the south and race them over the sand dunes. If you get stuck, young men on quad bikes, the modern-day camel of the desert, emerge from nowhere to dig you out.
We camp a mile from the Saudi border, with what looks like a barracks or border post visible across the inlet. I try to persuade my wife to drive along the beach in a bikini, drinking beer and shouting: “I’ve got a job!” in the direction of the misogynist so-and-sos across the water. We think better of it.
Ninety per cent of our flight from Heathrow made straight for the transfer lounge. Unlike Dubai, half an hour away by plane, Qatar hasn’t exactly gone big on tourism. We have friends working here and this is the third February half term we have spent as their guests. I’ve never met anyone else who comes here for leisure. There isn’t, it must be said, a great deal to see or do.
And yet the social climate is liberal by the standards (admittedly not high) of the region. A Roman Catholic church was consecrated in Doha last year; expats can buy alcohol with only a minimum of bureaucratic hassle; women can drive and vote in local elections (there are no national elections); you see the occasional young couple holding hands.
While the trend is towards greater tolerance, setbacks occur. The expat club where we enjoyed a riotous evening last year was raided on New Year’s Eve and is yet to reopen. The day before we arrived, The Gulf Times reported Sheikh Abdullah Omar al-Bakri, a senior Islamic cleric, denouncing Valentine’s Day in his sermon. “The so-called Love Day,” thundered the sheikh, “is only part of the plot the West is hatching against Muslim communities.” Foiled again! I wonder how he found out?
At Villaggio, a new shopping centre built in fake Italianate style, complete with imitation shutters, balconies and an azure Tuscan sky painted on the ceiling, the family heads for H&M while I note the phenomenon of the blingy burka – more properly called an abaya, but that doesn’t alliterate.
Where I live in East London, burkas are every bit as common as they are here. They are worn, however, by poor people, and thus without adornment.
At Villaggio, there are burkas trimmed with diamante, burkas with sapphire piping, burkas bursting with gold detail. Poking out of the burkas’ sleeves are diamond-encrusted hands clutching Gucci handbags. And in the middle of the mall, next to the Mercedes showroom, you can take a gondola ride along a fake Venetian canal.