The Geography of Bliss: Dateline Qatar
In Doha, how do Mercedes and Starbucks compete with dozens of new skyscrapers in an ever-shifting cityscape?
- Qataris, like all noveau riche, possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. What they crave, most of all, is validation. Qatar is using money to accomplish this goal.
- In Qatar, your position within the tribe trumps money or education. Despite all of the changes to Doha's skyline, all of the fast food joints, the country is socially stagnant.
- The entire nation of Qatar is like an airport terminal: pleasantly air-conditioned, with lots of good shopping, a wide selection of food and people from around the world.
- By many objective measures, life in Qatar has improved by leaps and bounds. But this is not the same as the subjective measure we call happiness.
- Qatar, in other words, is never exactly the same from one moment to the next. The ground — the sand — is literally shifting beneath their feet.
Qatar is roughly the size of Connecticut. Unlike Connecticut, though, there is no old money in Qatar. Only shiny new money.
Fifty years ago, Qataris eked out a living diving for pearls and herding sheep.
Today, the only pearls they encounter are the million-dollar ones wrapped around their necks and the only sheep they come across are the sheepskin seat covers on their new Mercedes.
Rarely before in history has one nation grown so wealthy, so quickly.
I read somewhere that Qatar is 98.09% desert. I wonder what the other 1.91% is? Mercedes, perhaps. The sand dunes can reach heights of 200 feet and, due to the winds, are constantly migrating.
Qatar, in other words, is never exactly the same from one moment to the next. No wonder people here feel so rootless. The ground — the sand — is literally shifting beneath their feet.
To get there I flew business class. I was surprised to find myself alone in this section of the plane. Where are the Qataris? Certainly they can afford to fly business class.
Later, I would discover the answer to this riddle. The Qataris were ensconced in the front of the plane, in first class. No Qatari would deign to fly mere business class.
Curiously, none of the flight attendants on Qatar Airways are from Qatar. Instead, they possess that androgynously ethnic look prized by global news networks and international modeling agencies.
The entire crew was from Someplace Else, but exactly which Someplace Else I couldn’t say. That, I suspect, is the idea.
Qatar Airways swaddles you in a fluffy bathrobe of luxury, hoping you don’t reach the uncomfortable, inevitable conclusion: Qatar has outsourced its own airline. It works. I couldn’t care less that no Qataris worked for Qatar Airways.
I clear customs and step outside the terminal building. I immediately run smack into a wall of heat. That’s the visual that springs to mind: a wall.
Life in Qatar is a continuous series of air-conditioned moments, briefly interrupted by un-air-conditioned intervals. It is crucial that these intervals, otherwise known as the outdoors, be kept to an absolute minimum.
Qataris accomplish this in imaginative ways. They are capable, for instance, of converting any store into a drive-through.
It works like this. A Qatari drives up to a store, any store, and honks his horn repeatedly and forcefully. Within a matter of seconds, a Pakistani or Indian or Sri Lankan worker scurries outside into the blazing heat and takes the Qatari’s order, then returns a few minutes later with the merchandise.
The entire transaction takes place without once breaching the sanctity of the air-conditioned environment. At least for the Qatari driver, that is.
The heat, it turns out, is the only solid thing in Qatar. The rest of the nation is ephemeral, gaseous. Which makes perfect sense.
Qatar is a nation built on gas. Underneath the sand, and in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, lies the world’s third largest reserve of natural gas, enough gas to heat every home in America for the next 100 years.
Outside the terminal, waiting for a taxi, I am comfortable by a collage of faces, in every hue imaginable: ruby red, pitch black, ghost white, sunburned. Some faces are invisible, covered by a veil of black cloth.
Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows the severe branch of Islam known as Wahabism, and nearly all Qatari women cover themselves, in public, from head to toe.
The Qataris, though, are quick to point out that they practice “Wahabi-lite,” and have considerably more fun than the Saudis. The women in Qatar, for instance, can drive — and even vote.
The collage of faces is accompanied by a jumble of tongues: the sing-song of Tagalog, the jackhammer rhythm of Tamil, and one that I find particularly misplaced — a New Jersey baritone.
It’s an off-duty U.S. soldier mucking it up with his pals. They are here on a respite from the war in Iraq. I can’t but feel sorry for them. Qatar is no Bangkok, the R and R spot for GIs during the Vietnam War.
I see other Westerners: pasty-skinned white guys in shorts, with bellies that jut out over their belts like a shelf. Oil and gas workers, or, as it’s universally pronounced: oilngas.
Then it dawns on me. The entire nation of Qatar is like an airport terminal: pleasantly air-conditioned, with lots of good shopping, a wide selection of food and people from around the world.
But humans, even nomadic ones, need a sense of home. Home need not be one place, or any place at all, but every home has two essential elements: a sense of community and, even more important, a history.
Qatar has a past, of course, but not much of one. One thousand years of history, roughly from 650 to 1600 AD, are unaccounted for, simply missing. The country’s more recent past is better documented, but it’s quickly being erased by an unstoppable juggernaut of chrome and cement.
Qataris, like all noveau riche, possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. What they crave, most of all, is validation. Qatar is using money to accomplish this goal.
The capital, Doha, resembles one giant construction site. They are building 41 hotels, 108 skyscrapers and 14 stadiums. And that is just in the next couple of years. No wonder the country suffers from a cement shortage.
Later during my trip, on a Wednesday at 3:00 p.m, I decide to do what any self-respecting Qatari would do at this time. I go to Starbucks.
Qatari men are sipping lattes, and smoking directly under the no-smoking sign, secure in the knowledge that no Filipino barista would dare ask them to obey the rules. In Qatar, the question isn’t: What is the rule? But rather: Who’s enforcing it?
I struggle to find a table. Starbucks is crowded. A little too crowded for a Wednesday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. Don’t these men have jobs?
In fact, I would later learn, they did have jobs and they were, at that very moment, mid-latte, earning full salaries.
They are what’s known here as ghost workers. People who don’t show up for work but, owing to their tribal clout, collect a paycheck nonetheless.
In Qatar, your position within the tribe trumps money or education. Despite all of the changes to Doha’s skyline, all of the fast food joints, the country is socially stagnant.
You will die with exactly the same status with which you were born. Nothing you do matters. What matters is your name.
At the same time, one introspective Qatari I met, Abdulaziz, explained to me that a generation of Qatari children is being raised by nannies who don’t speak their language and have no authority to discipline them.
Boys are cherished, and spoiled. Once they reach 13 or 14 years old, the family doesn’t try to discipline them anymore. They won’t monitor their behavior in public.
It’s a living hell for the teachers, who often are foreigners with no real authority. These young men don’t listen to anyone. Not even the police.
By many of the measures we typically use to gauge human progress, life in Qatar has improved by leaps and bounds.
People live longer, healthier lives — except for obesity, which is an increasing problem. They are better educated, and can afford to travel abroad (first class, of course) whenever they want.
But these objective measures are not the same as the subjective measure we call happiness. Here the verdict is far from clear.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner. Copyright 2008 Hatchette Book Group USA. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.