“What’s it really like?” ask friends, former colleagues and authors, when they know I’m calling from Qatar. The curiosity is intense, which is not surprising, given the state’s international involvement in everything from investment, property and football to the UN and the geopolitics of Arab spring countries.
This curiosity served me well when I arrived in Doha in December 2011. Being the launch editor of a new publication, Think. – the global trends, international affairs and thought leadership quarterly of Qatar Foundation – was both exciting and daunting.
When I was commissioning for the NS, it used to be easy. Everyone knew of the magazine and most regarded it as an honour to be asked to contribute. Getting writers from across the globe to write a 3,000-word essay for a title that didn’t yet exist might, I feared, be different. Not so much. We soon secured Nobel Prizewinners, former and current prime ministers and presidents, garlanded novelists, and interviews with leading figures from across the arts. I even woke up one morning to find an email from the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, happy to discuss a commission. Everyone’s heard of Qatar. And they’re very, very interested.
Movers and sheikhas
Clearing away a cloud of misconceptions is the first task. Take the role of women. Increasingly prevalent in the west seems to be the notion that the act of wearing a headscarf deprives a Muslim woman of her agency and ability to think for herself. Well, not in Qatar. The chair of Qatar Foundation, under whose umbrella come full degree-awarding branch campuses of American and European universities, extensive science and research programmes, community development agencies and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, to name but a few, is the new emir’s mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Qatar Museums Authority (which is about to mount the biggest ever exhibition of work by Damien Hirst) is led by her daughter, Sheikha Mayassa.
At Qatar Foundation, I answer to a nearly unbroken line of female executives, most of whom cover their heads. Anyone who doubts that these are powerful women would find their opinion swiftly refreshed on meeting them. Last year I went to the filming of one of the last in the series Doha Debates (it was chaired by Tim Sebastian, broadcast on BBC World and reached audiences of up to 350 million). As an abaya-clad student berated half the panel, making the most forceful point of the night, I thought: “If this woman is subjugated, someone forgot to tell her.”
Gulf of misunderstanding
Qatar’s role in the region’s politics is also misunderstood. The state’s past and present involvement in Libya and Syria is particularly well known, although relations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban have raised some startling suggestions from that corps of western commentators who are obsessed with the “perils” of Islamism.
“A lot of what Qatar was doing was because it had a vision, not necessarily an Islamist one, but based on the view that what had preceded it, for instance in Egypt and Tunisia, had not served the Arab region well,” my friend Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha, told me. It’s about “pragmatism and building bridges”, he says. Although he concedes that aiding the opposition in Syria has not so far had the desired result, it is equally true that the search for a hidden Islamist agenda has been fruitless, simply because there isn’t one – hard though that may be for right-wing or liberal-fundamentalist conspiracy theorists to admit.
The difference is Doha
Yes, it’s hot here: it can reach 50°C in the summer. (However, I dismiss any doubts about Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup in such heat. If one of the most arid countries on the planet can plan to produce 90 per cent of its own food by 2024, attending to a little airconditioning issue should be a bagatelle.) But there are chilly months, too. I had occasion to wear an overcoat three times last winter. There are public parks, galleries and museums, malls, cinemas and familiar shops such as M&S and Debenhams. Yet it is not Dubai. Qatar is keen to preserve its own culture and has no need to become as liberal as its Emirati near-neighbour. The strong sense of local history and practice can be catching.
Another friend, Patrick Forbes, recently hosted his first majlis, a traditional Gulf event where guests gather to recline on cushions, eat, chat and smoke shishas until the early hours. A speech was given by Tim Makower, the architectural language adviser to Msheireb Properties, which is redeveloping a swath of Doha close to the Amiri Diwan (the emir’s court) and the curve of the Corniche, drawing on the Islamic architecture of the past and reimagining it for the 21st century.
That sums up much of what makes Qatar’s vision so distinctive. But it may have been lost on the vendor near my seafront office who sells “Corniche pasties”. I’m not sure if the joke’s on him or us.
One of the most positive aspects of life in Qatar is its diversity. This is manifest not only in the array of cuisine available but also in the people. Qataris make up just 15 per cent of the 1.7 million population: over 50 per cent are from south Asia, 13 per cent come from other Arab countries and 11 per cent from the Philippines, while “others”, including those from Europe, the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, constitute 7 per cent. It sometimes feels as though Britain, even London, can be a little grudging in its acceptance of difference (those disgraceful Home Office vans being the latest case in point). Here, it is the norm.
I’m glad that our three-year-old son, in whose veins course Irish, English, French, Italian, Malay, Indian and Cocos Islander blood, should be growing up to think that natural. His friends have names like Yahya, Yagiz and Sheikha, as well as Matteo, Raffaella and Leonidas. My colleagues come from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Ireland, Australia and Britain.
As it says in a verse from the Quran that I find particularly moving: “Lo! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”
Sholto Byrnes is the editor of Think.