Qatar is a country I keep coming back to in my mind as one that I never could quite wrap my senses fully around. What makes Qatar what it is, in many ways, is defined by all of the things it isn’t – combined with the onslaught of what it wants to become. Qatar, aside from being the Middle East’s fastest growing nation, a peninsula sitting on the southeast end of Saudi Arabia, has the world’s highest GDP. More than 75% of the population lives in the capital city Doha, and more than 60% is foreign born in a country that only became sovereign in 1971. Since that time Qatar’s monarchy, fueled by more oil and natural gas per capita than anywhere else, is speeding to establish its place in the changing global economic dynamic.
A Focused Vision Forward
So much of what you see in Qatar is some part of its future. There isn’t much immediate evidence of anything that came before, or the nomadic tribes roughly brought together with the introduction of Islam around 700 A.D. Once that happened and in between visits from various conquerors like the Ottomans and Persians, Qatar acted as a linchpin to commerce in the Persian Gulf.
Much of this history is covered in great detail in Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, 3 floors and 45,000 square meters encompassing one of the most interesting and visually impressive museums I have ever visited. It’s new too, built in 2008 – sitting along a mostly artificial concrete corniche – and is subsequently one of the best places to take photos of new Doha while learning about the old one.
Building A Base Upon A Foreign One
One of the reasons it’s tough to get a sense of Qatari essence is that so many of the 1.5 million people, including 71% of all women in the country, are foreign born. Of those, more than half have arrived within the last 10 years. (With numbers doubling in 2005, then again in 2010.) They’re mostly coming for work, to build that future that Qatar has envisioned for itself. The skyscrapers, World Cup 2022 stadiums, and modern bazaars like Souk Waqif that Qatar’s government is hoping will give Dubai a run for it’s money in the coming years.
Extremely reminiscent of Dubai, Doha at times almost feels too much like it, except a bit rougher around the edges. The immigrant neighborhoods and communities are more apparent in Doha but there isn’t much else to set it aside on the surface from it’s shiny neighbor to the east.
The Future Is In The Stuffing
The path to a culture’s heart is often through its kitchen and there are many culinary roads in Qatar to follow. They’ll take you to places like Morocco, Yemen, and Nepal albeit in a controlled manner. Foods aren’t fusing together in abundance yet as they tend to do when diverse counter tops cook in close proximity. It’s these various paths that are the roads to Qatar’s essence, not where it’s going, but in the footsteps of all those who have built and are building its future.
As I think I’ve said here before, the Middle East is an area of the world that holds no lure for me, but for some reason this particular article of yours has ignited my interest. I may just have to check out Qatar.
Another nice thing about it is it’s a great hopping off point to the other Gulf states depending if it catches your interest 😉
Seriously – don’t bother. Dubai is a “must see” (Disneyland for adults), but once you’ve seen it – all the other cities in the area will pale in comparison (but go and check out Oman as it still retains the tradition and charm of the gulf)
These huge newly-built cities are all starting to look exactly the same. The photo at the bottom’s interesting though. Looks like there’s still a little bit of prettiness left over for those of us who can’t get with mirrored glass towers. 😉
It’s there, especially outside of Doha in the desert but elsewhere there is such a rush to go “New York” I think it erases a lot of what makes a place interesting. Those visiting for relaxation, shopping, and glamor though probably wouldn’t agree and I guess Doha makes more money that way in the long run. Worked for Dubai and I guess that’s what they’re counting on :/
I again find it fascinating to hear about the large foreign community in these Arabic countries. 71 percent of all women are foreign born- wow!!!
Such an incredible number isn’t it? I had to read the Qatar census statistics 3 times because I could barely believe it.
Anil, a fabulous article! This one especially interested me, as I am a Queens, NYC native, which currently has 50% of its population as foreign-born. 60% is amazing! Qatar does seem to be desperately vying for attention and recognition in the world, especially to differentiate it from its big brother Dubai. I do hope to visit Doha soon!
50%? Wow, I had no idea it was that many in New York but understandable when I think about it a bit. Really makes for some interesting mixing I think, though in Qatar the focus is so much on the vision it almost loses what’s right in front of it. (That’s how you make your mark on Dubai!)
Happy travels and hopefully you’ll get to Doha soon!
Yeah, that 50% is for the borough of Queens, one of the five that together make up New York City. NYC as a whole has just over 36% of its population foreign-born, which is still quite a sum! Anyway, great stuff, as usual!
I’ve visited Qatar a couple times as my mom lives there – so also got to see some of the more local stuff and my description of Qatar is “Dubai without the WOW factor”. I’ve been to the Islamic Museum of Art and for a newbie to the topic I found it really difficult to understand the exhibits – it was too dry and nothing that held my interest for more than a couple of seconds (other than the building) – and this is from an islamaphile.
I no longer visit, but rather arrange for my mom to meet me elsewhere – there is so much else in the region. Don’t bother unless you’ve received a really good fare and free stopover from Qatar Airways (they are great).
Funny thing is I haven’t been all too impressed with Qatar Airways; but enjoyed the Museum of Islamic Art 🙂 To each their own – but I can definitely see how Qatar could get quite bland after a few trips. There isn’t much to set it apart in the region definitely. Have you been to Bahrain? I found it unique even among the flashiness of the Gulf…