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Inside Qatar: Keith Duggan on the strange, insular, super-rich host of this year’s World Cup

The social anthropologist John McManus is an empathetic, sharp-eyed guide to the sheikhdom

Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth
Author: John McManus
ISBN-13: 978-1785788215
Publisher: Icon Books
Guideline Price: £10.99

Falconry is big in Qatar. An historical aspect of Bedouin life is enjoying a renaissance among the young, limitlessly moneyed Qataris who are growing weary of the more banal symbols of their wealth. They race the birds in competitions and if their prizes fall ill, well, they take them to the state-subsidised falcon hospital, which can handle up to 1,000 patients a week. John McManus, a writer and social anthropologist, who spent a year living in Qatar, hopes that getting to grips with the country’s falcon culture will help him to understand the people themselves.

So early on in what is a committed and conscientious account of his year, he finds himself in the desert lands outside Doha, watching Nasser training his 12 falcons. Or more accurately, watching Nasser’s helpers, who are migrant workers from Bangladesh, train the birds. It is at this point that McManus casually drops the statistical paragraph that shapes the reader’s experience of what follows. ‘Until the mid-20th century, Qatar was one of the poorest places on the planet,” he writes. That bare sentence stands as a counterbalance to the pages of excess, strangeness and grim experience which form his year.

The dubious awarding of sport’s prized tournament placed Qatar under an intense spotlight, with viral reports focused on the shocking numbers of migrant worker deaths associated with the sweeping building projects

Qatar teetered on the brink after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which laid waste to its pearl-diving industry. Suddenly, the madams of Park Lane could no longer afford them. By 1940, the population of Doha fell beneath 16,000. The ruler at the time, Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, had to take out a mortgage on his house. But in 1939, geologists working for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company discovered oil onshore at Jebel Dukan. It took a decade for Qatar to start exporting the stuff and then its transformation to mega-wealth – it was the Westlife of charts for the world’s richest nations, coming in number one from 2002-2014 – was irreversible. And what happens to a nation after it vaults from poverty to guaranteed wealth within the space of half a century? That’s the question McManus wants to answer.

When he arrives in June 2017, preparations for this December’s World Cup are well under way. McManus lives in Ankara and is interested in football. His previous book, Welcome To Hell, is an acclaimed account of Turkish football and society. The dubious awarding of sport’s prized tournament placed Qatar under an intense spotlight, with viral reports focused on the shocking numbers of migrant worker deaths associated with the sweeping building projects. The tournament has transformed Doha. In 2000, the city had 19 hotels. It now has closer to 200. The wave of unflattering portrayals in the media panicked the Qatar government and thus provided a boon for the world’s leading PR and consultancy firms.

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“Doha is awash with consultants,” McManus writes. “They are the ones occupying the swish towers in West Bay, the men and women dressed in power suits buying $20 sushi lunches.” The western media manipulators were taken aback by the primitive state foghorn. “They had nothing,” one consultant tells McManus. “They had no government communications infrastructure at all.” Only because they had no need. In 2008, the Doha Center for Media Freedom was established, its mandate to support free speech and journalism in the region: after the first year, the director walked, frustrated at the restrictions imposed on operations.

Qatar is, as McManus discovers, an impenetrable society. His day with the falcon owner was one of the few times he infiltrated Doha’s high society. Most of the book is concerned with the experiences of the migrant workers, such as Maggie, a Kenyan and one of 176,000 domestic workers who regularly put in shifts from 6am to midnight. He details the sad case of Rekha Sunar, a young Nepali man who worked in a petrochemical plant. In November 2018 he was caught in an accident and suffered terrible burns: three other workers died. At least, he was in the right country. The hospital care he received initially was wonderful. “The nurse took care of me like my parents,” he tells McManus. That lasted for three months. Then, he was released and was reliant on his employer for transport for day visits. He couldn’t eat properly or dress himself as his hands were not fully functional.

He hadn’t seen his wife or child for three years and had accepted a trip home when the pandemic broke out, leaving him stuck in Nepal. After a series of phone calls during which he was told that work had been halted, he signed a severance agreement and received $1,675 (€1,609). Qatar absorbed about one-third of all Nepali migrants in 2018-19. They typically borrowed £1,600 to get over there. Now, Sunar is back home: he learned afterwards that the plant was still operating. Stories of exploitation and terribly grim, joyless working conditions run through the book. As to why so many migrants continue to flock there: because any work is better than none.

McManus is an empathetic and sharp-eyed guide. For all the light and architecture, the Qatar through which he roams is no paradise. Instead, it reads like a lurid dream: the metro has a VIP section, the Villaggio Mall an ice hockey rink and replica Venetian canals. Qataris buy because what else is there to do? A 2015 survey placed it top on the luxury spending in the Middle East, at about $4,000 a month per person.

McManus concedes he left Qatar feeling “ultimately a little disappointed” and saddened that after a year of trying, he “didn’t know any Qatari well enough to truly hear how they are grappling with the big questions that their country is confronting”. It is one of the hottest places on earth, with 2 millimetres of rainfall per year. There are no lakes. Air quality is diminishing. The people are insular and private.

A Pakistani businessman tells McManus: “Qatar is like sweet poison.” It is such an evocative phrase that it could have made a subtitle. And life is no picnic even for the privileged. Excess takes places in hotels or covertly – and as a party city it will never cause Vegas any sleepless nights. Sheikh Tamin (b. 1980) holds a more conservative worldview than his father did and his changes include changing the official language at Qatar University from English to Arabic and introducing military service. Wealth remains in-state by a blanket refusal to naturalise outsiders and by inter-marriage: a 2019 statistic suggested that 43 per cent of Qatari marriages were between relatives, often first cousins. Only 13 per cent of Qataris marry foreigners – and those are usually confined to the larger Gulf family.

“I felt like a butterfly trapped in a coffee jar,” one young Qatari tells the author. Imagine the shock for that generation this December, when the hordes of football fans descend exhibiting their tradition of boozy, uninhibited freedom of excess and emotion – the stuff that money cannot buy. By January, Doha will be left emptier than ever before.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times