Gulf between dreams and reality in Doha

The new emir faces huge challenges to achieve Qatar’s geopolitical goals


The 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances told the story of Hyacinth Bucket, who nurtured extravagant delusions of grandeur in suburban England and sought, with her grandiose plans, to convince her supposed social superiors she was their equal.

Qatar’s ruling family could be compared to Bucket, longing for a place for their country among global foreign policy players and willing to do almost anything to achieve it.

This ambition began when the former emir or leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. At first relatively modest, the goals have lately become staggeringly grand. Last June the emir abdicated, handing power to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim, who will now have to realise his father’s vision.

The sporting world was astonished when Fifa awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, a decision quickly turning into a fiasco as the reality of playing soccer in summer temperatures of 50 degrees dawns.

The government plans to spend €150 billion on the games. South Africa spent about €3.5 billion in 2010. Stadiums will be built and swathes of the capital, Doha, will be redeveloped.

Football organisations have said the tournament will have to take place during the winter or else be moved. Qatari officials are busy drumming up support, the World Cup their chance to hold the world’s attention and they will not give that up without a fight.

Formerly a sleepy British protectorate that depended largely on pearl fishing, Qatar has been transformed by oil and gas revenue. According to the CIA World Factbook, it had the world’s highest GDP per capita in 2012 with an estimated €76,780 per head of population (Ireland was in 24th place with €31,480 per capita).

Doha, which in 2008 had a recorded population of just fewer than a million people, appears to be a gleaming metropolis. But all is not as it should be. Poor planning has rendered the city pedestrian- unfriendly, making taxis the only practical form of transport. In the new parts of town there are no streetscapes – the gleaming skyscrapers are fronted by dreary car parks. Doha looks impressive when viewed from a distance – the World Cup bid was probably stunning on paper – but living in the city is a different matter.

The newly developed Doha and the World Cup are a means to an end. The ultimate ambition of this tiny country is to become a global player.

Qatar’s recent geopolitical moves have been dizzying. It took the Arab Spring as its opportunity, funding and arming Libya’s rebels and then Syria’s. When Hosni Mubarak lost power in Egypt, Qatar rushed to support his successor, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood party.

This is country unafraid of risk but whether the ruling family can meet its challenges is far from certain.

The oil and gas sector, which bankrolls the ambition, is projected to begin shrinking next year. Attempting to diversify its income, the government has created a huge hedge fund that is investing heavily in such places as London and Paris.

There are concerns about the number of ambitious projects planned for delivery in such a short time. They risk draining resources from other parts of the economy and need a logistical miracle if they are to be completed.

There is also the issue of the toll on those who will have to do the dirty work. Qatar has about a quarter of a million citizens – the rest of the population of almost two million are migrants, many of whom live in appalling conditions and work long days in extreme temperatures.

A Sri Lankan taxi driver, for example, asked if he liked living in Doha, sobbed quietly and told stories of cruelty and bad treatment. Recent reports suggested one migrant construction worker dies in Qatar every day.

‘Bachelor ban’
Migrants are racially segregated. A so-called “bachelor ban” implemented last year means blue-collar, male workers are not allowed to live in any neighbourhood where a Qatari family resides. “Industrial zones” that sound a lot like ghettos have been created to house them. Those from the West can expect generous salaries, good conditions and to socialise in the five-star international hotels around which life revolves. Those from the east can expect relatively poor pay, uncertain conditions and long, hard days on building sites or in service.

All foreign workers must obtain exit visas from their employers to leave the country. For western expats this is seldom problematic. But for the rest it can be used as a tool to prevent them leaving, forcing them to remain in what Human Rights Watch has called modern-day slavery.

There is a growing consensus abroad that Qatar has been too bullish. Its enthusiastic support for Muslim Brotherhood parties has left it open to accusations of sectarianism. Other countries have watched in dismay as Qatari support has reached extreme Islamist groups in Syria. There are allegations that Qatar’s support for Libyan rebels targeted groups with sound Islamist credentials, leading to greater instability.

Events in Egypt have left Qatar isolated among its Gulf neighbours. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support the armed forces. Qatar staked a lot on Morsi’s success, betting he would create an acceptable Islamic governance model in the Middle East that other countries would follow and Qatar would generously support, extending its influence. That prospect has now collapsed and with it Qatar’s rapid ascent in foreign policy.

How the new emir responds to these challenges will define his ambitious country for many years to come.

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