World Cup host Qatar wavers between the conservative and the modern
Doha Letter: Country intent on showing it is more liberal and modern than its neighbours
A mock world cup trophy in a shop in Souk Waqif in Doha. Photograph: Ibraheem al Omari/Reuters
On New Year’s Day, the people of the oil- and gas-rich gulf state of Qatar woke to find a “health” tax had been implemented overnight, doubling the price of sugary and alcoholic drinks.
In itself, this is of little significance in the predominately Sunni Muslim state, where alcohol is available only to non-Muslim expats in the country’s single retail outlet in the country, or in a few international hotels.
However, Qatar is to host the world cup in 2022. It has promised that alcohol will be available in “fan zones”, and is keen to send out a message that it will be a welcoming place for the many who will want a drink or two.
It is also intent on showing that it is more liberal and modern than its neighbours, a number of whom, including Saudi Arabia, are conducting an economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar, now in its second year.
Qatar wavers between the conservative and the modern; it moves forward and then goes backwards. Outwardly, it exercises its diplomatic soft power expertly. In recent weeks it has been funding public servants’ pay in Gaza and offering to help finance the ailing Lebanese economy.
The Al Jazeera TV channel is the bane of dictators and sheikhs throughout the Arab world. It broadcasts from Qatar’s capital, Doha, and is funded by the regime. But while Al Jazeera might appear as a beacon of press freedom – its closure remains one of the main Saudi demands for the lifting of the blockage – Qatar languishes at 125th on the World Press Freedom index.
Censorship within Qatar is strict, and Al Jazeera rarely turns its investigative talents on to its home turf. In its defence, Qatar might point out that even at 125th, it is ranked higher than its neighbours.
Qatar’s low press freedom ranking notwithstanding, Northwestern University’s famous Medill school of Journalism has a Doha campus housed in a magnificent building in Education City, alongside five other US universities, and one from the UK, all enticed with 100 per cent finance.
The Al Thani family has ruled Doha since the 19th century, sometimes under the Ottoman Turks, sometimes under the British, and independent since 1971. The blockade has strengthened Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the current ruler, whose image dominates the skyline of Doha, the back window of every car and every conceivable consumer good.
His mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, is a moderniser. His sister, Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is a major player in the art world (Qatar’s museums have an estimated purchasing budget of $1 billion €885 million). A recent purchase – the stunning Miraculous Journey, a Damien Hirst installation showing (in 14 pieces) the development of the foetus – is thought to have cost $20 million.
There was a conservative outcry when the sculptures were installed outside a new hospital for women and babies. The New York Times described the decision to commission the work as Qatar “aggressively buying its way into modernity”.
Slavery in Qatar was abolished only in 1952, but recently a museum to slavery has opened in Doha. It was undoubtedly embarrassing for British-owned oil companies to be using slave labour when extracting Qatari oil in the 1940s and 1950s, so the British government negotiated the abolition of slavery, and helped pay owners compensation.
Ten years later, the authorities gave former enslaved people citizenship. Despite its relatively recent abolition, there is little or no oral testimony as part of the museum exhibits. It’s as if the victims disappeared, leaving but a few faded photographs of enslaved pearl divers and fishermen.
The museum portrayal of slavery is another exercise in finding a path through a sensitive issue, between the views of the religious conservatives and the modernisers. As one caption in the museum, referring to the current situation states: “Many construction workers in rapidly industrialising parts of the world, especially in the Gulf region, are considered to be contractually enslaved.”
While Qatar is not named specifically, anyone visiting would have no doubts that this included the hundreds and thousands of migrant workers in Doha, currently building the eight world cup stadiums. Recent changes in the law mean the majority of migrant workers are no longer bound to their employers, a development welcomed by the International Trade Union Confederation.
However, the changes mean little to the thousands of domestic workers in Qatar who endure restrictions on their movements as well as physical and sexual abuse.