Walking along Doha’s deserted Corniche promenade one afternoon in late November, I found myself thinking of an old friend, now gone and sadly missed, who used to knock great fun out of a guy called Wilfred Thesiger.
Thesiger was an explorer and traveller of the late British Empire period, an immensely serious and humourless man who appeared to my friend an irresistibly comic figure. I hadn’t thought of actually reading him before, but since I seemed to have arrived in the relevant part of the world, I bought his book Arabian Sands – a description of his travels in the vast deserts of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula.
The book is regarded as a classic of travel literature, but if you are looking for a guide to what Qatar is like in 2022 you might as well read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. There is now more chance of you visiting Mars than the Arabia which Thesiger describes: Mars at least still exists.
Thesiger already knew that technology and capitalism were about to destroy the world he was writing about. He displays a Unabomberish loathing of technical progress: “All my life I had hated machines. I could remember how bitterly at school I had resented reading the news that someone had flown across the Atlantic or travelled through the Sahara in a car. I had realized even then that the speed and ease of mechanical transport must rob the world of all diversity … Perhaps this was one reason why I resented modern inventions; they made the road too easy … I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys, for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in a car would have turned the venture into a stunt.”
The narrative does, though, offer occasional jolts of insight into the sheer dizzying scale and suddenness of the transformation of this part of the world. Thesiger describes arriving at Abu Dhabi one afternoon, only to find … there’s no one about. The gates of the small castle are closed. “Kites wheeled against a yellow sky above a clump of tattered palms, and two dogs copulated near the wall.”
He and his fellow travellers take a nap in the shade as they wait for someone to notice their arrival. In the evening, when somebody at last wanders out, they ask whether the sheikh is available. A few minutes later, they are eating dates and drinking coffee with the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Thesiger mentions that he visited the regional oasis of Liwa the previous year. The sheikh says he’d heard rumours a European had been there, but hadn’t believed the tribesmen who brought the news, guessing instead that they had got the story mixed up with that of another European he knew had passed that way 16 years ago.
The surprising thing about this scene is that it takes place in 1948 or 1949. Thesiger estimates there were 2,000 people in Abu Dhabi then. Look at it now. A city of 1.5 million people from all over the world, bristling with skyscrapers, an international centre of wealth whose business interests span the globe, a crossroads of continents, a diplomatic and military power whose fighter jets roam the skies of Yemen and Libya, not to mention the behemoth of the English Premier League.
It is strange to think there must still be people there today who remember the place as it was when Thesiger arrived at the gates. Where else on earth has changed so utterly in the span of a single lifetime?
Thesiger’s journey did not take him north to Doha, but the story of this city is not much different. At the time of his travels, it was a town of maybe 12,000 people whose economy had recently been devastated by the discovery of modern methods of pearl farming. Now it has 2.3 million people and trillions of dollars worth of gas, and for the last month it has commanded the attention of the world.
Qataris’ insistence on particular traditional values might be easier to respect if they had not also evidently been happy to borrow rather a lot of ideas from the rest of the world
When Fifa announced it would punish European football captains who wore the One Love armband in support of LGBT rights, or when Qatar decided two days before the tournament began that they would not, after all, allow the sale of beer at World Cup stadiums, the official Qatari line was that to complain about such restrictions was sheer Western arrogance and entitlement. The bottom line: you must respect our traditional culture and values.
Qataris’ insistence on these particular traditional values might be easier to respect if they had not also evidently been happy to borrow rather a lot of ideas from the rest of the world.
Every day, Qataris wearing traditional white thobes drive their gigantic Landcruisers past skyscrapers housing international banks and hotels on their way to air-conditioned malls full of French luxury stores and American fast food. On the way, they will sometimes pass the huge industrial zones full of foreign workers, who live and work in all-male communities more akin to army bases than real neighbourhoods, forced by economic pressures to spend years at a time away from their homes and families. Everywhere they are watched by cameras and drones, the eyes and ears of a powerful central surveillance state. If all this too is part of regional culture and tradition, Thesiger doesn’t mention it.
The à la carte approach to tradition obviously invites the charge of hypocrisy. Yet the very pace of change itself must increase the determination of many Qataris to preserve such aspects of “tradition” as remain within their power to control. Maybe the biggest obstacle LGBT activists face in convincing this country of the justice of their cause is that they are easily framed as agents of international encroachment, seeking to dissolve the last traces of what is imagined to be the distinctively Qatari way of life.
The visible companies and brands may speak of a strong Western influence, but it would be a mistake to think of Doha as a really Westernised city. Rather, the place reminds you of the Oscar-winning Korean film director Bong Joon-Ho’s line: “Essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism.” If that country were to elect a model city as its capital, Doha would be a prime candidate.
It’s not a great city that has grown with people and time, like Cairo or Baghdad. It’s a simulation of a city that has been willed rapidly into existence by money and power.
A real city has public spaces. Doha has the Souq Waqif, a simulation of a traditional public space. Today’s Souq, which is about 500 metres square and takes less than 10 minutes to cross from side to side, was rebuilt 20 years ago after the old one burnt down.
“Stepping into the winding, maze-like passages of Souq Waqif is almost like stepping back in time,” says an Al-Jazeera report. Actually it’s more like stepping into an Arabian souk exhibition at Epcot Center, or a small Vegas casino calling itself “Aladdin’s Cave”.
That uncanny sense of fakeness is everywhere. Walking around some of its more extravagant manifestations, like the endless empty white halls of the upper floors of the Place Vendôme mall, or the Lusail towers containing apartments that nobody lives in, or the imitation-tent edifice of Al Bayt Stadium rising up pointlessly out of the desert of Al Khor, you keep wondering the same thing: why? Why have they built this? Who is it for? What was the point?
After all, to make this city rise up, to build the giant infrastructure to support the one-city World Cup that ends on Sunday, the Qataris, numbering only 300,000, had to import that two million-strong workforce from abroad. Worker exploitation is the most persistent and most legitimate criticism of the Qatar project, and the inequality that follows from the labour system is the ugliest aspect of daily life in the country. Why was this necessary?
One answer is that it’s all a grand strategic plan by Qatar’s rulers. That, by building at enormous expense a gigantic infrastructure that far exceeds the needs of their population, they are somehow positioning themselves to dominate the future. The logic of this theory seems to be that if you can only build enough white elephants, success is sure to follow.
More convincing is the explanation that it is a bad strategic plan by Qatar’s rulers, reflecting little more than their desire to outshine rivals in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and beyond.
That would be stupid, but it’s still more comforting to believe than a third theory, which is that nobody is really in control. That Doha is simply what happens when the capitalist imagination is set free by infinite gas revenues and dictatorial authority. That this is the kind of place we are condemned to produce when money and lives are no object.