Saturday, May 02, 2009

Doha Rising

That small population coupled with the large natural gas profits explains why the country has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Despite the huge cash reserves Doha is sitting on, it has resisted the urge to build the biggest, shiniest and best, instead developing slightly less ostentatious projects.

In the summer of 2005 a young Qatari began an internship at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in New York. A graduate of Duke University, where she earned a degree in political science and literature, she returned to Qatar at the end of the summer-long intensive film course.

When she went back to Doha, she called Tribeca and made a unique request: would the Tribeca Film Festival consider moving outside of its New York home for a year?

The former student, the daughter of Qatar’s ruler Shaikh Al Thani had attended the institute under a different name, not wanting to draw undue attention. Her attempts at persuasion were successful: the first Tribeca Film Festival outside of New York will take place in Doha this November.

The story is popular among expatriates in Qatar who cite it is typical of the way the country has emerged in the past decade. Eschewing the tactics of other Gulf countries, the tiny resource-rich state has slowly but surely edged its way onto the world stage.

The tactics seem to have worked: Qatar has very quickly become a global media darling. Brands such as W Hotel and the Hyatt have recently opened hotels while The New York Times declared it its ‘Cultural Destination of the Year’ in 2008. Qatar even created a Philharmonic Orchestra from scratch, putting it on the classical music world stage.

Qatar’s rising profile was set in motion more than a decade ago, when a royal son deposed his father. In 1995, the country’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, was on one of his increasingly long holidays in Switzerland. His eldest son, Crown Prince Hamad, had been worried that his father’s ever more arbitrary decisions would affect his own succession to the throne. While his father was away, he acted, declaring himself the new Emir on June 27.

The ousted emir went on a tour of the Gulf, publicly disowning his son and launched a failed counter-coup in February 1996. The new emir then froze his father’s assets, which all but ended his attempts to get back to power. The deposed father lived in exile in France until he returned to Qatar in 2004, long after the younger Al Thani began the process of modernising the country.

Jutting into the Arabian Gulf and cosseted between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s a wonder the country has managed to succeed at all.

Yet if geography has done the country no favours, geology has: the world’s largest gas field was discovered off the Qatari coast and the country now has a third of the world’s natural gas reserves (only Russia and Iran have more).

When Hamad took power at 44 he was the youngest ruler in the Gulf. He surrounded himself with western educated technocrats, open to the possibilities that the newfound natural gas money provided. Looking back it was these two factors that have contributed most to Qatar’s global prominence: a young leader who more importantly was open to new ideas, and a huge supply of natural resources.

His father believed that those resources should not propel the country ahead of its neighbours; that it would be better served staying at the same level as the other Gulf States.

Al Thani has said that Qatar should be “known and noticed”. That it is, and not just in terms of a re-channeling of resources. As Hugh Miles noted in his book Al-Jazeera, the Qataris have also emerged as a player in regional affairs.

“Qatar has an ambitious foreign policy that can be summed up as trying to get along with everyone. It has had controversial ties with America, Israel, Iraq and Iran all at the same time, it has welcomed exiled Hamas leaders, given asylum to Saddam Hussein’s wife, received visits from high-level Al Qaeda members (before 9/11) and sheltered a Chechen Islamic leader wanted by the Russians. It practices a delicate balancing act that seems to have worked - so far.”

If any one institution reflects the changes in Qatar, it is the news network Al-Jazeera. Set up in 1996 with a $150 million grant from the new Emir, the station put Qatar on the world map, dramatically changing the Arab media landscape.

It exposed the state-run news channels that exist throughout the region as empty Government mouthpieces, and won plaudits within and outside the region for the quality of its coverage. It was the first Arab channel to broadcast Israeli military spokesmen and it has riled almost every Middle East state with its - for the region, at least - controversial reporting.

In 1999 several Algerian cities, including the capital Algiers, lost power simultaneously, reportedly due to the Al-Jazeera broadcast of a programme in which Algerian dissidents implicated the military in a series of massacres, one of a string of incidents which infuriated Arab regimes. If Al Thani wanted Qatar to get noticed, he had succeeded.

Yet the changes he brought were as much internal as external. While other Gulf States looked to become business hubs, Qatar has focused on other areas, notably education.

When the Emir drew up the new constitution, the president of the University of Qatar - not a politician - headed up the committee tasked with outlining the document. He had final say over the ministers on the committee, probably the first time in the region an academic held sway over a minister when it came to a constitutional decision.

The Emir’s wife, Sheika Moser bint Nasser Al Misned has spearheaded the country’s educational push, chairing the mammoth Qatar Foundation, a network of campuses, research centres and development bodies set up to develop Qatar’s ‘knowledge economy’ and promote higher learning.

Sheikha Moser, the only one of the Emir’s three wives to be seen in public, is hugely popular with the Qatari people and has garnered much positive media attention since her first public appearance on the US news show 60 Minutes in 2003. The airing gained the country plaudits and had commentators in the west holding up Qatar as an ideal example of a progressive, liberal Arab state.

Yet Doha is not that impressive at first glance. It could be anywhere in the Gulf, a mish-mash of bland villas, imported SUVs and highways. While the skyline has changed dramatically in recent years thanks to the soaring West Bay development, Doha is spread out and faces a tepid bay. The city is quite small, with a population of less than 350,000.

That small population coupled with the large natural gas profits explains why the country has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Despite the huge cash reserves Doha is sitting on, it has resisted the urge to build the biggest, shiniest and best, instead developing slightly less ostentatious projects.

This is why Qatar has avoided the media attacks Dubai has suffered recently, according to Laura Demasi, the trends and strategy director of The Cool Hunter, a brand consultancy. “Qatar seems to have put a lot of thought into what kind of ‘product’ it wants to be and is taking it more slowly, which absolutely crucial. You can plan and strategise all you like but a certain amount of organic development has to occur.

“This is what gives a city its authenticity. You think of the great cities of the world, they developed over a long period of time and much of that development was organic.”

This much can be seen from Doha’s signature developments: they are all small and unassuming. In the heart of the city lies Souq Waqif, a refurbished market that saw the neon and metal replaced with wood and brick. It is still a working market, but with the cobblestone streets and airy courtyards it is a world away from the claustrophobic souqs that dot the rest of the region.

In the centre of the souq lies the Waqif Art Centre, a restored traditional town house, which contains The Third Line Gallery, a sister property to the Dubai branch.

Opening in Doha was a natural step for the Dubai-based gallery as it looked to expand in the region, manager Claudia Cellini explained.

“Doha’s cultural dynamic is evident in their financial, urban and social growth. In Dubai there is more of an established market with a number of commercial galleries and collectors, but it won’t be long before this starts happening in Doha. The city is growing in terms of social and artistic culture and we wanted to place ourselves within the larger context of what is happening and be a part of the progression.”

Cellini believes that this progression will result in Doha becoming a cultural hub of the region. “Definitely. It is the Emir’s vision to establish Qatar as a global, cultural hub”. Not just the Emir’s vision; his daughter’s too. Sheikha Al Massaya is still in her mid-twenties, but already she has become an integral part of the country’s artistic push.”

Sheikha Al Massaya, the former Tribeca intern, is the reason that Robert De Niro was present at the big event of last year: the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art.

The IM Pei-designed building is home to the largest collection of Islamic Art in the world, and its understated grandeur reflects the country’s vision of itself. Doha faces stiff competition in region, not least from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But as far as many of the world media are concerned, Qatar has already won the crown.

The New York Times called Doha ‘the cultural destination of the year’, lavishing praise on its urban developments and feting the Emir’s vision. The Museum has already seen 170,000 visitors, according to its director, Dr Oliver Watson.

He sees the Museum as a standard bearer for “all projects to follow, both in Qatar and elsewhere.” Whether this is just hyperbole remains to be seen, but the Museum has put the country’s cultural scene in the spotlight. The next major addition to the city’s skyline will be the annex to the National of Musuem of Qatar, currently being designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. While the quantity of flagship projects might not eclipse Abu Dhabi, the Museum of Islamic Art has the largest collection of Islamic art in the world.

Still yet to come is Arata Isozaki’s National Library which will also contain the Contemporary Art Museum and the Museum of Science and Natural History, part of the $150 billion the Emir has reportedly spent reinventing its capital.

Yet the country’s rising profile has seen it put under the spotlight, a position Dubai knows only too well. A recent BBC report critiqued the country’s lack of openness, while others have noted that while the likes of Al-Jazeera and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom are more than willing to criticise other Arab regimes, they have not attacked the policies of the Emir. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranked Qatar 74 out of 173 countries, behind other Gulf countries such as the UAE and Kuwait.

Former Presidential canididate John Kerry criticised Qatar on a trip to the region earlier this month claiming that “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.”

The country’s defenders point out that the real modernisation of the country only started taking place in the mid-nineties, and it’s unrealistic to expect too much change in such a short time.

Some believe trying to change any faster will only end in tears. “Qatar is not trying too hard,” says the branding consultant Demasi.

“Certainly it has the wealth to create the biggest/tallest/longest of anything it wants but it knows it doesn’t have to do that to be noticed and valued.”

Whether Qatar can continue on its modernising path without hiccups remains to be seen, and, as the UAE knows, the more successful you become, the easier it is to be targeted. And the country, despite its huge resources, has not been immune from the global financial crisis. Figures released this week revealed that property prices for some projects in Doha had fallen by up to 70 per cent since September.

Qatar can expect increased scrutiny in the coming years on its labour laws, human rights record and on the role of the Emir itself. For now though the country is basking in the knowledge that its huge natural resources will protect it from the worst of the global recession. Whether its resources can isolate it from its neighbours’ criticisms remains to be seen.

Egypt for one, is known to be dismissive of the country’s attempts to become a regional mediator, despite the fact that Qatar did what the UN couldn’t: negotiate a resolution among fighting Lebanese factions.

Wandering around Doha, it seems that Egypt and the rest of the Middle East are missing the point. Qatar has pinpointed its strengths, and unlike most countries in the region, has adeptly exploited them. Brand Qatar is in rude health.

How can expatriates play a meaningful part in the UAE?

Whenever we discuss about the idea of returning home to Malaysia, my youngest kid will oppose and protest vehemently. Muhaimin loves the UAE so much that he will opt to stay in a hostel to study here. He loves his current school and begs me not to transfer him to any other 'better' schools.
Muhaimin has several circles of friends, school mates of various nationalities (south asians, arabs, western and south east asians), neighbour kids (all Emiratis - well, by sizing their villas and number of luxury cars - mostly millionaires' kids) and Malaysian kids who have been his growing together close friends.
For most expats, working here is like an extended holiday. For me sometimes, like extended student days with more 'biasiswa' and fun as well as time with family.

We have extended friends from various nationalities and of course Emiratis.

Expatriates are a key part of the UAE’s social fabric, but should make more of an effort to integrate into the community.
When people move here it is not just for employment or to become wealthy, they are attracted to Emirati cultural traits such as hospitality and generosity.
They feel that they can make this their home.
It is natural that people will want to reach out to members of their own nationality, but the UAE authority's objective is to provide opportunities for expats to learn about local culture, break down stereotypes and integrate with the broader community.

Finding an expat role in the UAE

When asked periodically why she still thinks of England as home, despite living here for half her life, my six-year old’s answer is unvarying. “Grandma lives there, and I prefer England because, when it rains, we can jump in the puddles.” But life in Dubai is pretty dandy too.

She’s enthusiastic about learning Arabic at school, quick to spot a camel, keen on henna tattoos and loved every minute of the National Day celebrations last December. A clear directive as to how pupils should dress is issued and, for an afternoon, more than a thousand children watch traditional dances, admire camels, ferry cups of coffee and dates to attending parents and wave flags.

In marked contrast, on international day our household is racked with indecision: what exactly is British, or more precisely in our case English, national dress? The tracksuit? The football strip? The costume of the much-maligned Morris dancer?

While I’m struggling with how best to shape my three daughters’ notion of their own national culture while simultaneously wishing for them to benefit fully from the experience of living among a multi-ethnic community, they appear to slip easily between cultures, picking and choosing elements that appeal, as though before the pick-and-mix stand of a sweet shop.

As such, the eldest would be more than suitable to act as ambassador for the Watani organisation’s drive to promote greater understanding of local Emirati culture. The government body is keen for expatriates to try harder at integration by learning the language, appreciating the local culture more and mixing with Emiratis. The director general of Watani, Ahmed al Mansori, says in an interview in this paper today that while multiculturalism is one of the nation’s great strengths, individuals who come here to live have a duty to learn more about their new home and engage with their hosts.

But while this all comes quite naturally to my daughter, she might run into problems persuading the adult expatriate population of the advantages of meaningful engagement.

I first lived in Dubai from 2000 for two years, trailing a journalist partner. I’d travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, visiting mosques, castles, palaces and museums, enthralled by cultures very different from the one with which I was familiar. I found rather less to do in the UAE, apart from shopping, but I had a good reason to travel throughout the UAE, in the name of researching a guidebook. At weekends I camped in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah before a day of arduous rock-climbing, swam with sharks around Snoopy Island in Fujairah, failed to make sense of the road network in Abu Dhabi, trawled for souvenirs in Ajman, visited Sharjah’s souks and confounded friends with my unabated enthusiasm for the museum in Umm al Qaiwain.

I took lessons at the Arabic Language Centre in Dubai, and though conversational opportunities were limited to the classroom, and chatting to the cats that congregated outside our villa, who were less than responsive, I made good progress over two years. Part-time I worked for a local English-language daily writing a supposedly humorous column and weekly book review, exercising a measure of self-censorship in order not to cause offence to Emirati sensibilities while never being sure exactly what distinguished them from those peculiar to other Arab or Muslim countries.

The two years felt like an extended holiday, a sort of suspended animation from real life. I had no intention of settling here and raising children. It was neither home, nor was it foreign enough to demand assimilation. When I left, married and six-months’ pregnant, it was because I was bored of the sun, the ease, the emptiness and the monotony; and I wanted keenly to have my first baby at home, in England.

When I returned to the Gulf in August 2006 it was unwillingly, in the wake of a husband, as a mother to two daughters. The combination of a monthly council bill, yet another wet summer, two screaming children in a small London flat, a fatal stabbing minutes from where we lived, and the lure of reassuming a tax-free existence in the sun was all too powerful, despite some misgivings.

Moreover, the implicit liberation from any concept of civic responsibility was appealing. Potholed roads? Not my problem, not my council tax. Poor state schools? We don’t have to pay to improve them.

But then, of course, without civic responsibility, the points of engagement between individuals and the state are limited and the dynamic of communication is entirely top-down. While I wouldn’t argue either for representative political pluralism or suggest that foreign political systems or reforms are needed, what occurs is that the lack of representation or taxation numbs the expatriate population, curtails engagement with the state, diminishes intellectual and social contact with the indigenous population, and reinforces a sense of alienation.

The social separation here is obvious. It starts upon arrival in the country with most newcomers instinctively seeking out compatriots when confronted by the unknown.

And just as the tools of identity construction (family, geography of origin, religion, philosophy, language, education) enforce this, so it is unsurprising that the organic institutions of civil society will reflect it. To a greater or lesser extent they cluster around national or ethnic cores.

If you allow it, life in the Emirates can be an exercise in unmitigated selfishness. Most are drawn here to make money to send back home to sustain an absent family, and an alien economy. For those who can afford to enjoy the perks, life here can be as superficial as you please.

The wealthier expatriate can cream off the benefits of a relatively easy existence in an essentially safe, clean, tolerant country.

The indigenous culture can seem under seige in a country where the local population is so outnumbered by expatriates. As a result, the denominators bridging the different racial or national groups attracted here are much less likely to be Emirati. Due to the cultural, economic and, to a certain extent, political imperialism of the West, the shared reference points between different ethnic groups are likely to be western. Satellites beam CNN and BBC on to the television, newspapers are printed in English, western brands find a ready market in malls embellished with the more obvious symbols of Emirati heritage – wind-towers, coffee pots and camels.

You need never learn a word of Arabic to live comfortably here, have only the most basic knowledge of the five pillars of Islam, buy all the foreign food imports that are familiar from home (wherever that may be), choose from a range of curricula for your child’s education, and fail to address any of the fundamental problems underpinning a society comprising various discrete ethnic groupings. Multiculturalism is definitely one of the UAE’s attractions but inevitably it has diluted local culture.

And, as Facebook, Twitter, Second Life and their ilk allow all of us to live in one place while existing in many, our physical sense of place is increasingly becoming replaced by a psychic one.

As temporary visitors, whether short or long-term, expatriates have no vested interest in the country: those who have chosen to make their lives here, to settle, invest in property, build a business, lose their work residency visa on redundancy or retirement. The expatriate feels no incentive, economically, socially or culturally, to integrate. Our profits line our own pockets, and when the job is done or the market slumps, we can move on. In our wake, the Emiratis continue trying to negotiate an identity that takes into account the influences of both West and East.

There seems to be no lack of understanding among most expatriates as to how the UAE has evolved thus far: the question is, how does it envisage its future and how can we expatriates play a meaningful part in that?

Claudia Pugh-Thomas is a journalist who lives in Dubai with her husband and three children