How Qatar Wants to be Seen by the West

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The Qatari government paid for me to spend a week in their country. The idea was that I would return to the U.S. and disseminate my new knowledge of Qatari culture, history, and people to my fellow Westerners. You are reading the product of that arrangement.

When I set out to write something about my experience with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, I was immediately struck with a sense of worry. Anything I did, I felt, would be interpreted as arrogant and preachy. This greasy college kid spent a week in a country, and now he thinks he’s the end all be all on their complex identity?

So I elected a different approach. The one thing on which I felt absolutely sure I was an expert has inspired the title of this piece. Consider it: the Qatari government paid for my transportation, rooming, food, and a host of other incidental expenses so that they could take me on a meticulously structured tour of their country, featuring meetings at Al-Jazeera, the Qatari Foreign Ministry, the National Human Rights Committee, and even the prized and well-guarded Ras Laffan natural gas refinery. It was a fair strategy, and I certainly had much to learn. So what were they trying to tell me?

Even if you consider yourself well-educated, you are, no doubt, aware of the common perception of the Middle East in the West. Indeed, prior to my travel to Qatar, I had to arrange a small impromptu course for my mother on “Why the Gulf Countries Are Not the Same as the Rest of the Middle East.” As it happens, this is more or less the very first thing that Qataris want Westerners to know about their small state. It would be ideal for the West to understand the various nuances of Arab and Muslim identities, but Qatar will settle for a general understanding that the Arab Gulf states make life more comfortable for ordinary citizens in terms of security (with a counterterrorism bureaucracy that has kept Qatar terror-free since 2005), life expectancy (where Qatar leads the Arab world), and standard of living (where Qatar boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world).

Qatar’s wealth and resources have allowed it to carve a prosperous oasis out of what would otherwise be an inhospitable and unforgiving desert, and most of its citizens and foreign workers have been able to share, on some level, in that prosperity. It is certainly a far cry from Libya, which hasn’t seen meaningful governance since 2011; [1] Syria, which has been embroiled in civil strife and war for more than five years; Eritrea, commonly called the “North Korea of Africa;” [2] or Somalia, the posterchild for failed statehood, [3] which has become a hub of factionalism, terrorism, and piracy. In a region where fates like these are seemingly commonplace at present, Qatar’s security, rule of law, and global importance should be celebrated.

Yet even if the West acknowledges Qatar as a vibrant hub of modernity and wealth, Qatar remains wary that it will still be ultimately perceived as a giant gas pump. There is important context to consider around this perception. Qatar’s golden age was undeniably sparked by the discovery and ultimate exploitation of its fossil fuel resources. The Qatari government has made no secret of this aspect of its state’s identity. In interview [4] after interview, [5] the position of the current Emir has been that Qatar was blessed by God with natural resources in order to rapidly propel the Qatari people into a position of prominence, power, prosperity, and unintentional alliteration. But they are no strangers to the fact that this gift is a temporary one. Fossil fuels are not forever, and they cannot even be everything in the short term. Shocks in the price of energy have certainly harmed global energy exporters, and while Qatar has been comparatively insulated from these effects, the Qatari government recognizes the potential for harm to their poorly diversified economy.

So let’s return to the giant gas pump perception. This is harmful to Qatar for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Westerners make a habit of putting money into something and extracting a greater sum of money later on in a process we know as “investment.” The impressive and frankly unusual growth rate of the Qatari economy over the past several decades has made Qatar an attractive destination for large sums of Western (and global) investment. Yet a country that is heavily dependent on a single, albeit prosperous, industry is not particularly interesting to investors outside of that industry. This limits Qatar insofar as they are forced to surrender investment from other sectors that might otherwise be available to fuel the diversification of the Qatari economy.

A second problem is closely related to the first. Qatar rightly fears that the gas (or more likely the demand for it) will soon dry up, and with it, this same foreign investment that has contributed to their wealth. So not only does the perception of Qatar as a poorly diversified economy harm its potential for continued growth, but the realities of the global market may soon catch up with Qatar as well. Only if Qatar can successfully battle both the perception and reality of its reliance on fossil fuel production will it be able to attract foreign capital in critical areas like science, research and development, and education.

The third and perhaps most egregious problem with the West writing Qatar off as solely an oil producer is that such an oversimplification entirely dismisses Qatar’s potential for cultural tourism, and with it, cultural dialogue. Qatar offers a unique opportunity to experience the clash of history and modernity. It’s an experience I enjoyed firsthand when in a single day I visited both the prized Museum of Islamic History in Doha, and later encountered a rollercoaster and an ice hockey rink within a shopping mall next to Doha’s tallest building and a World Cup 2022 stadium. It’s a shame that anybody in a position to discover this same enlightening contrast would be deprived of such an opportunity purely based on stigma. I would even go so far as to say that we in the West have as much to lose from our underestimating or misunderstanding the potential and progress of a state like Qatar, as they do.

But, of course, Qatar is not simply sitting with these facts. If you’ve forgotten by now, this article, and by extension myself, are tools of Qatari foreign policy. It was not an accident or a coincidence that I was shown the very best of modern Qatar – aspects of their society that are designed specifically to combat the threats I have listed above. Recognizing that a strong, service-based, developed economy depends on science, education, research, and innovation, the Qatar Foundation has partnered with six American universities to create a collaborative “Education City” campus in Doha to draw on both homegrown and international talent. Not five miles away lies Qatar University, which is poised to compete on a global scale as one of the region’s great universities. Far to the north, we saw the Ras Laffan natural gas refinery, equipped with technology so advanced, that international gas companies, such as Exxonmobil, Shell, Total, and Dolphin Energy have clambered to partner with the Qatari state in developing its gas resources. [6]

All of this while Qatar prepares to present itself as a global player by hosting the 2022 World Cup. Battling controversy while ensuring the timely completion of World Cup infrastructure has not been easy, but the bid to host the Cup was so hard-fought precisely because Qatar believes itself ready to face the world head on, step directly into the spotlight, and fight misperceptions in an unprecedentedly direct way.

After my visit, I’m inclined to agree with it.

 


 

Sources

[1] “The Current Situation in Libya.” United States Institute of Peace. United States Institute of Peace, 16 May 2016. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
[2] Halper, Yishai. “‘The North Korea of Africa’: Where You Need a Permit to Have Dinner with Friends.” Haaretz.com. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, 07 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
[3] Jones, Brian. “The Worst Place Is the World: See What Life Is like in Somalia.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 19 July 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
[4] “Qatar Emir on foreign policy, world cup.” CNN. 25 Sep. 2014. Web. 27 Aug. 2016
[5] “A Conversation with His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani Amir of the State of Qatar.” Georgetown University. 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Aug. 2016.
[6] “Ras Laffan Industrial City.” RasGas Company Limited. RasGas Company Limited, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2016.

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