The Best Laid Plans

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day: 110

arabic ability:  وليام باور بالملل

sanity status: What use is sanity, though, really?

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 In 2022, Qatar will become the first Arab country, and smallest ever nation to host the FIFA World Cup. Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, declared the winning bid a victory for the Arab world and in line with FIFA’s stated goal of developing and promoting the game; Zinedine Zidane, promoter of Qatar’s bid, declared it a sign that “the Arab world is emerging.”* That this nation, smaller than Connecticut, with only 1.5 million people (just 20% of whom are native Qataris), happens to have the 12th most oil and 3rd most natural gas reserves of all states, the world’s fastest growing economy, and the highest GDP per capita suggests the unstated, but obvious truth: money is one helluva drug.***(see ENDNOTE)

*”Excuse me, ambassador Zidane, what about Algeria? What’s that? Oh, you can’t hear me through the sound-proof barrier of all those Qatari rials.”

Everywhere you look in Qatar, there’s construction—$100 billion pays for a lot of infrastructure. In preparation for the World Cup an entire metro system and rail network is under construction, as well as a deep-sea port, extensive new road networks, massive new hotels, a huge new airport and countless other projects, all state-of-the-art. Standing on the corniche, looking across Doha’s harbor, an entirely new district of ultra-modern skyscrapers continues to expand, despite the fact that there’s not yet any demand for these buildings—most are almost completely unoccupied!

The goal of Doha, of course, is not just to host prestigious sporting events for the pleasure of the al-Thani ruling royal family, though they are clearly athletics enthusiasts. Doha aims to compete with Dubai as an international business hub, strategically located one flight from the American east coast, Europe and East Asia. Qatar is investing, though, not just in luxury hotels, shopping malls, travel infrastructure, the world’s highest-rated airline and lavish events. They’ve also attempted to create from scratch a strong cultural foundation, with a photography museum designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava,  a museum of Islamic art designed by the architect behind the Louvre’s pyramid*, and even the complete manufacture of a traditional-looking Middle Eastern market in the Souq Waqif. Being the home for Al Jazeera has also helped raise Qatar’s international profile.**

*You know what that means: Robert Langdon is coming to Doha. (Excerpt from The Sixth PillarDan Brown’s latest explosive and revelatory thriller: “Hmmm…8-sided buildings…the crescent moon and pentagram…the Illuminati…Yes, of course! Mohammed must have been Jesus’s direct descendant and heir! Quick, to the Doha library!”)

**Even if the fact that a monarchical government founded and supports a news agency would seem to categorically dismiss it as a resource of unbiased, non-purposeful information, that Qatar is such a diminutive state without an established precedent of interfering in the affairs of other countries blunts the criticism a little. This could change, though, and become more problematic over time, as the rising reputation and influence of Al Jazeera brings more attention to Qatar—some may attempt to curry favor with the royal family, which could impact how stories are covered (and with 20% of Qatar’s population from India, I’m sure they’ve developed a taste for curry). Still, it’s always amusing to see the troubles of developed nations played up to a degree one normally associates with BBC or CNN coverage of Africa or Asia. Naturally, don’t count on Al Jazeera as a source for information about Qatar. (As a history major, I feel it is my obligation to assess sources: stand back everyone, trained professional here.)

Really, Qatar is little different than Kuwait or Dubai or Bahrain, a resource-rich Gulf nation ruled by a royal family with historical British ties, occupied by a largely ex-patriot population providing the man-power for explosive construction predicated upon petro-chemical wealth. Again, there’s a recorded history of people in the region that dates back thousands of years, but again, you’d have a helluva time proving it. Doha is yet another artificial capital: in 1900 there were only 12,000 living in what has become a metropolis of over 1 million. Everything you see wasn’t there a short time ago, it’s all Gulf-style artificial.

And yet, I couldn’t help but like Doha significantly more than Kuwait. With similar economies, similar climates, similar demographics, even similar geographies, it still feels like Doha is more worth visiting, perhaps because it seems to be making more of an effort culturally.* I could imagine a tourist choosing to come to Doha for a weekend. If a travel writer for the New York Times decided to do a “36 hours in Doha” piece, it wouldn’t seem absurd. Actually, that’s probably the perfect amount of time to see the city. Some investors, comparing Dubai to Doha, have stated that they prefer Qatar because there seems to be more of a plan in place, that it’s developing less like a theme park for the wealthy (Consumptionland!), that there’s more of a “foundation”** in place. No doubt they were speaking after 2008.

*I wonder if the difference between Kuwait and Doha could be ascribed to the trauma of one city emerging from the chaos of a horrific occupation only 20 years ago, while the other boldly steps forward, having suffered no great setbacks since it’s 1971 independence.

**The Qatar Foundation is an institution dedicated to making ties with elite education centers around the world and bringing their resources to Qatar.

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It’s only 420km from Dammam to Doha, but by bus this still required 8 hours of travel, including 2 hours at the border, though there were few passengers on board and even fewer cars making the crossing. I couriered some clothes and homemade food to a Syrian man’s younger brother in Doha; in exchange he’d bought me a plush Smurf pillow. Bizarre.

Since 1 Saudi rial = 0.97 Qatari rials or thereabouts, pricing was easy to figure—more expensive than Saudia. Like in most Gulf metropolis’, accommodation under $50 doesn’t exist and best value probably resides with Doha’s only nightclubs and bars, at high-end, luxury establishments.

The first place I visited was the Souq Waqif, in center of the city just off the corniche. About 10 years ago the neighborhood, a crumbling warren of small shops and old buildings, was marked for demolition, when someone had the idea of restoring it into a classic Middle Eastern market that it never was. All alleys and streets were made pedestrian stone walkways, facades of buildings were plastered to look aged, Arabian-style lamps were placed, and decorative wooden rafters were added along the tops of building walls, suggestive of the old style of roof-building. When it re-opened in 2008, Souq Waqif became the tourist center of the city, with an extensive array of high-end Middle Eastern eateries, shisha bars, and side alleys full of little shops designed to look “authentic.”

Since I was expecting something much more plastic, like an Arabian Nights theme park, I was pleasantly surprised by the complex. No one could make the mistake of believing it’s been there for generations, but, then, it feels no more restored than a cafe-lined city square in many European cities. If a city has the money to reinvent itself like this, well, who cares if it isn’t borrowing a page from it’s own history book—at least it’s not trying to imitate a totally foreign culture, when it has romantic notions of its own heritage to draw upon.

The highlight of Doha was the Museum of Islamic art, positioned on its own peninsula jutting off the corniche in the middle of Doha harbor, a location that will be made spectacular if the construction ever ceases. At the end of a palm-lined drive, the massive museum designed by I. M. Pei* is as much a sight to behold as the undeniably incredible array of pieces it houses from across the Muslim world**, dating to as early as the 7th century. The works there presented moved me into a photo-taking frenzy; maybe it was the influence of Saudi-goggles, or perhaps mine was simply another mind purchased by Qatari emir dollars (admission was free), or maybe I’m simply flattering opulence, but it felt like one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever seen. Some favorites:

*They say he came out of retirement to design the museum, after first traveling the Muslim world to learn about the architecture of Islam. Then again, he’s 94 years-old. I have a hard time imagining his journeys took him far from airports and hotel rooms.

**Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Xinjiang, the Balkans or Sub-saharan Africa aren’t anywhere represented, but, to be fair, the museum only opened in 2008 and is still expanding.

Unfortunately, I’d read in my guidebook about the falcon souq, a specialty shop selling the hunting birds, as well as all of the tools of falconry (including the little blinder-caps used in training). I felt I had to see this. What followed was a classic scenario: you read about a place in a small blurb in the guidebook, think “oh, that sounds cool, lemme check that out.” Deep down, you know that the directions and description are woefully inadequate (Go to the Thursday-Friday market. There’s actually only one falcon store left, between the market street and the wholesale market.) but you think “meh, I’ll figure it out.” Then, when your taxi kinda, sorta arrives, only he has no idea where to drop you and seems relieved when you suggest that “here is fine,” well, then you realize the search is only just begun.

I asked my first local for directions, he sent me one way. The next guy sent me back past the place I started, down and around the corner. The next guy said that no such place existed, the 4th and 5th had no idea what I was talking about, the 6th, in a moment of conspiratorial sharing, confidently led me through his store and out the back to the service road, pointing up the road to the intersection. Number 7 told me that it was just there in one of the complexes, behind the store. Thirty minutes of confused searching in my immediate area later, number 8 had no clue what I was talking about, number 9 assuredly pointed me back where I’d been searching before, number 10 told me that the old one had been knocked down but pointed to newly built shops that the falconry people had rented out, massive new digs–they just apparently hadn’t moved in yet. Number 11 pointed me back to where I’d been 40 minutes ago, down a new road. Number 12 also pointed me down this road, telling me to look for the big sign with a picture, number 13 was a security guard unfamiliar with Qatar, number 14 and 15 together pointed me back across the street to a building that I had been sure was a mosque, but they assured me was actually the place I sought. Number 16 had no idea what I was talking about after I’d confirmed the mosque-looking building was indeed a mosque. Number 17 was from China and had no idea what I was talking about. Number 18 was in his driveway and hadn’t ever heard of a falcon souq around there. Over the course of 2 hours of searching, as dusk turned to night, my journey had transformed my destination. No longer a mere center for the urban, uber-wealthy’s feathered toys, the falcon souq had become the object of redemption for my whole day, for my whole life, for every personal slight, for 25 years lost in the desert. I felt a sense of personal pride knowing that I hadn’t given up searching when I knew most people would have long before.

Then I gave up. I mean, what the fuck, a falcon souq? Who gives a shit!* So I took the most uncomfortable taxi ride of my life to the nearby Torch (a hotel tower that lights up in spectacular fashion at night which I believed to be near the horse track) with a strange, happily gushing Pakistani man who spoke no English and kept putting his hand on my knee, maintaining one pinkie on my leg any time he had to shift gears. After arguing with me about the fare, he tried to kiss me on the lips as I got out, instead landing his huge wet lips on my cheek.

*Also, apparently the Souq Waqif has a falconry store which I saw the next day, staring through the windows at the perched beasts because the store was closed. Eventually I notice the security guard within looking at me–he stepped forward a few paces behind a pillar so he wouldn’t have to look at me anymore.

The door attendants at the Torch erroneously informed me that there was no horse track nearby, so instead I went into the Villagio mall next door. The pictures say it all.

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Malls, skyscrapers, endless construction, opulence. Taken individually, each feature makes Doha seem just like every other Gulf metropolis—something today where yesterday there was nothing. It prompts the same questions:  Are we witnessing the spectacularly rapid construction of the foundation for a future world-leading metropolis? Or, are these glass and steel structures merely modern tents, temporary structures built on the desert surface to be blown away and buried under the sands when the bubble bursts? Can a city really do this? Or is development like this actually cancerous, unhealthy, unsustainable and ultimately self-destructive? At any rate, what sets Doha and Qatar apart is that all these little pieces are part of a larger plan, to make Doha the preeminent capital in the Gulf by 2022. Considering that almost nothing I visited on my trip even existed 10 years ago, to bet against the building up of the city would probably be foolish. But will people come?

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***ENDNOTE: The 2022 World Cup selection process is fascinating to me, for all the rather blatant, shameless machinations that went on not so behind-the-scenes. Mr. Blatter claims that Qatar’s successful hosting of the 30-event Asian Games in 2006 proves the country’s mettle. Yet, every single aspect of the Qatar proposal, from stadiums, to transport access, to accommodations for 500,000 tourists, has yet to be built, not to mention the fact that 40-50 degree Celsius weather in Qatar’s typical June and July is quite obviously going to prove problematic.

Meanwhile, FIFA was also supposedly impressed by Qatar’s work in promoting football around the world, as consistent with their own message. (For example, all of Qatar’s stadiums will feature upper tiers that will be disassembled and shipped to less fortunate footballing nations following the 2022 tournament; also, check out the island stadium.) Yet, this article points out that programs and activities have largely been promoted in countries where members of the World Cup voting committee originate, including atypical sources of footballing talent such as Thailand and Guatemala.

Also, the “Football Dreams” program, in which scouts from Qatar’s recently founded Aspire Academy for educating and training elite athletes tour the world looking at hundreds of thousands of youth footballers from under-privileged backgrounds to offer 23 full-scholarships, is rather transparently a vehicle for building a respectable Qatari national football team by 2022. Finally, various members of the voting committee, including John Warner, who allegedly asked for around $4 million to “develop an education center” in his country of Trinidad and Tobago, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, who allegedly requested knighthood from England’s competing bid, as well as a representative from the Ivory Coast and from Cameroon (each paid $1.5 million by Qataris), are suspected of voting fraud.

My favorite part, though, is that the attendance for Qatar’s 12 team professional football league is notoriously poor, with some matches not even attracting 200 spectators. Average attendance figures of just over 4000 fans per match puts Qatar’s football league just ahead of the Atlantic Baseball League (an independent league between AA and AAA)–last years champions were the York Revolution of York, PA. Are we sure that there even are football fans in Qatar outside the royal family?

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