A Glimpse of Doha

Having a hard time picturing Doha? This might help.

Envision Las Vegas, a city of gleaming towers rising from the dunes. Add a decent expanse of moderate to low-slung housing stretching inland and southward around a grand, C-shaped bay (some say the city's name comes from dohat, Arabic for bay, while others believe it's a derivation of ad dhawa, for "big tree"). Encircling this bay is the Corniche, a two-mile long pedestrian promenade that skirts the glistening Gulf waters past the rocking dhows in the harbor and terminates at I.M. Pei's glorious new Museum of Islamic Art (it's a gorgeous building, fantastically well placed on its own tiny peninsula jutting into the Gulf -- it changes color during the day, depending on the angle of the sun's rays, and it feels both ancient and new. The inside is less spectacular, mainly broad open spaces, but I've yet to take a good look at the collection, was there only for a couple screenings and discussions during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One very neat-o thing about it is that it's also a woman in a niqab -- the two windows at the top are shaped much like a woman's eye slits in a niqab. Find a picture online and you'll see what I mean). The Corniche is Doha's Las Ramblas, its Champs-Elysees, although nowhere near as appealing or popular. Still, on any evening you will find joggers from three or four continents, Indian families dangling toes into the water, various Arab men smoking cigarettes and couples from everywhere but Qatar leisurely taking in the view.

Otherwise, imagine wide boulevards and dull highways linking glass-walled apartment buildings and five-star hotels, strip malls with foreign franchises of retail, fast food, autos, banking, travel and anything else a consumer bursting with cash might desire. For Qatar is the world's greatest supplier of liquid natural gas, and there's really been no recession here -- Qatar's economy is among the world's fastest growing. The government is predicting 16 percent growth next year and few are disputing. Its per capita income is in the vicinity of $80,000, highest in the world -- but keep in mind there aren't many capitas here.

Qatari citizens make up less than 20 percent of Qatar's total population, which is around 1.3 million. Other Arabs -- mainly from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan -- make up another 20 percent, followed by Western expats at maybe 15 percent. Then at last we have the immigrant laborers, mostly from South Asia and the Phillipines, who work endless hours in the searing heat and the dead of night, raising buildings, who clean and park cars, tend gardens, run restaurants and serve food -- they make up around 40 percent of the population of Qatar. Doha is rather international: at a mid-level cafe or restaurant – not too swish, not too dhaba, perhaps in a mall or the made-to-look-old Souq Waqif – you'll see an Indian family, a group of Jordanians chatting over tea, a few Qatari men in their dishdashas and thobes and a smattering of Western professionals all minding their own business and feeling relatively at home. Foreigners seem quite comfortable in Qatar, perhaps because they sort of own the place.

But in reality they will never own any of its great wealth. Foreigners cannot become citizens in Qatar, much like the other wealthy emirates and kingdoms in the Gulf. These governments prefer to distribute the booty to as few people as possible.

Despite being on the edge of the desert, there's not much sand here because it's all covered up with concrete. The women, too, are generally covered -- you can tell Qatari women because they were the niqab, generally, or at least the full body and head-cover black with exposed face. Many of them do glamorize the look with makeup and earrings and pastel designs along the cuffs and hem. Most other Muslim women generally wear a headscarf over their hair, but a lot don't. And the Western women wear nearly whatever they want -- I've seen tight jeans and short skirts and cleavage, surprisingly. Westerners make good money working for big business, finance and oil and consulting and airlines and banking and the like, live in very nice apartments, drive sleek cars and dine and dance at the fancy restaurants and bars within 5-star foreign brand hotels like the W, Ramada, Four Seasons, Intercontinental and Sheraton.

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