A little bloodless coup isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Qatar. In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ousted his father and took the country’s reins. He has transformed this former pearl-fishing outpost, already one of the richest countries in the world thanks to oil and natural gas.
Set on a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, bordered on the south by Saudi Arabia, tiny Qatar—the size of Connecticut—is transforming itself into the Gulf’s “next” destination. Hoping to build on the success of Abu Dhabi and learn from the mistakes of Dubai, the capital city of Doha is pitching itself as a player on the world stage. I. M. Pei was called in to design the Museum of Islamic Art. The skyline, with its perfume bottle–shaped towers, is being rewritten every day. Cranes litter the air. Satellite branches of American universities have taken root. After a massive PR campaign, the country won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Doha is looking to the future.
But all this rapid progress comes with a price. “Everyone is a little crazy here,” Kevin, a recent immigrant from Kenya, informs me. “How could they not be? Just five years ago they were riding camels, and now you give them a V-8 engine.” Out here, where a gallon of gasoline is half the price of a bottle of water, the trappings of Western culture are being imported nearly as fast as the Filipino and Indian immigrants who are charged with maintaining them. Foreigners outnumber Qatari nationals six to one. “And I don’t know why they need to reclaim land when there’s all this empty desert just sitting here,” Kevin points out. But things in Doha have their own logic.
Video: A Desert Journey Through Qatar
The Pearl-Qatar, the 988-acre man-made island Kevin is specifically lamenting, has condos, hotels, three marinas with mooring for 1,002 boats, and more than 2 million square feet of retail space—much of it still sitting empty. Over near the Rolls-Royce showroom, the French institution Les Deux Magots has a satellite café at the water’s edge. The rack of lamb is tasty, but a signature dessert of mille-feuille is conspicuously absent from the menu. The maître d’ shrugs. “The chef is French, but everyone else is from Indonesia,” he says. “No one can make it to the standard we need, so…” His lips purse. “We are part restaurant, part school.”
Over at Souk Waqif, Doha’s recently rebuilt main marketplace, camels loiter in a pen beside a parking lot peppered with Ferraris. Inside the ramparts, the lanes are crooked. The walls sag. The stalls overflow with fabrics and appliances, birdcages and the smell of spices. The intent here was to create a souk in the old style, and while I can’t help but feel a bit like I’m on a Hollywood back lot, it’s a relief to see a gesture toward Arab culture in an Arab land. The place swarms with local life on a Friday night.
Across town, in the heart of the Aspire Zone, I enter Villaggio, a sprawling shopping outlet. A canal—with gondolas—snakes its way under a ceiling painted full of puffy Venetian clouds. It’s the place to see and be seen for the younger Qatari set. Teenage girls wander past Marks & Spencer and Café Lenôtre, texting in their black abayas and giggling behind their niqabs. Missi, a professional soccer player from Cameroon, stands in line beside the Western Union stall with two dozen other immigrants, waiting to wire money home. “It’s a strange life here,” he says.
Curious about just what things were like before all this recent building, I head south. Outside the city, the desert quickly re-exerts complete control. We drive across parched flats and over 40-foot-high dunes. The expansive silence and stillness are humbling in a way no city, however modern, can approach. I sleep under the stars beside the inland sea as the water laps up to the sand. A purple dawn surrenders to an unyielding sun, and I’m chased back to the air-conditioned comforts of Doha. On re-entry, the city feels both foolish and fantastical, the way society does when you return from unadorned nature.