Qatar's modern future rubs up against conservative traditions

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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Qatar is spending massively to modernise its capital ahead of the 2022 World Cup, leading conservative Qataris to worry about how this will affect the Islamic nature of the Gulf state.

Trucks can be seen speeding around Doha's business district, carrying building materials for the US$150bn makeover that will give the city a new metro, airport, seaport and roads.

In the busy years leading up to the soccer tournament, Doha will see an influx of foreign companies, professionals and workers. With them will come a fresh flood of foreign cultures and lifestyles, and that is causing concern.

"This is the real challenge for us: to maintain our culture while building the country we will become," said 33-year old Abdulrahman, who like other Qatari citizens preferred to be identified only by his first name.

Exploiting its immense natural gas resources has in just over 15 years transformed Qatar into one of the world's wealthiest nations, with a per capita annual income for its 250,000 citizens of well over US$90,000.

Though led by a ruling family viewed as highly progressive by Gulf standards, the fact remains that most Qataris are very conservative. Most practice Wahhabism, the austere form of Islam also practiced in Saudi Arabia.

For them, concern that Western norms will start to infiltrate society is a continuous and pressing reality, especially given the fact that they are an extreme minority in their own country, which is home to some 1.7m people, many of them workers from south Asia.

"We welcome the expats, and we want them here. But we will not permit any disrespect to our religion or culture," said Salma, a 25-year old Qatari.

"This is your home, for now. But it is our home forever, and we will not bend to your ways."

Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 60, seized power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. He and his second wife Sheikha Mozah have gained a reputation as modernisers in recent years and raised the country's profile significantly with the launch of the Al Jazeera television network and successful hosting the 2006 Asian Games, as well as their role in initiating the country's World Cup bid.

The street protests which swept four Arab heads of state from office since early last year and strengthened Islamists throughout the Middle East have not been seen in Qatar, thanks partly to its staggering wealth but also to its foreign policy: because Qatar aggressively aided the Libyan rebels, its government is seen as on the "right side" of the Arab Spring.

But the government cannot ignore the fact that much of the Qatari population may be resistant to the changes brought by rapid expansion.

"It's a very delicate line they must balance. But the one thing the government cannot do is appear un-Islamic. It's game over if they do," said an analyst specialising in security issues, who like other analysts not named in this article asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the topic.

So far, the policy has been working.

"The pace of economic expansion in Qatar over the last decade is almost without precedent. It is remarkable that the traditionally conservative society has handled these changes as well as it has," said one Doha-based economist.

Efforts to combat the perceived creep of Western influence have already started. Earlier this year, Qatar University made it mandatory for many of its courses to be taught in Arabic instead of English.

As in the UAE, in recent months a campaign against immodest dress has been launched via posters and flyers distributed in malls, hypermarkets and other public places. The campaign, organised by an Islamic cultural group, aims to explain to expat women that Islamic tradition requires them to dress modestly when in public.

"The Qataris don't want to see their country's culture given over to foreigners. You'd get serious anger if that ever happened. And the leadership is very sensitive to that," said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha.

"The government has said very clearly, 'We do not want to be [liberal like] Dubai. We will not become Dubai.' And even if they did want to, they couldn't have it here. The local population would not accept it."

As a result, Qatar's ruling family must continually offset modernising policies with concessions to social conservatives.

The past year has seen both liberalising moves - such as the introduction of pork sales to expatriates - and reverses, such as the withdrawal of alcohol licences for restaurants at the Pearl, an artificial island that features international restaurants popular with foreigners.

The pork sales through Qatar Distribution Company, the country's sole liquor shop, "are a deliberate way the government has demonstrated that it will give with one hand and take with the other", Stephens said.

One of the reasons that Qatar has been able to retain its conservative nature is that unlike Dubai, it does not need to rely on mass market tourism, and focuses instead on the more discreet, high end of the industry so as to become known as a cultural and conference centre for the region.

"We don't want people to come for a US$50 room to lie on the beach all day and walk around with a backpack and shorts. These are not the type of people we're targeting," the Chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority, Ahmed Abdullah al-Nuaimi, told Reuters last year.

"For the last five or six years we've invested in high-end hotels and facilities, high-end convention centres and museums. But we're not looking for it to be a revenue-generating industry," he said.

"If [the tourism market] crashes, it makes no difference for us."

"There are two basic ways in which they will keep the local population happy while continuing to grow the country," said a foreign businessman in Doha. "By keeping the local population wealthy and employed, and making sure the Islamic nature of the country is maintained."

Last year the country's emir issued a decree boosting basic salaries and social benefits for state civilian employees by 60 percent, a 10 billion riyal ($2.75 billion) increase.

The government has already succeeded in introducing some of the most sensitive liberal reforms, such as giving non-Muslims more freedom to practice their religions in the country.

The country's first Christian church was established in 2008 on land donated by the emir, which led to angry call-ins to radio shows and newspaper columns by Qataris.

"The prime minister acknowledged publicly that the complaints had been heard and listened to. And then he essentially told the dissenters it was time for them to be quiet," the security analyst said. "The dissent ended virtually overnight.

"In that respect, the state will instill its will when its wants to. The change will be pushed through by edict, if necessary."

The naming in late 2011 of the country's largest and most prominent mosque after Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the conservative Wahhabi movement, is an example of the kind of gestures that conservative Qataris can expect in return.

"There's a reason Qatar has more mosques per person than many other Islamic countries. One reason is that people here can pay for them, but the other is that they placate the populace," the Doha-based source said.

"Not all Qataris will go along with the change that is inevitable here. But they will be given things in exchange for their acquiescence. You will see more mosques built here."

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Please post responsibly. Commenter Rules

Posted by: Colin Occupants

It should also be remembered that no matter how much Qatar modernises itself, it's not going to prevent a single person from practicing their faith as strictly as they want to. Dubai may be liberal compared to other Gulf countries, but those who are more conservative can still live a perfectly conservative life and let the less conservative live their lives as they please.

Posted by: Ronny

Being a non-muslim expat living in Abu Dhabi, I must say I concur completely to the above.
If you go live and work abroad, one should always respect and accept the cultural standards of the host country.
I feel blessed to get the opportinity in Abu Dhabi and I am moved by the hospitality of its citizens.
In return, I fully respect and adhere to the local culture and customs, which does not hamper me in enjoying my life. On top, I have learned to appreciate the true values of muslims and have started to learn Arabic as I plan to stay for a long time.

And to the people who don't like it : then go and find a place where you will be happier. Nobody obliges you to stay where you are.

Posted by: Wadi

I completely agree with your sentiments, Ronny.

I have been fortunate enough to live in the Middle East for over 20 years and have always ensured that local rules are adhered to and regulations respected.

As a British expat, we can appreciate just how much we would like foreigners to treat the UK. Unfortunately, the moral decline is evident as a result of not being a little stricter.

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