Worldview Travels: Reflections from the Gulf

January 26, 2010

Ed. note- Worldview staffer Assia Boundaoui recently traveled to Qatar. She's putting together an upcoming episode on Worldview about it, here she shares some of her thoughts on the region. Doha's skyline. Qatar is a small coastal state on the northeasterly coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It's bordered by the Saudi Arabian Kingdom to its South, the rest of the country serves as coastline for the Persian Gulf. Relatively unknown to most in the West just a few years ago, Qatar was catapulted into recognition through the massive and rapid development of its largest and only metropolitan city, Doha. Just across the Persian Gulf (and a 30 minute plane ride away) from its infamous cousin Dubai, Doha has attempted to distance itself from rampant unfettered development and the boundless liberalization that's become synonymous with the Gulf region. While Doha ostensibly grapples to reconcile the wave of modern development from new found oil money, with its traditional values and cultural heritage -- it remains a place rampant with contradictions. For the past decade or so, Qatar has attempted to distinguish itself as an Arab state with a liberalized society, independent press (see: Al Jazeera), and highly educated citizenship, but it's successes in particular areas have illuminated its failures in others. Qatar has sought to launch a revival of education within the region through its construction of Education City, an initiative that has imported six prestigious American universities to institute campuses within Qatar. Conversely, Qatar also imported a vast migrant population from South Asia to serve as domestic workers and its labor force. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Qatar is now a destination for human trafficking and forced servitude, where workers enticed into the country with false promises of good wages and comfortable living conditions, are then forced into underpaid, unfair labor contracts that restrict the workers' ability to leave the country. Current labor laws in Qatar continue to aggravate a situation, which has been described as modern-day slavery. While tensions between a highly educated, modern citizenry and a maltreated migrant underclass illuminate fractures in Qatar's modernized veneer, perhaps the best illustration of the country's strained and rapid plunge into modernity can be found in Doha's "souk". The traditional old souk pre-dates Doha's skyscrapers and luxury hotels, and served for decades as the city's market center. A few year's ago, Doha launched a major "Ëœrenovation' of the souk, which consisted in basically destroying the entire souk, ‚ possibly one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and then rebuilding a new souk that looked old. Walking through the new "Ëœold souk', I couldn't help but think to myself that this place was more like a, "It's a Small World After All -- Doha" rather than anything resembling an "authentic" Doha. Qatar has the second highest GDP per capita in the world. While the country has made a concerted effort to move away from an oil based economy towards something more sustainable, its perpetual flow of oil money continues to spur a stunningly rapid pace of construction. But in the flurry and furor of development, a cultural authenticity and robust tradition is at risk of vanishing. What's at stake here is the soul of a people, who in their haste to join Western modernity and outrun their Arab competition may in fact lose their own identity in the process.
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