Qatar: Anatomy of a Globalized State

Articles, Think. Magazine


This article was published in the second issue of THINK. magazine (2012), a quarterly international affairs magazine. Download a PDF of this article.

By Christina Maria Paschyn

An unedited version of this article appears below:

In the Art Center at the Katara Cultural Village in Doha, a picture of a Qatari woman clutching a Coca-Cola cup hangs prominently in the rear gallery. The woman, dressed in a traditional black abaya, cuts a striking image against the endless blue sky behind her. Her lips and fingernails have been painted to match the American soft drink’s bright red logo, and her wind-swept hair flows out elegantly from underneath her veil. There is no indication as to where she is standing – all that matters is she is peering into the distance, as if trying to see what changes the future will bring to her and her country. But as the cup in her hand indicates, the changes are already there.

“The Coke is the big obvious globalization element,” explains Christto Sanz, 27, the Puerto Rican-born artist. His photograph is part of Unparalleled Objectives, an exhibition exploring the Arabian Gulf’s constantly changing societies. “Drinking the Coke, she has been influenced by globalization, taking elements in and using them for herself.”

The cup is just one manifestation of the Western consumerist products ubiquitous in Qatar where women wear black abayas, just as in the photograph, but frequently with jeans underneath and Louis Vuitton bags in their hands; where American fast food chains and coffee shops are to be found on nearly every street corner and roundabout, and where modern high rises and skyscrapers dominate the skyline.

“So much has changed in Qatar. Everything has become bigger – the shops, the houses, the whole of Doha,” says Mohammed Abdulasis, a 65-year-old Qatari who spends much of his free time in Souq Waqif, Doha’s historic Arabic bazaar. As a young man, Abdulasis would come here to buy spices and handicrafts imported from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He would sip coffee as he watched Bedouins haggle over the price of the birds, sheep and wool for sale. Today the sheep are gone and the birds sit in cages next to vendors selling rabbits, hamsters and kittens. Most of the “traditional” merchandise, Abdulasis moans, is now made in China. The souq has been updated and refurbished and now houses dozens of souvenir stalls alongside cafes serving Lebanese, Iraqi, Malay, French and Italian cuisine and even a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

“Before, the souq was smaller. People would buy their stuff and leave, no sitting down like this. Only a few people used to come,” Abdulasis says. “Now people come from all over the world to see how Doha is growing and developing.”

Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s and full independence in 1971 (it had previously been a British protectorate), Qatar, a peninsula approximately 11,437 square kilometers in area on the western shores of the Arabian Gulf, has experienced rapid development and unprecedented wealth. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita and economic growth rate in the world, at 19.4 percent in 2010. Large oil and natural gas reserves may have triggered the fast expansion of the country’s economy, but an examination of Qatar’s population reveals another pillar of its sustained success: a majority migrant and expatriate workforce.

As of May 2012 the country was home to 1,795,828 people, according to the Qatar Statistics Authority. But fewer than 300,000 are actual citizens. The authority does not release figures about the nationalities of the individual residents. However, the US State Department estimates that the population is 24 percent Indian; 16 percent Nepali; 13 percent Arab (non-Qatari); 11 percent Filipino; 5 percent Sri Lankan; 5 percent Bangladeshi; 4 percent Pakistani; and 7 percent other. Qataris comprise only 15 percent of the population.

This expatriate-citizen ratio is even greater in the country’s labor force; foreign workers comprise 94.14 percent of the country’s economically active populace, and 67 percent employed expats are engaged in unskilled or semiskilled work, including as taxi drivers, construction workers, waiters, janitors and maids, according to the Qatar National Development Strategy 2011-2016.

Qatar’s Permanent Population Committee reports that since 1960 and 1970, when Qatar began to see significant income from oil and gas, the country’s population rose almost 31 times and 14 times respectively. In 1970, only 111,133 people lived in Qatar, including 45,039 Qataris. In 1986 the census recorded 369,079 inhabitants. This number reached 522,023 people in 1997 and then 744,029 in 2004.

Then from 2004 to 2008, Qatar experienced an unprecedented rise in population as the country entered a new development phase. The transformation of Doha into a modern metropolis led to a colossal demand for foreign workers. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of oversees employees jumped from 706,033 to 1,409,313, while the overall population reached nearly 1.7 million in 2010.

The high number of expatriates of differing ethnicities has perceptibly impacted the country’s urban neighborhoods. Today Doha boasts residential areas and compounds home to an array of co-existing nationalities, including Western, Asian, Arab and Qatari, many of which have been brought together indirectly by income level rather than by a shared cultural heritage.

Visibly ethnic neighborhoods, however, exist as well. Doha’s Najma and Musheireb neighborhoods, for instance, are often described as mini Bangladeshes or little Indias because of the thousands of South Asian workers who call them home.

“I am really happy to live in Najma,” says Abdul Hakim, a 50-year-old Pakistani who migrated to Doha 32 years ago. “Everybody knows about Najma – it is a very famous South Asian neighborhood and the chance of finding work here if you are Asian is really high, so that is why we chose to live here. Asians come here to do business with other Asians. We get a few foreigners but manly Asians. We just feel more comfortable here.”

Given the large number of South Asians present in the country in general, in particularly Indians who comprise the largest foreign group in Qatar at 450,000 people, such ethnic ‘villages’ may seem inevitable. Their tangible impact, however, is anything but. Some academics such as Geoff Harkness, a sociologist and Visiting Assistant Professor in Liberal Arts at Northwestern University in Qatar, question whether the country’s predominantly unskilled/semiskilled and low-wage South Asian population has truly visibly affected and altered Qatari society and culture.

“You don’t see the [Indian influence] here as much. It has an influence on the culture in terms of the foods you see in grocery stores, and the sort of interactions you see at the places where people gather – it impacts the service industry,” Harkness explains. “Yet that population is, in some ways, invisible. You would think that this place would be like Delhi given the size of the Indian population, but it’s not because these people are not the ones designing the buildings and putting the art in the museums.”

The most obvious impact of many of Qatar’s ethnic groups has come in the form of additional aisles at supermarkets labeled “Filipino” or “Indian” food, clusters of family-run ethnic restaurants or convenience stores, and the establishment of a few nationality-based elementary and high schools.

There are two reasons for this lack of major cultural influence by recent migrant groups, according to Dr Mahjoob Zweiri, a historian of the Middle East and the Head of Humanities at Qatar University. “One is the nature of the immigration. People know that they are going for one purpose – money. They are expected to work and send that money to build their families’ futures. Second, the nature of the local society does not offer the opportunity for any one migrant or class group to influence too much because, as a migrant laborer, you need to match the culture and traditions. If you are not able to understand that, you may do something that will affect people and you do not want to do this because you want to stay and benefit economically.”

The West’s influence, on the other hand, is much more stark.

“[Globalization] is changing the way people live their lives here, and you can see that certainly in education, in the number of women that have entered education, and you can see that in the workforce and in the number of women who are working now compared to before,” Harkness says. “But you can also see it in terms of the sort of art and cultural products being produced here.”  Examples include the establishment of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, which is composed of a large number of European musicians and which performs a heavily classical European repertoire. Likewise, Doha’s many art galleries often showcase foreign artists, including most recently the work of French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois at Katara and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East at the Al-Riwaq Exhibition Hall.

“Globalization is also changing the landscape of Qatar,” Harkness adds. “Walk through Villaggio mall and you will see globalization: there’s McDonald’s, there’s the Gap and all these Western products, so it’s having a massive impact on the material culture.”

That is not to say the various non-Western nationalities that have resided in Qatar over the years have not left a cultural imprint on the native society. In particular, experts say the influence of South Asians is tangible throughout the Gulf, but it stems back to the 18-19th centuries, long before the discovery of oil, when Qataris relied mainly on pearl fishing and maritime trade.

“Most of the impact of India, Pakistan and South Asia took place during the British East India Company period, when they brought a bureaucratic class from India here to open up the routes of the Gulf to India to export their economic products,” says Mazhar Al-Zoby, Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Qatar University. “Economically the Gulf was not only dominated but centrally controlled by India, and the Gulf rupee, primarily based on the Indian rupee, was in operation until 1966 for Qatar, and it was only after it was devalued that it was dropped.”

But India’s centuries-old economic influence extends beyond the Gulf’s former currency. “Just look at the trade boats [here in Qatar],” Al-Zoby explains. “[The trees they used to build the boats] must have come from the tropical areas of India – the size of the boat, the wood. It’s very much not a Gulf or Mediterranean thing. We have no sorts of trees of that size.”

The region’s culinary traditions have also been profoundly influenced by the Indian subcontinent: “This is just very obvious in all the foods [the Gulf] has, like Majboos and Biryani (rice and meat dishes), and all kinds of food that I think is very local in character but Indian in temperament,” Al-Zoby says.  “You look at the Mediterranean cuisine and Gulf cuisine and they are totally different in the sense that there is a local food culinary culture but it was influenced much more by the Indian spices and the Indian culinary temperament than it was by the Mediterranean.”

Vani Saraswathi, 38, a media professional who emigrated from India 13 years ago, agrees. She says her native land’s subtle impact on Qatari culture is evident if you just know where to look and when to listen. “For instance, Qatari ‘Karak,’ which means strong tea, is actually Indian tea. But even I don’t call it Chai or anything, I say Karak because for me it’s a Qatari drink and even we don’t have it this way in India anymore – this amount of sugar and this strong,” she says. “And there are so many other little things like that in Qatar. Even the language – Arabic spoken by Qataris is highly influenced by Urdu compared to the Arabic spoken, by say, Egyptians.”

Intermarriages between Indians and Gulf natives were also common during the East India Company’s period of economic power in the region.  “You didn’t necessarily have a lot of Indians marrying locals in the Gulf but you did have a lot of locals who married from India – Qatari males would marry Indian woman,” explains Al-Zoby, who adds that this practice continued well into the 20th century and was made easier by the country’s economic and technological advancements.

However, he stresses that Qatar’s discovery of oil and subsequent influx of migrant laborers did not trigger the country’s globalization process; it only intensified it.

“The process of globalization really dramatically started then [at the arrival of the East India Company] and not now,” he says. “Clearly you have more Indians now but that’s because you have a much larger economy in the Gulf. The economies are considered to be global economies but with local populations that cannot fulfill one-third of the demands. So that is why you see a lot of recruiting of migrant workers. But there is not a shift in pattern, but only intensification in the pattern. Post-oil economic conditions have intensified a process that started a long time ago.”

Nevertheless, rapid economic development has allowed Qataris to quickly and actively embrace Western cultural products and advancements. This can be seen in the country’s efforts to diversify from a carbon to a knowledge-based economy, perhaps best represented in the establishment of six American university branch campuses in Qatar Foundation’s Education City. The goal: to recruit more highly skilled Western and Arab expats who will in turn better educate and train Qataris to assume future leadership roles in the public and private spheres.

Despite the benefits expats have brought and continue to bring, for some Qataris the sea of foreign workers – the BBC estimates that some 20 immigrants arrive to the country per hour – is overwhelming. Qatar’s migrant population is mostly male, which has resulted in a major gender imbalance – men now represent 76 percent of Qatar’s total population. Last year the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning ordered the removal of thousands of low-income single male workers living in residential areas to Doha’s Industrial Area after several local families complained about “lack of respect from expatriate bachelors for local values and traditions” and “menaces to the Qatari way of life,” local news outlets reported.

Many expatriates in Qatar have denounced this policy as discriminatory. However, Harkness says he can understand the government’s point of view.  “In my class, my students and I have debated many times the policy of family day (days when single men are banned from entering many of the local malls and parks). In the United States if you did that, it would be illegal. So it’s shocking for someone like me to see that this is an enforced policy,” he explains. “But a lot of my students, many of whom are female, talk about how they used to go the mall and these guys would stare at them. You got a bunch of guys who aren’t around women, and I think that’s another side to it. It’s not just this top-down thing where it’s racist and we’re going to segregate these guys. In some ways [the male migrant workers’] behavior contributes to the reasons why it happens. It’s not unusual to see this sort of behavior among single men. But it also results in gender segregation and [the government] trying to alleviate some of the [gender tension] as well.”

Um Hussein, a 70-year-old Qatari woman, says the large number of foreigners in the country, especially men, can be intimidating if not downright inconvenient.

“Life was better and simpler back when I was young,” says Hussein, a former Bedouin whose nomadic family lived in tents as they traveled throughout Qatar. She settled in Doha when she received a Qatari passport 28 years ago. “When I was young, we could visit our neighbors and because we knew everyone so well, we didn’t have to wear an abaya to visit their homes. But now if I want to go out, I have to cover up for modesty purposes because there are too many foreign men around. We also get annoyed because of how crowded it is and we don’t see as many locals as we used to before.”

A recent survey by the PPC indicates that many Qatari youth seem to share this sentiment. The survey found that the “overwhelming majority” of young Qatari citizens believe that “Qatar has a problem of population.” Moreover, the study claims that a “vast majority” of them also agree that an “increased reliance on servants and over-recruitment of expatriates” is putting the country’s culture at risk and “that preserving the culture of community and identity is more important than urbanization.”

Qatari entrepreneur Mohamed Jaidah, 30, says some Qataris’ negative attitudes about foreign workers stem from economic as well as cultural concerns.

“There are two sides to the story,” says Jaidah, the founder of the Doha-based media company Firefly Communications. “There are a lot of Qataris who actually look at it as a cultural thing, but there are also a lot people who are looking at it as more of expats taking jobs and, therefore, not giving opportunities to Qataris to have these positions. Now, it comes back to the question, do we currently have in our [Qatari] population the people with the amount of expertise that we need to specially fulfill these positions and to fill the required jobs?”

Harkness concurs: “I’m certain that there is resentment because we [some expats] do take high status jobs. But how do you build a knowledge economy from scratch? You can’t – you have to import it and everything else here is imported too.”

As for cultural trepidations, Jaidah says Qatar’s legalization of alcohol consumption, albeit with many restrictions, is a major source of unease for many Qataris.

“[Alcohol] is something that some people perceive as a threat, but is it affecting the culture in itself? We will need much more time to see the real effects of it on the country. The past 10 years cannot really show if it is,” says Jaidah, who contrasts the country’s moderate and relatively recent allowance of alcohol to the seemingly seamless integration of Indian food in the Gulf. “The mixture between Indian food and Arabic food came through hundreds of years of trade between India and the Gulf. It came very slowly to the culture and it happened in such a long time and subtle way that, although people would gladly admit it came from India, it’s today completely part of the culture to have all these spices in the food. No one sees it as an invasion of the Indian culture into the Qatari culture.”

But if the PPC’s findings are accurate and anxieties about foreigners are prevalent among Qatari youth, this reporter could not corroborate it. When questioned, several students at Qatar University praised expats for their contribution to Qatari society. “No, there are definitely not too many foreigners!” asserts Fatima Alnaemi, 23, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in social work. “Foreigners are good for Qatar because Qatar is becoming famous.”

Twenty-three-year-old Maha Alhajri, who is currently enrolled in the university’s Foundation Program, agrees. She says the growing number of female expat professionals working in Doha has inspired Qatari women to expand their own career and education prospects.

“I want to keep studying and do something to help my country. Women should be something in Qatar, and the women are becoming stronger. It’s a very good change,” Alhajri says. “Even when I get married, if my husband tells me to stop working, I won’t listen. Before my mother had to stop working when she got married, but now not anymore.”

As for warnings that Qataris may be losing their culture, the students do not seem too concerned. “We are under the government and they will save the people and Qatari culture. We will not be afraid of losing our traditions because the leadership here in Qatar has put in our mind that tradition in Qatar is the first thing,” Alnaemi says.

What she means is the Qatari government has repeatedly emphasized that preserving the country’s Arab-Islamic heritage and culture is key. This is stated in both the National Development Strategy and the Qatar National Vision 2030, and is evident in government-backed construction projects. “This may be the most interesting discussion right now, which makes Doha so special and so much more planned than all the other cities in the Gulf. You have this big move to include heritage,” notes Hannes Werner, a Gulf-based architecture expert. “You have projects like the renovation of Souq Waqif, the Katara Cultural Village. Before this, nobody [in Qatar] was thinking to rebuild and recreate these old Arabic buildings. The next step will then be the Msheireb Downtown Doha project – a whole new city center completely constructed on a modern interpretation of the essence of the heritage, architecture and style principles of Qatar.”

The government is also aware of the need to better integrate foreign workers, particularly ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Initiatives include developing new strategies to recruit and retain more highly skilled expats to balance the number of unskilled migrants workers in the country, the construction of an entertainment complex for workers living in the Industrial Area, and the proposed establishment of labor unions to protect workers’ rights.

“We’re taking what’s good from the West, but keeping our identity and keeping all the good from this region – our traditions, values, and religion,” says Natra Saeed Abdulla, a Qatari businesswoman. “Globalization can change things for the better, but remember, the Qataris are very small – only 300,000 out of 1.8 million people. Everything you do affects the society, the family and who you are. There has to be accountability.”

But Abdulla is quick to qualify that globalization is nothing to fear and that foreign nationals play an essential role in Qatar. Moreover, their influence and impact is beginning at younger and younger ages. The PPC estimates that foreign students residing in Qatar comprise 59 percent of the total enrolled students in the country’s pre-university education system. To Abdulla, who owns the Doha Montessori & British School, which educates students of some 88 different nationalities, this is a positive development. “We deliberately make sure that our students come from many different nationalities and religions because our target is to develop global citizens and make sure the school is truly international.” With so small a population, she points out, “you really need people to work here and to stay here. Yes, a lot of things are happening to preserve the culture, but that doesn’t mean both groups cannot be part of the community.”

A new, more-integrated community is already beginning to take shape in Doha, Saraswathi says, primarily because the city’s globalized cultural institutions are flourishing.

“Now you have theatre coming in, and you have a tango show this weekend and something else last weekend, and at the same time in the city there are three art shows – there is Louise Bourgeois, Murakami, and Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang – nothing like that ever happened earlier,” she says. “Before everything was very nationality based. The Indians did their own thing, the British did their own, and the Qataris did their own thing. Now when you go to an event at the Qatar National Convention Centre or Katara, it’s not those communities. It’s a Doha community going there.”

Jaidah says he thinks the city’s urban landscape will follow suit. “I really believe that we [Qatar] are a work in progress. It’s very difficult to come today and say this is what Qatar is. The problem is that three years down the line, Qatar is going to be slightly different that what it is today,” he says. “But my true belief is that five to 10 years down the line, whenever all these cultural projects are going to be done and Doha as a city will have matured, I think it’s going to be a very interesting mesh of different backgrounds and communities. I don’t believe you will see these groupings of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. You won’t have a Little India on the right and a Filipino town on the left – it’s going to be really well diversified.”

Back at the Katara Art Center, Sanz, a new arrival to Doha himself, ponders his photograph of a man peering off into the distance with a bundle of bananas cradled in his left hand. Like the first image of the Qatari woman holding a Coke cup, the man is dressed in clothing representative of his ethnic background; in this case a t-shirt displaying the flag of Puerto Rico, Sanz’s native land. But if the former represents Qataris’ tepid acceptance of globalization, then the latter signifies globalization’s entry into the country in the form of the migrant worker.

“This guy is coming to the Middle East and he is looking for the future,” Sanz describes. “And he is bringing his story and his culture to Qatar.”

What impact his culture will have on Qatari society in the long-run remains to be seen.

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