Travel in music: Chapter 26 - 2004, Qatar
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2004 – Chapter 26 | Apart from brief airport transits through Dubai, I had not yet visited any country in the Arabian Peninsula. I was therefore excited to begin a project in Qatar, focusing on its oil & gas industry. At the beginning of 2005, Qatar was on a major development curve that has gone crescendo since. The largest single reserve gas field in the world lies under water, half way between Qatar and Iran. It holds almost 10% of the world’s proven gas reserves on its own, making Qatar the 3rd largest natural gas producer after Russia and Iran. Geologists discovered this field in the early 70s, roughly at the same time that Qatar gained independence from Britain. It took a further 15 years of drilling to understand its magnitude and another few years to start building the infrastructure necessary to exploit it. By 2005, investments had been pouring in steadily for more than a decade. Qatar Petroleum had already built a dozen LNG processing trains and a slew of related by-product industries. Gas provided its citizens the highest per capita income worldwide and the country’s ambitions were fully unleashed.
Once a sleepy fishing and pearling village on the Persian Gulf, the sudden influx of wealth was turning Doha into a tall and shiny metropolis at an unprecedented pace, right under our eyes. Skyscrapers and malls were jutting out of the ground everywhere in constructions sites that never slept. Al Jazeera, the global news network headquartered in the capital, was gaining notoriety and providing the world with a new, Arabic voice, thereby challenging the Western world’s news monopoly. In sports, too, Qatar was beginning to throw its newfound weight around. It had bid successfully to host the Asian games and was investing all over the place, in motor sports, sailing and, of course, football. Several of the game’s superstars, whose retirement age was approaching, were doing a last professional stint to prop up the Qatari championship. For astronomical salaries, the likes of Batistuta, Jürgen Kohler, Pep Guardiola, Hierro and others, monetized their silky skills and shiny reputations to ensure stadiums were full and local players learnt from the best.
Through pick-up basketball games, we befriended a group of Spaniards who had set up a lucrative construction business. Because they were non-Muslim residents, they could import alcohol and serve it to guests at home – not unlike other gulf states, Qatar had strict liquor laws and only a few places (hotel bars, mostly) had licenses to serve any; no shops sold alcohol at all. Since they had booze, they organized house parties which these Spanish-speaking soccer stars attended. Batigol came around like a cliché starlet, stepping out of an indecent sports car with a plastic, platinum blonde in tow and a photoshoot-ready smile permanently on display. He was friendly but enjoyed the accolades a little too much. In sharp contrast, I remember Hierro coming up to me and introducing himself. “Hey, first time I see you here. I’m Fernando. What’s your name? What are you doing in Doha?” Being an avid football fan, I knew exactly who this towering ex-Real Madrid center back was of course but his approach was refreshing. He had conversation too and knew Qatar surprisingly well. Guardiola is the one we saw most often. We had dinner with him on a couple of occasions. He was shy and reserved. He spoke softly and so seldom, I barely remember the sound of his voice. It was hard to imagine he would lead several different teams to Champions League glory as a coach in years to come.
Obscene wealth generally harbors a dark side. In this sparsely populated emirate, it was the way society was stratified. A strict, cast-like organization structure assigned each nationality a specific role. There were about 700.000 inhabitants but only 100.000 of those were Qatari. Logically, they stood at the very top of the food chain. Law required businesses to have 51% local ownership at least so they generally held passive shareholding roles chairing the boards. At the lower extreme, Bengalis and Pakistanis were the (dispensable) work ants manually building the country’s infrastructure. When they were not sweating (and dying) in the scaffolding, you could see them play cricket on the construction sites. Nepalis were hardly better off but they held rather domestic low-end jobs such as concierges and security guards. Filipinos were maids and nannies. Thais worked in the hospitality industry, cooking, tending bars and “servicing” the bars’ clients. One notch up, operating machinery, welding, and doing plumbing and electrical work, you would often find Indians, sometimes Palestinians. In the oil & gas sector, you would also find Venezuelans, Nigerians and Trinidadians or people from other hydrocarbon rich nations. The foremen running the building sites were usually Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian or Palestinian too. Once you reached the air-conditioned offices, on the low to mid management level, you would run into a plethora of Lebanese, alongside those same nationalities. From middle to executive management, westerners of all origins would occupy the highest echelons, just below the Qatari owners of course. This is a caricatured picture but I have only mildly exaggerated a truth that I think still holds value today. 15 years later, on the eve of hosting the FIFA World Cup, the only major change is that the population of Qatar has more than quadrupled, which is another indication of the magnet effect its supersonic economic development has had on migrant labor.
Sadly, true Qatari culture is very difficult to penetrate. We met some friendly locals, young and worldly, who had studied in Europe or the USA. They enjoyed the company of foreigners and hospitably took us on dhow rides at sunset or on desert expeditions into the dunes along the Saudi border. Their homes, however, remained off-limits. Whatever true culture still existed seemed superficially sanitized and/or westernized, though you could sense a desire to promote arts in a similar manner than sports or media, i.e. leveraging wealth to obtain global recognition and standing. Musicians share the same traditions and use the same instruments as their Arab counterparts elsewhere. However difficult it was to hear in public spaces, where commercial Lebanese, Egyptian, Hindi and Western pop blotted out everything else, I was still able to sate my love for oud strings and unearth a few melodies.