My journey to the center of the earth

Over the two weeks I spent in Doha, Qatar, I couldn’t help but recognise the significance of where I was with relation to what I have been studying over the last few years at uni. Being located in the heart of the Middle East, at the crossroads of civilisation, Doha really is a microcosm of globalisation; it’s where the West meets the East, the Global North meets the Global South and where the old meets the new. Accordingly, it is a place full of contradictions and anomalies. The following is my account of the lessons I learned during my journey to the center of the earth.

Qatar: at the crossroads of civilisation (Image courtesy of worldatlas)

Where the West meets the East

Villaggio Mall in Doha (Image courtesy of Le Huffington Post)

Like the U.A.E, the emirate regime of Qatar has opened the country up to foreign investment and capitalist entrepreneurialism. In so doing, it has opened up to the West and allowed it to exert some influence in the country; almost everywhere one can find foreign companies and franchises (like Pizza Hut, Burger King, even Gloria Jeans etc), while all local businesses have English as well as Arabic on their windows. Most people speak English too (although this is as much to do with the fact that people from all over the world have flocked to Qatar so English has become a unified language, but more on that later). Local radio and music TV channels play a lot of foreign hits, and even the local pop music has a distinct western feel to it (take, for example, the music videos of local pop singles which feature seductive dancing and sexual themes, even despite the flagrant sexual conservatism of the people and their customs). The epitome of Western influence in Doha, though, lies in the Villaggio mall, which is designed to look and feel like you’re actually in Venice, fit even with canals, and which is full of Western shops and restaurants, selling Western products and cuisines (including fast food).

But unlike the U.A.E, which is thought to have sold its soul in exchange for wealth and prosperity, Qatar has managed to pursue modernisation whilst keeping its culture and religious praxis largely in tact. In fact, Qataris have expressed they will not accept modernisation at the expense of their religious values and culture. One still needs to dress conservatively and drinking is a taboo (and largely prohibited for everyone but Westerners over the age of 21). Muslims are called to prayer every morning, while burkas, headscarves and other customary clothes are very prevalent (even foreigners are advised to dress modestly so as to not be offensive to the local culture). There is also a significant degree of segregation (at least in comparison with the West) between men and women, which is patently manifest at night when men roam the streets at a much higher rate than women. Additionally, there is a strong culture of obedience, which I found out when my group and I were told not to walk in file, so as to not give the impression that we were marching in protest..

A typical trade boat in front of the Doha skyline

Doha exemplifies the tendency for globalisation to hybridise cultures across the world. Local cultures are being  fused with foreign ones (especially ones deriving from successful economies) as they become increasingly inundated with their cultural and entertainment products, as well as communications technologies. We don’t have to look at just the Western influence in Doha to witness this either; the local trade boats just outside the city center which have become turned into touristy gondolas are products of the British East India Company era, when Qatar, much like the rest of the Persian Gulf, was dominated by Indian and South Asian trade.

Additionally, Western companies look to adapt their products to suit the local culture in which they sell them to, a trend dubbed, “glocalisation“, which is why Coke and other popular soft drinks have Arabian insignia on them in Qatar. And as developing countries look to modernise, they often pick up the economically successful ideas of already ‘modernised’ countries and give them a local twist. This was evident with all the local pop music I mentioned earlier, which sounded distinctly Arab and/or Indian, although they followed the same sexualised marketing formats as Western pop music.

Al Jazeera headquarters

Al Jazeera headquarters

These anomalies can be demonstrated best in Doha through Al Jazeera. The Qatari media outlet has its headquarters in Doha and is world famous for being one of the first Arab mass media to follow the Western model of being edgy and controversial in pursuit of objectivity (although I’m making a big generalisation here) and for circumventing censorship. It inspired controversy for broadcasting dissenting views criticising negative aspects of Arab politics and culture across the Persian Gulf and being the first Arab outlet to present Israelis speaking Hebrew. Funny thing is, this was all achieved despite being state owned. Al Jazeera has become extremely influential across the world, especially in the West, and has even created a channel suited for Westerners, Al Jazeera English. Yet all the while, it has still retained a distinct Arab voice. It gained international attention for being the first outlet to provide round-the-clock reporting on the War in Afghanistan and for broadcasting videos from Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. It also presented an alternative voice during the Iraq War, when Western media were on the whole quite biased towards the Coalition’s cause.

Where the Global North meets the Global South
IMG_0432Qatar provides another contrast, between advanced prosperity and noticeable poverty. Driving through the outskirts of the city, one can see decrepit buildings and tacky shops and restaurants all around. However, in all parts of the city, there is a massive amount of construction and development occurring, while the city center itself has one of the most modern, futuristic skylines I’ve ever seen. Qatar had the highest GDP per capita in 2010 after the economy grew by a record 19 per cent and has been considered to have the second highest human development in the Arab world, according to the Human Development Index.

Doha's Education City

Doha’s Education City

Talking to the youth constituency at the UN Climate Change Conference, the summit President, Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, mentioned that in 1950, before the country’s national boom, Qatar was massively underdeveloped and its citizens lived in despair thanks to devastating conditions. Subsequently, the Qatari leadership has sought to provide the best conditions possible for the country to offer a better quality of life. Of course, it is obvious even in the country’s capital city that the nation’s transition hasn’t fully been achieved, but it has definitely come a long way. Jobs are now all but guaranteed in Qatar, while college education is free. Qatar is also trying to diversify from a carbon to a knowledge-based economy, and has established six American university branch campuses in Education City, belonging to the Qatar Foundation. Moreover, there is no income tax and all public services are free, including health care which is provided by the government. The country is also on the verge of having its first legislative elections to take place in the middle or late next year. Even still, as I mentioned before there is still a strong culture of obedience, which the regime expects in return for granting rapid development and growth.


Doha’s almost futuristic-looking skyline

Of course, Qatar’s rapid modernisation is mostly thanks to owning the third largest amount of gas reserves in the world, which has created massive foreign interest in Qatari assets. However, the biggest indicator that Qatar has become a crossroads between the Global North and the Global South due to deepened globalisation is that, while Qatar has opened itself up to foreign investment, especially from industrialised states, it has also opened itself up to increased migration from developing countries and expatriates. Subsequently, in its pursuit of turning Doha into a sprawling metropolis, the city has been opened upwards to the Global North and downwards to the Global South, providing for yet another anomaly. The following quotes are excerpts from Christina Paschyn’s article, Qatar: Anatomy of a Globalized State, taken from her blog:

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.

Qatar has found that in order to grow economically and industrially, it has needed to greatly expand its workforce, but in doing this it has exposed a great number of immigrants to grave human rights abuses. The massive influx of immigrants from developing nations in pursuit of money has created the mainspring of different ethnic ghettos and suburbs, making Doha even more of an enigma. Racism and segregation are thus the norm in Doha, and massive human rights abuses occur as the low-skilled foreign laborers are treated almost like slaves. Many of the poorer areas I alluded to earlier are those inhabited mostly by foreign migrates. In this light, Doha is also exposes one of the dark sides to globalisation too.

Where the old meets the new

All throughout Doha, there is a patent juxtaposition between the old and the new. There is a prominence of old buildings, landmarks, customs and traditions, power structures and social and cultural norms, but at the same time new trends are evidently emerging in all of these sectors. As I mentioned earlier, there is a marked contrast between the old and the new cultural and social traditions, while rapid development and modernisation has left a noticeable gap between old, dilapidated buildings and new, modern infrastructure, and has hybridised traditional Arab architecture with a futuristic, “Westernised” style of construction. Deeply entrenched traditional culture and society in Qatar is being affronted by new, unknown forces from the outside such as foreign investment and migration and the cultural influences this is causing.

But the biggest example of globalisation bringing the old closer to the new in Qatar is through the introduction of new ideas and paradigms to the otherwise traditional Qatari society. While all of the things I mentioned throughout this article are examples of this, another main indicator is how Qatar now aims to become the regional hub of international summits and conferences, which is in itself proving to introduce the newest ideas and issue-topics from all across the globe to the country. Summit meetings are a symptom of increased globalisation, as they represent the coming-together of world leaders to discuss specific issues which they all face together; they are thus a symbol of deepened interdependence and institutionalisation  But it is becoming a sign of a country’s budding prosperity and status – both gained through embracing and/or benefiting from the fruits of globalisation – that it is able to host such events, which is why Qatar wishes to do so. It is also a way to foster increased interest – both financial and political – in the host country, as well as increase tourism and further boost the economy. However, as a by-product of this, Qatar is becoming exposed to new ideas, paradigms and global issues.

The Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, where Qatar hosts many of its international summits 

Take the latest UN conference on climate change, for instance. Qatar is world famous – or notorious, depending on your perspective – for its massive oil and gas industries and for being the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, but owing to its desire to host different international summit meetings, the Doha climate conference has introduced to Qatar the global issue of climate change and the ways countries are working to combat it. Qatar is now under the global spotlight concerning how it looks to cut down on emissions and is now examining how it can turn towards sustainable development and renewable energy. Initiatives like this also introduce foreigners like me to the country, helping add to all the new trends in the country I discussed earlier, including increased tourism, foreign interest and entrepreneurialism, ideas exchange and even migration (as conferences themselves necessitate an augmented work-force).

But, like with all the incongruities I demonstrated earlier, all of this increased exposure to new ideas represents further conflict; this time between new and old. Earlier I mentioned how the local population is being intimidated by the modernisation of their country and the new trends it brings with it, due to fears they are disturbing their culture and society, a trend exacerbated by all of the international summits which bring with them more foreigners. But more than this, new ideas and global problems are posing new fears for the locals; climate change is a foreign concern for the oil-rich and carbon-intensive state which has built its longstanding wealth and prosperity, its economic and political power-structures and its domestic lifestyle on its dependency on its resources. Along with climate change, summit-meetings are also introducing other global problems which local  populations need to become accustomed to, such as increasing urbanisation, the depletion of natural resources and the subsequent need to fairly distribute the global commons, regionalism, world trade and others more. These global issues will be discussed in a localised focus at the Arab Future Cities Summint to be held in Doha next year. It will also be extremely interesting how Qatar manages its population and its strict Muslim values when the World Cup comes to town, as it is known for bringing with it soccer fans and their drunken debaucheries from all over the world.


Qatar, and especially its capital, Doha, symbolise the realities of the globalisation process – its benefits, its problems and its inherent flaws and contradictions. On the one hand, we can see the trend of cultures intersecting and becoming hybridised as states open themselves up to foreign investment and migration, both which have been made easier and more readily available through globalisation. From the top-down, we can see a one-way flow of influence from dominant global or regional economic “soft” powers, such as the United States today or British India in the 18th and 19th centuries, towards recipient developing or transitioning economies such as Qatar, due to the latter’s dependence on the former for the provision of technology and investment. From the bottom-up, we can see an influx of migrants from even less developed countries, who are looking for work and higher pay and who Qatar needs to satisfy its labor demands, which itself transforms and diversifies the local cultural landscape and makes it more multicultural. This is a basic model of how transitioning economies benefit from, and are exploited by, the globalisation system. In this sense, globalisation has helped foster diversity, multiculturalism and economic interdependence.

We can also see the ability of globalisation to speed up development and the modernisation process, as a result of increased foreign investment and the introduction of new, innovative ideas through an increased desire to be competitive on the international scene (which in Qatar manifests itself through the desire to host international summits).These in turn allow for economic, technological and normative advancements. Of course, it goes without saying that foreign investment isn’t necessarily a product of globalisation; in this respect, it helps to have massive oil and gas reserves, or large amounts of natural resources or other national assets, to begin with to attract foreign interest. But Doha shows that foreign investment is a primary driver of globalisation, as Qatar manged to ride the wave of globalisation through its ability to attract it. (It’s interesting to note that the thing which seems to be breaking down borders and bringing people closer together is the pursuit of capital, which is also the very thing which creates inequalities and other divisions in society.)

But Doha’s example also portrays how receptor cultures struggle to accept the immediate onslaught of foreign influence. This can be seen through the reluctance of Qatari locals to accept modernisation at the expense of their traditional Muslim values, or through the maltreatment of immigrants and the massive human rights abuses that this entails. When cultures appear to be “infiltrated” from the outside by foreign forces, this can result in conflict, which sometimes manifests itself as racism or xenophobia or a mere disdain at the thought of being influenced by “others”. Moreover, the introduction of new ideas, new paradigms, new ways of life and philosophies, have the effect of intimidating local cultures, especially if these are of a global scale of significance. And this isn’t unique to Qatar either; it isn’t even unique to the developing world. Even in Australia these trends exist.

So my trip to Qatar had the effect of putting into perspective all of the things I had been studying over the last three years. But as this is my first encounter with Qatar and I’m still in the process of learning about these issues, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong or sound ignorant about anything I’ve said.

2 responses to “My journey to the center of the earth

  1. Very well written Matteo! Couldn’t agree more.

    15% population of Qataris is shocking. The state felt wholly superficial – wonder if the current model can last. As long as they have their oil revenue, it very well might. In a way, they are exercising the “invisible iron fist”, providing the actual citizens with all they need and refusing to grant anyone else citizenship, but still placating foreign workers with higher wages than at home.

    There are also very interesting deviations from the dictatorial norm, like Al Jazeera, as you mention. I feel due to these and the generally fictitious feeling the whole country inspires, with its glass-clad skyscrapers and forests of construction cranes, it is hard to grasp what Qatar really is. It is probably in the midst of transition and we shall have to wait and see to ascertain where it actually ends up.

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