Saturday, May 02, 2009

Doha Rising

That small population coupled with the large natural gas profits explains why the country has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Despite the huge cash reserves Doha is sitting on, it has resisted the urge to build the biggest, shiniest and best, instead developing slightly less ostentatious projects.

In the summer of 2005 a young Qatari began an internship at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in New York. A graduate of Duke University, where she earned a degree in political science and literature, she returned to Qatar at the end of the summer-long intensive film course.

When she went back to Doha, she called Tribeca and made a unique request: would the Tribeca Film Festival consider moving outside of its New York home for a year?

The former student, the daughter of Qatar’s ruler Shaikh Al Thani had attended the institute under a different name, not wanting to draw undue attention. Her attempts at persuasion were successful: the first Tribeca Film Festival outside of New York will take place in Doha this November.

The story is popular among expatriates in Qatar who cite it is typical of the way the country has emerged in the past decade. Eschewing the tactics of other Gulf countries, the tiny resource-rich state has slowly but surely edged its way onto the world stage.

The tactics seem to have worked: Qatar has very quickly become a global media darling. Brands such as W Hotel and the Hyatt have recently opened hotels while The New York Times declared it its ‘Cultural Destination of the Year’ in 2008. Qatar even created a Philharmonic Orchestra from scratch, putting it on the classical music world stage.

Qatar’s rising profile was set in motion more than a decade ago, when a royal son deposed his father. In 1995, the country’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, was on one of his increasingly long holidays in Switzerland. His eldest son, Crown Prince Hamad, had been worried that his father’s ever more arbitrary decisions would affect his own succession to the throne. While his father was away, he acted, declaring himself the new Emir on June 27.

The ousted emir went on a tour of the Gulf, publicly disowning his son and launched a failed counter-coup in February 1996. The new emir then froze his father’s assets, which all but ended his attempts to get back to power. The deposed father lived in exile in France until he returned to Qatar in 2004, long after the younger Al Thani began the process of modernising the country.

Jutting into the Arabian Gulf and cosseted between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s a wonder the country has managed to succeed at all.

Yet if geography has done the country no favours, geology has: the world’s largest gas field was discovered off the Qatari coast and the country now has a third of the world’s natural gas reserves (only Russia and Iran have more).

When Hamad took power at 44 he was the youngest ruler in the Gulf. He surrounded himself with western educated technocrats, open to the possibilities that the newfound natural gas money provided. Looking back it was these two factors that have contributed most to Qatar’s global prominence: a young leader who more importantly was open to new ideas, and a huge supply of natural resources.

His father believed that those resources should not propel the country ahead of its neighbours; that it would be better served staying at the same level as the other Gulf States.

Al Thani has said that Qatar should be “known and noticed”. That it is, and not just in terms of a re-channeling of resources. As Hugh Miles noted in his book Al-Jazeera, the Qataris have also emerged as a player in regional affairs.

“Qatar has an ambitious foreign policy that can be summed up as trying to get along with everyone. It has had controversial ties with America, Israel, Iraq and Iran all at the same time, it has welcomed exiled Hamas leaders, given asylum to Saddam Hussein’s wife, received visits from high-level Al Qaeda members (before 9/11) and sheltered a Chechen Islamic leader wanted by the Russians. It practices a delicate balancing act that seems to have worked - so far.”

If any one institution reflects the changes in Qatar, it is the news network Al-Jazeera. Set up in 1996 with a $150 million grant from the new Emir, the station put Qatar on the world map, dramatically changing the Arab media landscape.

It exposed the state-run news channels that exist throughout the region as empty Government mouthpieces, and won plaudits within and outside the region for the quality of its coverage. It was the first Arab channel to broadcast Israeli military spokesmen and it has riled almost every Middle East state with its - for the region, at least - controversial reporting.

In 1999 several Algerian cities, including the capital Algiers, lost power simultaneously, reportedly due to the Al-Jazeera broadcast of a programme in which Algerian dissidents implicated the military in a series of massacres, one of a string of incidents which infuriated Arab regimes. If Al Thani wanted Qatar to get noticed, he had succeeded.

Yet the changes he brought were as much internal as external. While other Gulf States looked to become business hubs, Qatar has focused on other areas, notably education.

When the Emir drew up the new constitution, the president of the University of Qatar - not a politician - headed up the committee tasked with outlining the document. He had final say over the ministers on the committee, probably the first time in the region an academic held sway over a minister when it came to a constitutional decision.

The Emir’s wife, Sheika Moser bint Nasser Al Misned has spearheaded the country’s educational push, chairing the mammoth Qatar Foundation, a network of campuses, research centres and development bodies set up to develop Qatar’s ‘knowledge economy’ and promote higher learning.

Sheikha Moser, the only one of the Emir’s three wives to be seen in public, is hugely popular with the Qatari people and has garnered much positive media attention since her first public appearance on the US news show 60 Minutes in 2003. The airing gained the country plaudits and had commentators in the west holding up Qatar as an ideal example of a progressive, liberal Arab state.

Yet Doha is not that impressive at first glance. It could be anywhere in the Gulf, a mish-mash of bland villas, imported SUVs and highways. While the skyline has changed dramatically in recent years thanks to the soaring West Bay development, Doha is spread out and faces a tepid bay. The city is quite small, with a population of less than 350,000.

That small population coupled with the large natural gas profits explains why the country has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Despite the huge cash reserves Doha is sitting on, it has resisted the urge to build the biggest, shiniest and best, instead developing slightly less ostentatious projects.

This is why Qatar has avoided the media attacks Dubai has suffered recently, according to Laura Demasi, the trends and strategy director of The Cool Hunter, a brand consultancy. “Qatar seems to have put a lot of thought into what kind of ‘product’ it wants to be and is taking it more slowly, which absolutely crucial. You can plan and strategise all you like but a certain amount of organic development has to occur.

“This is what gives a city its authenticity. You think of the great cities of the world, they developed over a long period of time and much of that development was organic.”

This much can be seen from Doha’s signature developments: they are all small and unassuming. In the heart of the city lies Souq Waqif, a refurbished market that saw the neon and metal replaced with wood and brick. It is still a working market, but with the cobblestone streets and airy courtyards it is a world away from the claustrophobic souqs that dot the rest of the region.

In the centre of the souq lies the Waqif Art Centre, a restored traditional town house, which contains The Third Line Gallery, a sister property to the Dubai branch.

Opening in Doha was a natural step for the Dubai-based gallery as it looked to expand in the region, manager Claudia Cellini explained.

“Doha’s cultural dynamic is evident in their financial, urban and social growth. In Dubai there is more of an established market with a number of commercial galleries and collectors, but it won’t be long before this starts happening in Doha. The city is growing in terms of social and artistic culture and we wanted to place ourselves within the larger context of what is happening and be a part of the progression.”

Cellini believes that this progression will result in Doha becoming a cultural hub of the region. “Definitely. It is the Emir’s vision to establish Qatar as a global, cultural hub”. Not just the Emir’s vision; his daughter’s too. Sheikha Al Massaya is still in her mid-twenties, but already she has become an integral part of the country’s artistic push.”

Sheikha Al Massaya, the former Tribeca intern, is the reason that Robert De Niro was present at the big event of last year: the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art.

The IM Pei-designed building is home to the largest collection of Islamic Art in the world, and its understated grandeur reflects the country’s vision of itself. Doha faces stiff competition in region, not least from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But as far as many of the world media are concerned, Qatar has already won the crown.

The New York Times called Doha ‘the cultural destination of the year’, lavishing praise on its urban developments and feting the Emir’s vision. The Museum has already seen 170,000 visitors, according to its director, Dr Oliver Watson.

He sees the Museum as a standard bearer for “all projects to follow, both in Qatar and elsewhere.” Whether this is just hyperbole remains to be seen, but the Museum has put the country’s cultural scene in the spotlight. The next major addition to the city’s skyline will be the annex to the National of Musuem of Qatar, currently being designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. While the quantity of flagship projects might not eclipse Abu Dhabi, the Museum of Islamic Art has the largest collection of Islamic art in the world.

Still yet to come is Arata Isozaki’s National Library which will also contain the Contemporary Art Museum and the Museum of Science and Natural History, part of the $150 billion the Emir has reportedly spent reinventing its capital.

Yet the country’s rising profile has seen it put under the spotlight, a position Dubai knows only too well. A recent BBC report critiqued the country’s lack of openness, while others have noted that while the likes of Al-Jazeera and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom are more than willing to criticise other Arab regimes, they have not attacked the policies of the Emir. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranked Qatar 74 out of 173 countries, behind other Gulf countries such as the UAE and Kuwait.

Former Presidential canididate John Kerry criticised Qatar on a trip to the region earlier this month claiming that “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.”

The country’s defenders point out that the real modernisation of the country only started taking place in the mid-nineties, and it’s unrealistic to expect too much change in such a short time.

Some believe trying to change any faster will only end in tears. “Qatar is not trying too hard,” says the branding consultant Demasi.

“Certainly it has the wealth to create the biggest/tallest/longest of anything it wants but it knows it doesn’t have to do that to be noticed and valued.”

Whether Qatar can continue on its modernising path without hiccups remains to be seen, and, as the UAE knows, the more successful you become, the easier it is to be targeted. And the country, despite its huge resources, has not been immune from the global financial crisis. Figures released this week revealed that property prices for some projects in Doha had fallen by up to 70 per cent since September.

Qatar can expect increased scrutiny in the coming years on its labour laws, human rights record and on the role of the Emir itself. For now though the country is basking in the knowledge that its huge natural resources will protect it from the worst of the global recession. Whether its resources can isolate it from its neighbours’ criticisms remains to be seen.

Egypt for one, is known to be dismissive of the country’s attempts to become a regional mediator, despite the fact that Qatar did what the UN couldn’t: negotiate a resolution among fighting Lebanese factions.

Wandering around Doha, it seems that Egypt and the rest of the Middle East are missing the point. Qatar has pinpointed its strengths, and unlike most countries in the region, has adeptly exploited them. Brand Qatar is in rude health.

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