After 15 hours and two flights, the tour arrived in Doha the first country for the trip and the worlds richest nation per capita. Going into Qatar I didn’t know what to expect, on one hand, I knew how wealthy the nation was, being the 9th largest national wealth fund in the world and, as already stated, the largest GDP (PPP) per capita in the world sitting at an incredible $124,927. On the other hand, however western media, comedy, reporting, and information regarding the 2022 FIFA world cup painted a picture of Qatar as a woefully under-equipped, a country that had no way of hosting an event that required a modern infrastructure and systems to host. Ultimately this resulted in an assumption that acknowledged both points, first that it was undeniably a rich nation but also, that it was not using that wealth to actually progress and develop the country as a whole. Put simply, this assumption might have been true at one point in the past, but during our time in Qatar, it was clear that this was no longer the case.
What does it mean to be a democratic nation? Is a country democratic simply because they have a democratically elected government, can a non-elected leadership be democratic? These were the questions raised by Qatar because what we found in Qatar challenged the idea that democratic ideals cannot be found in government systems that aren’t democracies. Strictly speaking, Qatar is a monarchy, with the Al Thani family currently in power, despite this Qatar still holds a number of elections. At the present time, Qatari citizens are able to vote in municipal elections, this is planned to be extended to a general election giving the ability to vote in Qatar’s first legislative election. This vote was planned to take place at first in 2013 before being delayed first until 2016 and then finally 2019. I cover this point in order to set the stage for the current state of Qatar’s democracy because upon hearing this you might assume that Qataris would be upset, that they would be angry at the ruling family for delaying their ability to take part in the politics of their nation. Much to my surprise and the surprise of many on the tour, this was not true.
Many in the group had the opportunity to speak with a number of locals whilst in the country, this included students during out time at education city, cab drivers during our time traveling from location to location, educators at the Islamic Cultural Centre, and a representative from Al Jazeera. In fact one of the most surprising conversations took place with a cab driver that we had the chance to speak to on the topic, he made it clear that he didn’t have a problem with the elections not taking place at all, speaking instead about his trust of the royal family. These reactions and conversations seemed to go against assumptions that many in the west make, that democracy is a universally wanted idea. With this in mind then the question must be asked, why is it that locals aren’t fazed by the lack of democratic systems?
The response we found seemed at first, simple, personally I didn’t believe it could be the case, but after hearing it explained again and again by locals it was undeniable, the reason locals didn’t have a problem with the lack of democratic institutions, because they were happy, and felt as if the ruling family was acting with the best interests of the people. It was this point that brought up the question first asked in this post, “What does it mean to be a democratic nation?”. If the people are listened to if their concerns are understood and responded too if people are happy and feel as if decisions are made with their best interests in mind does that nation need the systems and intuitions found within western democracies? Now, this is not a sweeping declaration that democratic systems are not needed, nor is it a broad statement that there is nothing wrong in Qatar. What it is, however, is an example of how the assumption made in the west, that there is only one way for a government to recognize the will of the people is wrong.
Modernise not Westernise, we heard it time and time again whilst in Qatar. It was explained to us first during our time at the Islamic Cultural Centre and then again at Education city during our lectures with Prof Emad El-Din Shahin and Prof Louay Safi. It is a concept that seems to define how the country is moving forward, seeking to pave its own way rather than adopt systems and ideas from the west.
First things first, however, technologically Qatar is world leading thanks to its incredible wealth. Having already begun the role out of the worlds first commercial 5G network, Qatar is at the forefront of internet technology. Thanks to its newly built state of the art hospitals and rehabilitation centres Qatar is setting itself up to be the health hub for the Gulf region. In terms of renewable energy, after a call for a renewables policy in 2017 Qatar is on track to add solar power into its network that was once solely reliant on gas. Long story short Qatar is a modern nation technologically, it’s not modernising, it’s not developing. But as stated in the definitions technology is not the only thing needed to modernise, other steps need to be taken too.
While it would be easy to damn Qatar for decisions made regarding the rights of women, the LGBT community, or the freedom of expression due to being a Muslim nation, the reality is that in some areas Qatar is exactly as problematic as many western nations that claim to be modern. Firstly, in the area of freedom of expression Qatar is a mixed bag, on our trip we didn’t run in to any situation that would demonstrate restrictions on what people can or cannot say, locals were open and in some cases more than happy to talk about their opinions regarding issues as simple as day to day life all the way up to the Amir, moreover one of the most respected news organisations in the world, Al Jazeera, exists within Qatar. And yet, it is also a nation that has handed down life sentences to critics of the royal family, on charges of “Insulting the Amir”. Beyond that Qatar struggles with the same gender equality that the rest of the world faces with pay, interestingly however Qatar does have equal representation in the workforce, with the current statistics showing that 51% of the workforce is female.
Qatar’s architecture was unexpected, undeniably beautiful in the mesh of both classical Islamic and modern styles but still questionably strange. It took some time for me to figure out why looking across the skyline of Doha seemed just slightly unnerving, The rest of the city didn’t create this feeling, the Souq, despite its recent construction was an example of the beauty of Islamic design, and yet the skyline. In the end, it hit me, however, the reason that Doha’s CBD seemed so strange, it wasn’t completely western. While this is one of those statements you respond with ‘well obviously, you aren’t in the west’, it was easy to forget standing in such a rich country that things would be different, that the design mentality, that the colours used, that the common concrete, steel, and glass that on some level we are all accustomed to seeing doesn’t have to be how every skyline looks. An example of these differences, just one of the ones mentioned, is the colours. Where in Australia you would see the cool blues and whites of finished concrete, that common dark steel finished with the sheets of glass, in Doha buildings, were dominated by more yellows, warmer tones that in the yellow rather than white artificial light would turn gold. In the CBD designs weren’t so straight forward, the classic rectangular skyscrapers were not the norm, instead triangles, curves, ovals dominated the city. Whereas in Brisbane these individual shapes would be unique in Doha they were the norm creating a varied and interesting demonstration that while this was indeed a modern city, it didn’t need to and in fact had no reason to, follow the design mentalities that dominate western cities.