Sun, Sep 30, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Qatar’s modern future rubs up against conservative traditions

The Gulf state’s rapid economic growth worries social conservatives, but, unlike Dubai, it is not reliant on mass market tourism, focusing instead on turning the country into a cultural and convention hub

By Regan Doherty  /  Reuters, DOHA

Construction cranes and bulldozers operate at a real-estate construction site being built by Qatar’s Lucille properties in Doha on Tuesday.

Photo: Reuters

Qatar is spending massively to modernize its capital ahead of the 2022 World Cup, leading conservative Qataris to worry about how this will affect the Islamic nature of the Gulf state.

Trucks can be seen speeding around Doha’s business district, carrying building materials for the US$150 billion makeover that will give the city a new metro, airport, seaport and roads.

In the busy years leading up to the soccer tournament, Doha will see an influx of foreign companies, professionals and workers. With them will come a fresh flood of foreign cultures and lifestyles, and that is causing concern.

“This is the real challenge for us: to maintain our culture while building the country we will become,” said 33-year-old Abdulrahman, who like other Qatari citizens prefers to be identified only by his first name.

Exploiting its immense natural gas resources has in just over 15 years transformed Qatar into one of the world’s wealthiest nations, with a per capita annual income for its 250,000 citizens of more than US$90,000.

Though led by a ruling family viewed as highly progressive by Gulf standards, the fact remains that most Qataris are very conservative. Most practice Wahhabism, the austere form of Islam also practiced in Saudi Arabia.

For them, concern that Western norms will start to infiltrate society is a continuous and pressing reality, especially given the fact that they are an extreme minority in their own country, which is home to about 1.7 million people, many of them workers from South Asia.

“We welcome the expats, and we want them here, but we will not permit any disrespect to our religion or culture,” said Salma, a 25-year-old Qatari.

“This is your home, for now, but it is our home forever, and we will not bend to your ways,” Salma said.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, 60, seized power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. He and his second wife, Sheikha Mozah, have gained a reputation as modernizers in recent years and raised the country’s profile significantly with the launch of the al-Jazeera television network and successful hosting of the 2006 Asian Games, as well as their role in initiating the country’s World Cup bid.

The street protests that swept four Arab heads of state from office since early last year and strengthened Islamists throughout the Middle East have not been seen in Qatar, thanks partly to its staggering wealth, but also to its foreign policy: Because Qatar aggressively aided the Libyan rebels, its government is seen as on the “right side” of the Arab Spring.

However, the government cannot ignore the fact that much of the Qatari population may be resistant to the changes brought by rapid expansion.

“It’s a very delicate line they must balance, but the one thing the government cannot do is appear un-Islamic. It’s game over if they do,” said an analyst specializing in security issues, who like other analysts not named in this article asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the topic.

So far, the policy has been working.

“The pace of economic expansion in Qatar over the last decade is almost without precedent. It is remarkable that the traditionally conservative society has handled these changes as well as it has,” a Doha-based economist said.

Efforts to combat the perceived creep of Western influence have already started. Earlier this year, Qatar University made it mandatory for many of its courses to be taught in Arabic instead of English.

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