Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Tomorrowland

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on June 3, 2009

If Qatar were a guy, instead of an emirate slightly smaller than Connecticut, he would be a bachelor who watched a ton of sci-fi movies then hit the lotto for jackpot. And if Doha were a district in Walt Disney World, instead of the emirate’s capital city, it would be Tomorrowland. In the heart of the city, the buildings are tall and – like everything else – impeccably shiny. And just off the edge of the island, a combination of futuristic architecture and neutral desert tones makes for a decent life-size replica of Tatouin.

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Qatar is nothing like the first two Middle Eastern countries we visited; it’s part of the elite gulf fraternity.

With the discovery of vast natural gas and oil reserves in the mid-20th century, Qatar transformed from a sandy appendage off Saudi Arabia to a bastion of highly-concentrated wealth and prestige. Now, it boasts the second highest GDP in the world. Last year, while the majority of the international community was reeling from the recession, Qatar reported another budget surplus.

In practical terms, that means Qataris generally lead plush lives without the friction of financial stress that’s hijacked everyone else, everywhere. So much so, there’s no guarantee you’ll meet a single indigenous Qatari while walking down the street. Instead, immigrants fill shops, restaurants, hotels, airlines and cabs to serve a population of plutocratic gulfies in crisply pressed gellabiyas.

Walking down the street, I get the impression that Doha can’t keep pace with its fortune. Almost the entire city is under construction, and finished buildings predict an aesthetic that, when completed, might betray the city planner’s unhinged obsession with Philip K. Dick.

Despite a gorgeous skyline, friendly people and five-star everything, Doha has something else in common with Disney World (sorry! Talk about unhinged obsessions): It’s a little like the landscapes that line the streets in MGM. From a distance, they seem three-dimensional and lively, but up close, they’re cardboard cutouts staggered to create an optical illusion of depth. Sure, everything here looks just as grand up close as it does from a distance, but on the ground, the city lacks the sort of things – like cafes, character and sidewalks – that drew us into Cairo and Damascus.

I’m not necessarily complaining. Every time I walk through the hotel’s front doors, it’s like I’m boarding a spaceship. In one of the elevators, the entire back wall is a Miro painting coated in resin or something. We have kitchenettes, a complimentary water and fruit supply that’s replenished every morning, panoramic bedroom windows that overlook the city and a hot tub and a sauna. I guess, in general, the trappings of life in Qatar match the trappings of life in the West, if you were doing pretty well for yourself. So it’s comfortable and cushy.

But it’s gratuitous. And I wonder if the gulf states feel any sense of responsibility for their inland siblings, hamstrung by poverty. Not necessarily the governments, but the people. If not, they should. For one thing, the ratio of people to money is totally disproportionate. And the socioeconomic contrast between Doha and Damascus, or, more pointedly, Doha and Cairo, is unreal. One glimpse out the window is proof enough: The cars zipping down the street were produced in the past couple of years, not at least five decades ago.

Which is just one minor detail in a much greater division: In some ways, time has forgotten Cairo and Damascus, while Doha is racing toward the future faster than its carpenters can lay down the titanium bricks.

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