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Qatar: When The World's Richest Country Has An Identity Crisis

A mix of rapid reform, incalculable wealth and a pious Islamic tradition leaves the Gulf emirate sorting out an uncertain future.

Walking away from the
Walking away from the
Benjamin Barthe

DOHA - On either side of the wide bridge leading into The Pearl, there is a Rolls-Royce dealership on the right, and a Ferrari dealer on the left. The scene leaves little doubt about the level of economic prosperity in this corner of Doha. Built on an artificial island in the north of Qatar's capital, with its villas and private beaches, 50-story palaces and marinas for pashas, The Pearl - or the "Arabian Riviera," as its promoters call it - is the latest real-estate folly in the wealthy emirate.

But since the sale of alcohol was banned at the end of December 2011, a good number of The Pearl's residents have lost their enthusiasm. The managers of upscale restaurants adjacent to the world's best-known couture boutiques and Western jewelers are complaining of a 50% drop in turnover.

"When we heard the news, we thought it was the end," said a server at the Mango Tree, a Thai restaurant where alcohol bottles that used to line the shelves above the bar have been replaced by rows of water decanters. Foreigners would flock on the weekends to the terraces of this wealthy enclave, but have now relocated to the hotels of West Bay, the business district of Doha, where the alcohol still flows. "No one comes now, we're dying of boredom here," said the owner of a café kiosk in The Pearl.

The order to ban alcohol came from the United Development Company, the engine that essentially runs the Qatari economy, of which The Pearl is the flagship. Digging a little deeper, it appears that a member of the ruling al-Thani family is likely behind the prohibition. One source describes alcohol-soaked evenings outdoors, a view that would be considered offensive by many Qataris strolling by.

Speculating on reasons for the ban, another source speaks of the need to polish the image of the emirate during the Pan-Arab Games held in Doha last December. A third person suggests a public relations strategy by the ruling family one year ahead of the country's first legislative elections.

Without an official explanation, foreign investors are placing their bets on a temporary tightening up of laws. They would like to believe that once restricted to restaurants, the consumption of alcohol will be allowed once again across the island's four square kilometers.

The pork polemic

But the alcohol episode has not concluded, as it is symptomatic of the tensions at work in Qatar, a society steeped in religious conservatism in the face of ultra-modernism, of which Doha is the epitome. "Qataris hold on to a strong traditional background," a French expatriate observes. "They are not as liberal as their leaders."

The case of The Pearl also illustrates the growing pains in a country of which 80% of its 1.7 million residents is expatriate – primarily Indians, Filipinos, Nepalese and Pakistanis. Together they represent the hands that physically built the Qatari miracle. It was with them in mind that the QDC company (a subsidiary of Qatar Airways) decided around Christmas last year to introduce pork in its supermarkets. It was a first – one that shocked the blogosphere and social media sites, already heating up over the presence of alcohol on the national airline.

"I never thought that one day I would find myself having to ask a server in a restaurant what kind of meat they put in their hamburgers," one Qatari tweeted at the end of last November. "It's not just about pork, it's about the fact that we are feeling more and more a minority in our own country," a second Qatari wrote on Twitter.

Still, this sentiment, primarily expressed on social networking sites, is far from posing a threat to the power of Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. Some months after having secured Qatar as the host for the World Cup in 2022, and having promised that alcohol consumption will be allowed in the stadiums during the tournament, the emir also inaugurated with no apparent sense of irony a new mosque in Doha in honor of Abdul Wahhab, the Saudi founder of Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam that is deeply rooted in Qatar.

"This is the great divide - but for now, the emir is keeping the situation under control," says a foreign diplomat.

The Card Players, a Cezanne painting recently acquired by Doha, is the latest example to date of this schizophrenia. On the table, behind the two players, is what appears to be a bottle of alcohol.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - isapisa

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