I was in Qatar last month, just a few days after they won the 2022 World Cup bid and I wrote this letter for the Indian magazine Caravan. Here's a bit of it:
Part of the strangeness of Qatar at the moment is that it can apparently afford anything. The country’s GDP is over 100 billion dollars—more than 330,000 dollars per year for each of Qatar’s 300,000 citizens, who remain a minority in their own country, outnumbered by more than a million foreigners (whether well-paid Western consultants or low-wage labourers from the subcontinent and East Asia).
The public face of the new Qatar is Sheikha Mozah, the second of the amir’s four wives, and the only one ever seen in public. I was at a gala dinner she attended and when she stood up half the room did too, to take her picture with their cell phones. She has a dramatic, feline beauty; regal bearing; a killer wardrobe; and fluent English. The Sheikha oversees the Qatar Foundation, which undertakes a staggering array of philanthropic, cultural, scientific and educational initiatives. They’ve launched an English-Arabic publishing house; funded medical and scientific research; created a renowned regional literary competition; and assembled a world-class Qatar Philarmonic Orchestra. And to educate 1,000 or so Qatari students, the foundation has enticed six top American universities to open branch campuses here.
Other attempts to brand Qatar as an intellectual hub in the Persian Gulf haven’t fared so well. The project of setting up a Center for Media Freedom in Doha, for example, floundered. Robert Menard, a veteran journalists’ rights advocate, resigned last year, saying “certain Qatari officials never wanted an independent Centre…one that was free to criticise Qatar itself.”