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David Roth | May 16, 2014

Qatar Chronicles

The Qatar ChroniclesA 5-part series from David Roth
Part I, Destination Everywhere David Roth

Can a nation also be an international luxury brand? And what kind of country would that make it, anyway?

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Part I, Destination Everywhere David Roth

The defining thing about airports is that no one really wants to be there. Everyone in every airport would rather be somewhere else, someplace more like home, and preferably soon. This goes for all the people selling denatured food to people who don't much want to eat it; all the travelers who would just as soon be wherever they're going; the tired-eyed gripe-magnets overseeing security; the wan salespeople in the Duty Free grimly spritzing cologne on scowling Russians.

Airports' international terminals are mostly the same sort of non-place. That place is an expensive one. It is a world Free of Duty, but also inhabited and ruled by the sullen and uncompromising familiarity of global luxury brands. Those can be found in the Duty Free stores, not so much being sold as announcing to travelers coming or going what kind of place they're moving through -- a world merciless and seamless and innocent of discount, recognizable and ubiquitous and familiar in the least-comforting ways.

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Part II, Buying a Masterpiece David Roth

Qatar will spend billions on the 2022 World Cup, and is already spending billions on contemporary art masterworks. It's all part of the same strategy, but some things can't be bought.

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Part II, Buying a Masterpiece David Roth

On the first bleary trip into the city, in a cab that sped me along the Corniche to what turned out to be the wrong hotel, the cheerful-seeming cabbie pointed out various things. There on the left, watched over by no fewer than 11 towering construction cranes, was the glass-clad desert rose of the Qatar National Museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, half-bloomed already and open sometime in 2014. Then on the right: the Museum of Islamic Art, lit by searing spotlights planted on green lawn. And near that, a massive box that seems to be wearing the signature multicolored dots of... wow, no, that really is a giant exhibition of the British artist Damien Hirst, in the Al Riwaq exhibition hall.

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Part III, Only for the rich David Roth

Doha is a city rapidly at work in remaking and re-imagining itself. It's tough to know what it will be, and who it will be for, when it's finished.

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Part III, Only for the rich David Roth

I will be honest: I was going to give Abbas some money even before he sort of saved my life. He was the first person I'd spoken to in something like five hours, I believed his tale of woe, and he seemed like a nice enough dude. Also, like most people, I'm a soft touch for Canadians.

More than that, though, it was too easy, after wandering the shimmering, towering, skronkingly loud and somehow also shockingly desolate construction zone of Doha's West Bay, to imagine Abbas just walking those blocks forever, waiting in vain to see another pedestrian. It was easier still to imagine him walking home later that night, still sick in the gut and broke as a joke, the traffic bright and blazing and close for all seven miles along the Corniche.

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Part IV, They wanted it more David Roth

Why is Qatar willing to risk and spend so much to bring the World Cup to the Arabian peninsula? It's complicated, but it's not just about the soccer.

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Part IV, They wanted it more David Roth

Well, it's complicated. Just because it's FIFA and it's the World Cup and so of course it's complicated. But a short version I guess would be that FIFA is FIFA, which is to say it's this sort of smuggo mafia of puffy, predatory globo-elite males in suits, all of them dedicated to extracting some sort of rent from the world's totally helpless and justified love for soccer. And FIFA being FIFA, it has all these wildly un-transparent internal processes -- everything done by design in secret, endless dodgy handshake deals between men whose handshakes are mostly worthless -- that seem almost to incent lawlessness.

And so the result of this is that the very fact that the World Cup is awarded in the way that it is, by the people that award it, creates this ambient sense of corruption. It's just very difficult to imagine this bunch of crooks using the system they built to make a reasonable decision for the right reasons. And this is true even if they make the right decision!

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Part V, On their own terms David Roth

The busiest single malt scotch salesman in Doha, and other curiosities of a nation that insists on doing things its own way, for better or for worse.

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Part V, on their own terms David Roth

To arrive in Doha is to walk into the airport of a vanished nation. The arrivals terminal can be reached only after a long bus ride through a sprawling tarmac-and-sand moonscape. At one point, the bus will pass other buses on a four-lane road on which only airport vehicles drive.

This was the first of several times during my visit to Qatar that I was reminded, incongruously, of the scrubby, sweltering strip mall goofscape of Southern California's desert nowheres. There are similar rectangular storage facilities for living, similar oafish two-story highwayside retail, a similar Gaussian distribution of your shittier fast food franchises. I counted three Hardee's, three Pizza Huts, two KFCs, a Popeye's and a Ponderosa Steakhouse. In the wide spaces between and around all the gloss and new marble, there is a shockingly large amount of Riverside in Doha.

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Design Josh LainczProducer Brian Floyd

About the Author

David_roth_headshot__1_

David Roth is a columnist for SBNation.com and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.

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