David Roth traveled to Qatar for a closer look at the World Cup's future home. Below is the third installment of his five-part series.
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.
But he grabbed my shirt and so prevented me from chest-bumping a white Range Rover that was suddenly hauling tinted-window ass around a blind corner. The corner had been blinded by a banner depicting the tower that would rise there, whenever but probably soon. Work was happening above us in that tower, the intermittent flares of welders working 20 stories up sparking through the open floors and off the raw ceilings like practical lightning. I could not see this from where I was standing, of course. I saw all that later, when I was once again impossibly lost and realized that I was standing across a wide and buzzing avenue from the same building, and that its upper extremities were alive with work.
Anyway, we watched the Range Rover that didn't hit me as it elbowed into the loud traffic; another nearly identical SUV followed hard behind and did the same. It is possible that they were racing. It says something about how people drive in Doha that it's tough to know for sure.
I know that I saw other cars that definitely were racing. Two black Corvettes, identical, roaring after each other; a pair of motorcyclists, gone loudly and in an instant. Always, there were drivers who were not so much racing each other as racing the inevitable consequence of their own ultra-aggressive driving. In retrospect, I guess this was Doha's inner life playing out in swerving real time -- a city going in its various directions, the million stories in any city, all of them in this case pure 2 Fast 2 Furious fan fiction. At the moment, though, small and isolated as we were on an unfinished sidewalk, it just sucked.
I was out of sorts when I bumped into Abbas, both of us walking down a semi-alley between an unfinished convention center -- a shift of jumpsuited workers were arriving on white buses, incongruously bouncy Bollywood filmi songs bumping from the stereos, the men's faces mustachioed and blank in the windows -- and the sprawling City Center Mall.
I was, again, facing the eight harrowing lanes of Omar Al Mukhtar Street.
This was the third or thousandth time I'd hit this particular howlingly lively dead end. There was construction dust and concrete barriers and thrumming traffic and blinding sodium lights illuminating a trench that, another of those ubiquitous signs noted, would eventually become the track for Doha's planned metro system. What it meant was that I would have to once again switch back across the ass end of some other construction site or parking lot, and then do all this over again. And then, after enough consecutive right turns up and over rubble-strewn lots, I'd somehow find myself having to cross these lanes one more time. If you've been lost in a strange city, you know this feeling. The strange part was that I was, for most of the time I was lost, utterly alone on the sidewalks.
"Look at these people," Abbas said as the Range Rovers chased each other off, his voice chopping high in the same chirping register it had occupied for the last few minutes. "Look at how they drive. They don't care about nobody." Which is not fair, exactly, and also: "these people." But it had been a long day.
It was now dark in the West Bay, although the construction sites, which were everywhere, provided little bursts of scorching light and activity. I had been more or less lost -- first without a sense of where to go, and then without a sense of where I was -- for most of the day. I was prepared to accept Abbas' exhausted assertion that nobody cared about nobody, that this whole city was a terrible stupid cruel tasteless prank, a cruel and crass neoliberal gouge-scape, its architecturally distinguished skyscrapers a Potemkin fraud, each an elegant and bejeweled and jutting middle finger at the idea of a city as a place where people might live.
Also I had accepted that we would never get home. Or that we would, Abbas and I, finally somehow walk home, running out of sidewalk here and there as you do in Doha and so scrabbling up rocky moraines or darting out of traffic or being forced into the more dangerous realms of Extreme Jaywalking. Both of us doing that for something like seven miles, both of us hungry and cursing the city and meaning it, but only I being able to go home.
One alternative that occurred to me was to give Abbas cab fare -- it wasn't that much -- and to walk until I either figured it out or gave up. I could have paid for my own cab, too, of course, if I could find one. I was not thinking right. "Only for the rich," Abbas was saying, the shiny SUVs rushing by in the new dark, weaving, honking at each other but not really bothering with us, two poor idiots trying to walk through a neighborhood that didn't exist yet.
In all the time I spent walking around Qatar looking western and lost and so probably pretty vulnerable, Abbas was the only person to ask me for money. Even in the souk, where ordinarily merchants would be demanding that I touch or try on or sample or smell whatever they were selling, the mood was oddly sedate. One man wiped some strange chartreuse root-derived essential oil on my hand without quite asking me if he could, but he also said both please and thank you. There are no beggars in Qatar in part because there are virtually no unemployed people in Qatar -- the unemployment rate as of June 2013 was an astonishing 0.1 percent.
There are no beggars in Qatar in part because there are virtually no unemployed people in Qatar.
This is very much by design. People like Abbas -- a Canadian citizen born in Pakistan, he introduced himself by flashing his passport -- are not allowed in the country without a job. They are very much their sponsor's responsibility, and expressly not the responsibility of the state. There is no path to citizenship in Qatar, and so for the vast majority of the people in the country -- for Abbas and the Filipinos working in the Starbucks at City Center and the well-paid American geologists working for the national petroleum corporation and the South Asian laborers building the 84,000 hotel rooms Qatar will need for the 2022 World Cup -- the relationship with the state is strictly a business one. Foreign nationals looking to work in Qatar cannot enter the country without a work contract with their future employer. When the contract is fulfilled, and only when the contract is fulfilled, they can leave.
This is a thing that happens to the poor, faceless laborers imported from Bangladesh and Nepal to work on unnamed infrastructure projects -- the new stadiums for the World Cup have not yet broken ground -- but not just to them.
The Algerian soccer player Zahir Belounis was marooned in Qatar for 19 months after a dispute with his team, which refused to pay him $164,000 in back pay and also refused to let him leave the country. He finally got out in November, about a week before I arrived. "I heard that maybe Qatar will change the rules for footballers," Belounis told the BBC after his release. "But for me, the value of a football player and a worker is the same. If you cancel the system for a football player, you need to cancel it for everybody." For all the many real and laudable reforms already underway or planned in Qatar's labor system, the kafala, or sponsorship, system doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It reduces massive migration into a frank business transaction, and that is how Qatar wants it to work.
It reduces massive migration into a frank business transaction, and that is how Qatar wants it to work.
This sounds a lot cleaner and clearer than it is in reality. In Doha News, a very good English language paper widely read among expats, a longtime Qatar resident of Jordanian descent explains how the system doesn't work as part of his argument for the creation of a new, "permanent resident" status:
I have spent nearly all of my life in Qatar. I have been through the school and university systems and eventually got a job here, and am trying to get my career on the right track. If one day, I decide to change jobs and am unable to get a No Objection Certificate from my current employer, I would have to leave the country and could not return to work for two years... That possible future makes it difficult for people like myself and others in the same boat from feeling stability and security in our lives. That little niggling doubt, that it could all come crashing down over a piece of paper, is always there.
It is maybe surprising to learn that Qatar has comparatively progressive labor laws on its books. Workers may not work more than 48 hours per week. There are 10 hours of legal overtime at a rate of time-and-a-quarter, a mandated "rest day" each week, and guaranteed "breaks not less than one hour and not exceeding three hours, for prayers, rest and meal taking." The Ministry of Labor has struggled, for various reasons, to enforce these laws during the current period of furious expansion, although there have been indications -- and even some criticism in what's generally a quiescent national press -- that the state regards this as an embarrassment.
More importantly, the regime is moving -- both through the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee Workers' Charter (very happily given to me by the PR people for the World Cup bid) and another, not-yet-public charter at the Qatar Foundation -- to make dramatic and laudable changes above and beyond improved enforcement of the laws already on the books, changes aimed at breaking the broader institutionalized system of exploitation that exists in the international labor market.
Still, the fundamental economic relationship is not likely to change: while in Qatar, the contractor is effectively the sovereign authority for the workers in its employ. Qatar is home to something like 250,000 Qatari, and 1.8 million independent contractors.
Abbas is one of those. He was due to start a job in several weeks at one of the city's posh shopping malls, and would soon be joined by his wife of three months -- "She is just 21," he told me, "and very nice," before noting with not a little frustration that his very nice wife had not wired him the $200 he needed to pay for necessities. His time in Qatar had not been a positive one. He was paying 1,500 Riyals -- about $500 -- a month to rent a bedroom in an apartment near the airport, probably not all that far from Doha Sports Stadium.
"This whole country, it is too fucking expensive. Only for the rich."
"Right away I eat one meal and I get infection," he told me. "I am in hospital for 14 days, spend fucking 9000 Riyals because I have no insurance. I make a mistake, now I have nothing until the job. This whole country, it is too fucking expensive. Only for the rich. You can't even get a job without money." The food at the City Center mall is too expensive and no good, he tells me. As established earlier, the drivers are terrible. The bus system -- surprisingly comprehensive, if seemingly not widely utilized -- requires the purchase of a multi-ride card for 30 Riyals, even though individual rides cost just three Riyals. "It's bullshit," he concludes, referring to the food at City Center and the new bus card system and, it seems safe to say, everything else.
This is the (unverifiable) experience of one unlucky guy, of course, and he was quick to allow that he had it better than many others. When his job starts, he will have a place to stay with his wife and what he described as a good salary. He will pay no taxes, like everyone else in Qatar. After all that he's been through, and with all the problems he has with the country, Abbas plans to settle in Doha. He and his wife are adopting a girl from their village in Pakistan -- "my little niece" -- and the plan is to bring her up in Qatar, where she will never be a citizen but will almost certainly be better off in a number of ways than she would have in a small village in Pakistan.
This is the stubborn crux at the heart of Qatar's growth. It is almost certainly different for the city's sex workers -- they're there, of course, reportedly in the bar at the W Hotel -- and may be different for the nation's many domestic workers, a community about which Amnesty International will issue a report in 2014. But for all the big and small miseries that routinely befall them in the country, and despite the essential and fundamental shittiness that awaits them there, the people who will make the World Cup possible came to Qatar because they saw an opportunity that did not exist in their homelands. Knowing what they know thanks to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and The Guardian and the rest, they are still doing this. If Qatar itself can sometimes seem like a very architecturally distinguished funhouse specializing in refractions of globalized neoliberal economics' various false inevitabilities and forced choices, what brings these workers there is notably less complicated, simpler and crueler. They are making a new country happen, but the choice that brings them there is not new at all.
For those men -- and they are overwhelmingly men -- Qatar is as good a place as any "to make develop," as a Filipino cabbie put it to me. He'd been in the country for eight years, and while there was nothing there to do besides work and sleep, he said it worked well enough for him. He had an apartment and was making enough money to send a good amount home and still get back to Manila every two years. This may not sound like a good deal to you, but of course it's not your deal to make.
I left my hotel on a beautiful late morning for the long walk to West Bay, and saw the city rising and risen as I walked. There was work being done everywhere. Construction cranes are a sort of skeletal super-skyline everywhere in the city, if nowhere more so than in West Bay; they are there to complete Doha, and in a sense their spindly shadows on the horizon already complete it, serving as they do of a reminder of how much is not yet finished.
There was work being done everywhere. Construction cranes are a sort of skeletal super-skyline everywhere in the city.
Smaller construction machinery was everywhere on my walk: digging up the in-progress park along the Corniche, or rising and falling behind various barriers, or idle while workers caught a few minutes of mid-day rest, sprawled in earth-mover-shaped shadows. On a small island near the West Bay, I saw a lone tree, no buildings, a rudimentary boat landing and an orange construction vehicle.
The closer I got to the West Bay, the more clear it became how unfinished it was. The Corniche was bustling, here, with westerners jogging or riding bikes and Muslim families sprawled on the sod in the sort of slow-motion picnic I'd seen in MIA Park the day before. But the buildings that comprised the already recognizable and intensely photogenic skyline -- the pyramidal Sheraton on one end, looking every bit the Reagan-era architectural marvel it is, and the tubular Doha Tower in its light-up scrim and the twisting glass of the Qatar World Trade Center at the bright middle -- were not representative of the neighborhood. There was, more to the point, not a neighborhood to represent.
I crossed the Corniche and found that the buildings were mostly inaccessible. Several of the ones that stood out most dramatically from far away were, up close, revealed to be either unfinished or just not open. At one dramatic sand-colored tower that rose nearly 50 stories from a dramatic Taj Mahal of an entrance, a fountain trickled over purple mosaic tile and plastic sheeting blew in the breeze where the doors should have been; the front gate was high and locked up tight. Some of the tallest and most dramatic buildings on the skyline were half-clad in glass; the upper floors were naked and visible straight through. The stooping cranes dressed them, slowly.
One avenue in from the Corniche and there were smaller buildings, government ministries, all older and less ostentatious and very much closed. Back around into Al Reyyan and there were a few hotels along the coast, either office buildings for sleeping in or identikit colonial fantasia along the lines of the Four Seasons. In between was, almost exclusively, construction -- buildings in various frantic, sparking states of becoming, but decidedly not yet places to be.
The city just sort of stopped west of the Hilton. There were some trailers and then there was just raw beach, lovely and seemingly un-owned. Well west of that were the lights of the luxury beach community at Katara, and far beyond that -- bright and characteristically unfinished -- were the new towers on The Pearl, a man-made island with its own Twitter account and what it touts as "one of the most exclusive marinas in the world." A very distant Doha, but still Doha, just further along and further out.
In the Doha in which I was lost, laborers -- faceless and shrunk and more movement than shape so high up -- could only sort of be seen. They were there, but not strictly visible. The sidewalks were windswept and empty; at first a few westerners bustled by, but then no one. Turn a corner and find a bunch of jumpsuit-clad South Asian workers eating identical brown-bag lunches and drinking chai out of paper cups. Turn another corner and they were gone -- up in some building or swapped out for the next shift's team on one of the white buses that hissed and parked along the otherwise quiet streets. The loud avenues belonged to Mercedes and Range Rover; the side streets belonged to graceless farting Mitsubishi Fuso trucks and slug-like Tata buses.
There was no street food; no one is sponsored by a contractor to shave shawarma at streetside. There was not even any street-level retail to speak of. After blowing off the dining options at City Center, I wandered in vain looking for a restaurant, any restaurant. One option, which seemed to be named Spice Boat: Heaven's Kitchen, was in the first floor of a luxury residential building, and appeared somehow not to have a pedestrian entrance. The only other options were in hotels: a $20 burger in the smoky Zamaya bar at the Hilton, where expats drank Foster's on tap and quietly watched Bayern Munchen win a Bundesliga blowout, or an expensive sushi set at the Four Seasons. I passed and passed, and was famished when I finally ran into Abbas off that alley.
I got lost again and again on the same unnamed streets. The landmarks seemed to change: a giant orange crane showed up and got to work, rendering a familiar streetcorner new and strange. I noticed a luxury mall across an impossibly impassable avenue -- construction and construction barriers, six lanes of traffic, ditches like open wounds -- and wrote it off as another place I wouldn't be able to eat. After I don't know how many turns and turn-backs, I somehow found myself at the mall's entrance. I walked into The Gate -- "We're Almost Ready, Are You?" a banner read outside the just-opened Audi Boutique, which was indeed a boutique that sold Audis. A man at a piano began playing a psychedelically twinkly version of Lionel Richie's "Hello." The food options were a place called Montreal Bread Company and one of those bizarre crypto-pizza places that disproportionately show up in Asian luxury malls. I left and got lost again.
By then I was really hungry, it was really dark and there were no cabs to be had. I walked towards the skyline's bright, empty towers, the traffic too fast for cabs to stop along the Corniche and nonexistent on parallel avenues. The stadium lights were on at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, but nothing was happening there.
Then I was back on the Corniche, walking alongside a wall painted by little kids to illustrate various lessons -- the importance of exercise and eating a healthy diet, things like that. I was talking to myself at this point, I'm fairly sure, just little dumb affirmations and profanities, mostly. I know that after crossing a difficult intersection I indulged in some frankly weird overemphatic Kobe-style hand claps.
There was no one around to hear or see or notice. I was the last pedestrian in Doha.
On the Corniche, I quickly ran out of sidewalk. This had happened all day; Doha is not so much an emerging city as an erupting one, and the pedestrian pathways frequently either dwindle into sand or are interrupted by sudden piles of unplaced or displaced paving stones. I found myself waiting for a backhoe to finish doing its thing so that I could pass. It stopped, turned to me, and dipped in a sort of dinosaurian bow. I took a few steps towards it and saw the man in the backhoe's cab signaling, courtly, for me to pass. I waved and he waved back, and I passed under the rumbling orange machine's resting trunk. A few minutes later, I somehow found a cab. Some minutes after that, I was ordering a kebab at an Iraqi restaurant in Souk Wakif.
I can tell you what it tasted like -- lamb-y and delicious, soft with fat and braced with onion and spices, frankly fucking heavenly between torn bits of flour-y clay oven khubz bread -- but that would not convey the relief I felt upon tasting it. I had walked into and out of a Doha that did not yet exist, where I saw a great many people grimly building a planned city for people who also did not yet exist: the guests who would stay in those unfinished hotel rooms, during the World Cup and maybe after, people who would work in those still-naked offices and who would someday cook dinner in the condominiums presently swept through by the breezes off the Arabian Sea.
I left that city and made it back to the other one, the one that already existed. I ate in an artificial market, built by an authoritarian government on the footprint of another market that had been there for hundreds of years before being razed for something newer and cleaner. I ate there, at an outdoor table oversweetened by the sickly shisha smoke from the restaurant next door. I watched tourists and non-tourists walk by over clean new cobblestones. I watched two men in dishdasha laugh and drink tea. A couple at the next table playfully debated ordering dessert in German, then ordered it in English. And I was free to come and go as I pleased. I was the luckiest man in Doha.