SB Nation

David Roth | December 16, 2013

Qatar Chronicles

Part I, Destination everywhere

David Roth traveled to Qatar for a closer look at the World Cup's future home. Below is the first installment of his five-part series.

Read the rest of the series:
★ ★ ★

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. Those shirts are made in the developing world for Hugo Boss, and they cost $155. The sunglasses say Prada and Ray Ban on them, and will run around $200. There are Mont Blanc pens gleaming sleekly from inside glass cases, and the choking floral omnipresence of cologne and perfume, and also there are these giant goonish jugs of Johnnie Walker Blue Label that cost $600 and are too big to be anything but exemplary how-you-like-me-now purchases. (They might as well have Maybach Music logos on them.)

Everything's expensive-looking and artful enough, but there is something both robotic and almost poignant about it.

There are handbags blocky and impossibly expensive, sitting on little platforms, red and fat as spotlit hunks of pastrami.

There is probably a video playing someplace, too, and that video will be weirder than you'd expect: The Mentalist chasing a beautiful woman through Paris so he can give her an umbrella in a rainstorm; androgynous dancers, poker-faced while performing elaborate choreography in front of a gleaming black sedan.

Everything's expensive-looking and artful enough, but there is something both robotic and almost poignant about it. It's the same feeling you'll get while watching a movie in which a robot appears to experience fear or doubt or some other human emotion. The cold futility of human-ish things washed over the steel and circuitry of a bloodless precision-engineered future that does not necessarily require us. It's hard to say why that might inspire any emotion besides a sort of pity. It's complicated.

The idea of the great international Duty Free experience, it seems to me, is to communicate a simultaneously comforting and unattainable/aspirational depiction of globo-luxury. The brands you see in the international terminal are international themselves because they are recognizable as the More Expensive Option most anywhere in the world. They symbolize the idea of linked ubiquity and wealth, the promise that money is always with us, wherever we might find ourselves. If you want to get something with one of these resonant names on it in an airport -- something that says Dior or Armani -- you will be buying either cologne or perfume, quite literally paying for the smell of internationally recognized wealth.

The poignant part is that luxury, at least as these brands define it, is pretty transparently a joke. All the flouncing and smoldering and whimsy in perfume ads, all those global ambassadors of elegance smugging over their fat-faced wristwatches -- it's not just that this sort of thing isn't reality for the vast majority of people on Earth. It is that it is so wildly and weirdly unreal that it's nearly impossible to do anything but laugh when confronted with its sweep and pomp. Keira Knightley escapes a handsome suitor (wait, why?) and lifts off in a waiting hot-air balloon (oh?) and smiles mysteriously and we are supposed to think of something, and want that thing we're thinking of. It is difficult to see how that might work.

To be in the Duty Free nowhere of the international terminal is to see all that very plainly -- all these expensive things, honestly far too expensive to buy, price-tagged and just sort of presenting themselves for their own sake. These stores are in the airport mostly to remind you that they are there, that luxury brands are wherever you are going, as cruelly overpriced and possessed of the same symbolic heft at one end of your journey as on the other. They are the constants, the things that money makes everywhere, de-linked and uncoupled and sublime and ridiculous, unreal by design. They signify wealth and airless consensus; they're a reminder that, wherever you're going, it will probably be important to have as much money as possible.

Okay. Now imagine a country like that.

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Or, look at it another way. Imagine a country without water that for most of its existence was a harsh place paced off by nomads. Islam came there sometime in the seventh century and stayed. Other rulers came and went, too; there are fireworks along the gulf on December 18 to celebrate National Day, which is when the country kicked out the regional rival that had dominated it for nearly a century. In the souks, in early December, you'll see the chintzy-shiny outfits for sale that little kids will wear on National Day; Doha's kids will be dressed like little bedazzled flags. There are scarves and t-shirts with pictures of the emir, mustachioed and unsmiling.

This remote place was suddenly very much of interest, and just unbelievably gob-smackingly ridiculously wealthy.

Anyway, the British came, inevitably, and stayed for a time, too. As the British tended to do, they turned some towns into cities, even small ones on the coast that existed modestly, off the trade generated by pulling things from the sea. (Fish or pearls, mostly). There were never a lot of people in this country, or in its largest city. This is a tough place to live: exactly as arid and hot as you might imagine, even in the capital, even along the Corniche that curls along the Arabian Sea, where there's at least a breeze.

The British left for good only two generations ago. The country was different, because it had discovered that it was located over the largest natural gas deposit known to exist in the world. This remote place was suddenly very much of interest, and just unbelievably gob-smackingly ridiculously wealthy. And so it went about making itself over into a place that looked more like the wealthy nation that it suddenly was.

There is a way that this can be done very quickly, but it's not necessarily the sort of thing that your freer countries can do readily. You will need a great many workers to do it. You will need to wring a lot of out of them. You will need the absolute right to raze whatever is in the way of the five-star hotel or glass-clad office building or statement-making architectural masterpiece or mall or soccer stadium that should rightly be there, as well as the means to build that thing.

Qatar, which is an emirate and an absolute monarchy, can do all that. There is a vast and opaque state. Politics, such as they exist, are of the bureaucratic and Palace Intrigue variety. There's also consultative semi-parliament, to which citizens were supposed to begin electing some members in 2005, and then in 2013, and anyway maybe sometime in the future.

There are laws, and they are enforced, but there is not quite accountability as it's commonly understood elsewhere. Mistakes get made in the churning. There is a great deal of money, though -- Qatar has the highest per capita GDP in the world and 14 percent of (citizen) households are millionaires -- and a great deal of ambition. And so there is a great deal of churning.

That is both how and why Qatar built and is building Doha so fast. It is also how China built cities for millions of people from something like scratch, and how nearby gulf states such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai became the glassy, glossy petro-boomtowns they are. To build a nation quickly, and from scratch, requires a certain amount of planning, but mostly it is a matter of doing and making. Planning is important, but it tends to seem less important as things speed up.

And so big buildings are built on delirious spec, little streets suddenly have entirely too many Mercedes Benzes on them. There is no way to tell how many malls are too many, and the government is not saying no to any kind of development, really, and so it's left up to the market and the market says YES, HELL YES and up they all go.

Architects and artists work for hire, and can be hired; wealthy people and universities and petroleum types will go where the money is, wherever the money is, and they will want places to eat and sleep and play and park their boats. The necessary labor can be imported from abroad, and very inexpensively; contractors will facilitate both that human inflow and its implementation. It can be done, if you can afford it and if you really want it.

There is going to be some natural shock at this sudden city, and some distaste at the way in which it's being made.

And if you really want it -- if you really want it done, grandly and quickly, to your specifications -- you can do it this way, and quickly.

Except that the rest of the world, which is slower and different, did not and mostly does not do it this way. There is going to be some natural shock at this sudden city, and some distaste at the way in which it's being made -- rightly, in some instances. The government is not necessarily capable of or interested in keeping the closest eye on those contractors, whether for reasons of cynical expedience or the sheer impossibility of keeping up with anything as fast and vast as what has been loosed. Also those contractors do not necessarily have to do all the things they have to do elsewhere; there are laws, even somewhat strict laws, but they are not fully enforced or enforceable. And so the contractors don't do what they have to do.

Human Rights Watch notices the results of this: the horror of the market left fully alone, of workers sleeping 12-to-a-shipping-can somewhere out of sight or in un-air-conditioned rooms next to old chemical waste and dying over and over on the job, whether in falls (over 1,000 laborers died this way in Qatar in 2013, a rate nearly three times that of similar fatalities in the UK) or when their hearts blow up under the unbearable heat, the unbearable pressure of making a world city happen immediately.

The contractors sometimes don't pay the workers when they should, or at all. The contractors, due to a Qatari law called kafala, sponsor these laborers' presence in the country, and the laborers cannot change jobs or leave the country unless the contractors let them, which they of course won't. The contractors can make the laborers sign statements saying they'd been paid wages they hadn't been paid, which they of course do. The International Trade Union Confederacy notices this and calls Qatar a "slave state." Amnesty International notices and puts out, just before Thanksgiving, a 169-page report called "The Dark Side of Immigration," which credits the Qatari government for seeming to want to do things the right way, but points out that contractors have a hugely casual relationship with the nation's labor standards, in large part because the state has been unable or unwilling to enforce any other kind.

It is all happening so spectacularly fast, maybe too fast, but the idea has always been to do it quickly, to get the buildings up and shining and full, to make Doha the sort of showpiece city that Qatar can afford. The idea is just to do it, to make someplace great -- peaceful, beautiful, luxurious and yes expensive, and so finally a brand in itself to the extent that people will hear "Doha" and understand it the same awed and abstracted and faintly reverential way they understand DIOR or PRADA or JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL. At which point... well, what, then? That's a goal, but is it an ending?

And so Qatar is also that. But we are not even there yet. I got in late, wrung out. The map on the little monitor in the cabin showed us flying over some of the world's unhappiest and most dangerous places -- the little animated plane moving over and around the smoldering names of Baghdad and Isfahan and Damascus, en route to what is by some measures the richest and safest and fastest-growing city in the world, the capital of the country that will host the 2022 World Cup. So we're there, now. We are really in Qatar.

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Read the rest of the series:
Producer: Chris Mottram | Design: Josh Laincz | Editor: Spencer Hall | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

David Roth was a columnist for 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.