SB Nation

David Roth | December 20, 2013

Qatar Chronicles

Part V, On their own terms

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


★ ★ ★

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.

The arrival terminal in Doha, too, could be in San Bernardino, if San Bernardino were a Muslim monarchy. It's a skinny orphan out of a past that Qatar has dedicated itself to making unimaginable, and crowds further out into the desert every day. That is not what the departure terminal is like.

That one is and feels newer, glassy and high-ceilinged and futuristically impersonal, and so is probably more like what the sprawling and characteristically ambitious new Hammad Airport -- "runways amongst the longest in the world," a plaque on the wall promises, because of course -- will be like when it opens. Receive the necessary x-rays and pick up the exit stamp on your passport and you walk into a frenetic Duty Free mall that spans the length of a football field. There are perfumes and watches; there are souvenir t-shirts that read:

I Love Camels
I Love Camels
I Love Camels

It is one of just two places selling bottles of liquor in the entire nation.

and there are five different types of dates from Saudi Arabia (I recommend these, they're delicious) and cigarette cartons wearing garish warnings ("CIGARETTES ARE HIGHLY ADDICTIVE DON'T START") and the inevitable Toblerones the size of Dustin Hoffman.

Most notably, there is a bustling liquor store. It is one of just two places selling bottles of liquor in the entire nation, and you'll need to show your boarding pass to buy whatever you want to buy, be that one of the weird blended scotches that seem to exist only in foreign Duty Frees -- King Robert II, Passport, the delightfully named "Hankey Bannister" -- or some of the more expensive whiskies in the world.

There are no real deals to be had here, and I didn't feel like carrying a bottle of Hankey Bannister around for the next 22 hours, but I did settle in that section to watch what must have been the foremost whiskey salesman in Qatar doing his thing. Insistently, and with what might have been entirely fraudulent knowledge, he maneuvered a man from the triangular mid-shelf whatever of Glenfiddich to the left, and then to the left again, where he framed up a choice between an old and ostensibly limited Macallan single malt and a $160 bottle of 15-year-old Jura.

The shopper was wary; the salesman was insistent. The salesman popped his finger off the dark blue box that held a bottle of Macallan; its price was probably something like two weeks' pay for him. "One taste," he said, "you will know that this is different." The shopper drifted unconsciously back rightward, and the salesman kept talking. The salesman placed the Jura back on the shelf behind him in what was in retrospect a very risky no-look pass.

★ ★ ★

Maybe this failing sale is a microcosm of the whole Qatar thing.

There are several things to make of this, depending on what you want to make of it. Maybe this failing sale is a microcosm of the whole Qatar thing. Here was a laborer from the global south, far from home and in strange clothes, doing his utmost to provide an Internationally Recognized Luxury Experience to a wary out-of-towner, at no noticeable discount beyond the symbolic freedom from duty. The Single Malt Salesman of Doha was selling good stuff, although he had likely never tasted of it. But he was also bluffing hard, overplaying his hand in an atmosphere of buzzing artifice and extraction as the sale slipped away, pursued too hard and feeling maybe a little hustled.

Or it's not that, and it's just the market doing what the market does, the usual back and forth devourings. At least officially, Qataris do not drink, and neither do they make it easy for non-Qataris to do so. The one liquor store in the nation, QDC, is by all accounts a pain in the ass. This other one exists only for those who will not drink the booze that they buy there in Qatar. This is the fundamental duty-freedom of the market: whiskey (and gin and cognac and wine and everything else, it was a big store) is a thing people like to buy in airports to bring home. And if they want to buy, it would seem foolish not to sell.

There is a potential workaround for everything in Qatar, a price that when paid opens options up. That happens to be true more or less everywhere, but if you want all this to reflect some appalling cynicism or telltale hypocrisy or sinister expediency on the part of the Qataris, then it could very well reflect all that. But why would you want it to reflect that? This is not to say that the enterprise isn't cynical or hypocritical or sinister/expedient. It's just to say that it isn't unique.

★ ★ ★

Qatardutyfree_medium(Photo by RoB, via Wikimedia Commons)

It would also seem worth mentioning that there are bars in Doha, although they are all in hotels and offer from my limited survey exactly none of the things people go to bars to enjoy. Besides alcohol, that is, although drinks are comically expensive: a Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey cost nearly $20 at the smoky, grumpy bar in the Doha Hilton.

In that bar, a half-dozen men grimly, wordlessly smoked cigarettes and drank pints of Foster's while watching Bayern Munich win a Bundesliga game 7-0. This was during my lost afternoon in the West Bay; I wanted a beer as badly in that moment as I ever have, and was far enough into my wanderings that I might have settled for a Canadian Manhattan, and another. But I left the bar without having, and no longer wanting, either.

Qatar will make available to visitors all the things visitors want, but they will always and only do it on their terms.

Which is another push/pull transaction playing out in the Doha fashion. Qatar will make available to visitors all the things visitors want, but they will always and only do it on their terms. It will be possible to get certain western things, but it will also be illegal to get them. An expat I spoke with explained the equipment necessary to watch a Big 12 football game in Doha. You will need, for starters, a stateside Slingbox workaround and some light smuggling, but it can be done. Friends of a friend live together as a gay couple in Doha, despite the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. Things can be done. People are doing it.

A great deal is possible in Doha, but the hosts will decide when and how it becomes possible, and the more you hurry them the slower they will go. These hosts, gracious as they are in some ways, will do only what they want to do, when they are ready to do it. They keep their own counsel, and will decide what they want to do per that counsel, and then when they are ready and not a moment earlier, they will do it. They will not go through the usual conciliatory motions at any point; they will, in fact, possibly act considerably less conciliatory than they actually are, for their own reasons.

When Qatar's willfulness manifests as the slow-walking of reforms and enforcement that could not just improve but save the lives of the nearly two million people pulling this dream nation out of unyielding sand, it seems unconscionable, repellent and even hateful. When it plays out as ambitious and concerted strategic action on reforming those very problems, which actions are undertaken in secret because they did not want to be seen as pressured into action, it is notably stranger.

"The Qataris are their own worst enemy," James Dorsey, the Middle East soccer commentator, told me in the Aspire Zone. "They actually have a reasonably good story to tell in terms of what they're doing on labor, and they're not telling it."

I was in touch with a number of people who do or have done business in the Gulf, none of whom were willing to speak on the record, a number of which pretty transparently resent this ritualized performance and signature shadowplay, and who see the Qatari as -- context and culture and circumstance aside -- kind of jerks.

But Qatar's sheer bloodymindedness and unyielding will -- and this is true even if every single allegation and suspicion of bid-rigging, bribe-greasing, favor-trading FIFA fuckery is true -- are what won Qatar the rights to spend its $220 billion on the World Cup in 2022. Look at it out of context, and it's hard to imagine a more inexplicable winner. Here is the most important sports event in the world: played in a tiny country, in impossible conditions; in massive stadiums that have not yet been built, and which will be accessed through a vast network of state-of-the-art infrastructure that also does not yet exist. (This includes fans staying in one of 84,000 or so new hotel rooms that have not yet been constructed.) Those nonexistent stadiums, Qatar still insists, will be cooled with a solar-powered technology that has not yet been invented. There would seem to be no limit on what limitless money can buy, but it is hard to escape the sense that this, right here, may be that limit. And yet.

And yet Qatar won this, willed it and won it knowing what that would cost and what it would mean.

And yet Qatar won this, willed it and won it knowing what that would cost and what it would mean. The nation seems committed to making it work, and it may well be that it could work. Whether they deserve it or not is both a strange question and now beside the point. They won it, however they won it, and their task now is to earn it. If Qatar takes that challenge as seriously as they did the bidding process, we might admit the possibility that they somehow pull that off, too.

There is both single malt scotch in the Wahhabi emirate and some strained but functioning justification for it. There are wills and there are ways, and if the will runs the right way, this will have worked. That process will almost certainly bring, in its own frustrating time, more rights and better lives for the people who do the dirty, dusty, dangerous work of making this strange new country from scratch. That is important.

That is the most important thing under discussion here. If what's given on the human rights front will invariably be given grudgingly and too late and in a way that will probably seem somewhat peculiar, Qatar will at least give it. They'll give it in their way, because -- in its wealth and its weirdnesses, its uglinesses and uniqueness and strange stilted beauty -- Qatar will defiantly and always and only be Qatar.

That means it will be an idiosyncratic sort of apartheid state, top-heavy and authoritarian and unfree, wildly rich and wildly unequal, great and small at once. Qatar wants more than anything to remain Qatar, and for that reason I believe it will. That may not be a place you'd want to live, but they don't really want you to live there, either.

In its profound multi-layered opacity and Byzantine family-business politics, Qatar will always be an especially foreign nation among foreign nations. But there is something recognizable in its defiance, its dedication not to be told what to do or be seen to have been told what to do. Nations in general tend to be this way -- self-justifying and self-defeating and selfishly stubborn and blinkered and too slow to change, even when they know they must. One good reason for this is that humans also tend to be that way.

★ ★ ★

I got a box of Saudi dates at the Doha Duty Free. My wife loves them, and I became a fan on my visit, devouring them wherever I saw them, which was most everywhere. At the duty free register, in the maelstrom of all this merciless and blearily automatic multilingual commerce -- it was also 1:15 in the morning, I should note -- I asked the cashier about the swaggering whiskey salesman. Who is that guy, or something like that.

The cashier smiled and rolled his eyes, either at the mention of the salesman or at this goofus American making such strange conversation in the middle of the night. "Well, he...," the cashier began, and a European couple suddenly beached themselves next to me, bumping the cash register's podium with a meaty and near-simultaneous thud. They asked the cashier if they could pay there. He said yes and they got in line behind me. It was time to complete the transaction.

So I paid my money down and got what I wanted. The cashier asked how I wanted my change: in dollars or Riyals.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Design: Josh Laincz | Editor: Spencer Hall | Title Photo: Royonx, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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