Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Get your mind out of the Qatar, 4: I wish the mall could be my ringtone

The malls of Doha are a microcosm of Qatari society. 110% in the Arab/Muslim world, and 110% in the Western world. Filled with American chains (McDonald's, Krispy Kreme, etc.) and all the other signs of Western capitalism, with an affluent clientele wearing thobes and abayas, some of the women fully veiled.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 2001-02, I heard that the Malcha mall was the largest mall in the Middle East, but that must be out of date now. Doha barely existed then.

The City Center mall has a skating rink in the middle:

It's always daytime in the Villagio mall:

The illusion works until you see the hole in the sky and realize you're just living in the Truman Show.

I once said that Jerusalem was Americans trying to be Israeli, and Tel Aviv was Israelis trying to be American. I mean, you do hear a lot of English spoken around Jerusalem, but there isn't anywhere in Jerusalem (even the mall) that looks anything like anywhere in America. Doha, in contrast, looks far more American than Tel Aviv ever will, perhaps more American than America. Huge parking lots filled with SUVs (why not? oil is basically free). The urban planning philosophy is the polar opposite of New Urbanism: you can't walk anywhere. Everything requires a car. This is can be explained in part because Qatar stands to gain from encouraging car culture, and in part because much of the year it's too hot to be outside (summer temperatures hit 50 Celsius).

Depending on your perspective, income inequality in Qatar is either small or huge. If you're just looking at Qatari citizens, everyone is wealthy. We were told that poor by Qatari standards would be considered upper middle class in the US. Rumor has it that the government automatically gives every Qatari citizen (born to a Qatari mother and a Qatari father) a quarter million dollars at birth, and that only a small minority actually has to work.

However, only a minority of Qatar residents are citizens, and there is no route for naturalized citizenship, even for people who have been living in the country for decades. The majority are expats, including not only the westerners who are there working in business and education, but temporary laborers working in oil/gas, construction, and the service sector, many of them from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. Since many of the service-sector employees don't speak Arabic, English is the de facto national language, which is certainly convenient for us tourists (as much as I was looking forward to trying out my one semester of Arabic). Some of the workers are brought to Qatar under what is essentially indentured servitude.

Though the state religion, as in Saudi Arabia, is Wahhabi Islam, Qatar is more open than Saudi Arabia in a number of ways. There are no restrictions on women driving, etc., and Western women can wear what they want in public (though it's probably not a good idea to wear shorts).

The public practice of non-Muslim religions is illegal in Saudi Arabia. In Qatar, it's not particularly common, but it's legal. The Jewish scene, unsurprisingly, isn't so active (we were trying to figure out where the closest functioning synagogue was, and came up with either Iran or Yemen), but we were openly Jewish at Education City, and everyone was cool with that. (As we lit candles on Friday night, we heard the muezzin announce Maghrib, and we realized that this confluence must have happened every Shabbat for hundreds of years for Jews living in Muslim countries.) And we went with our host to Ash Wednesday mass at the university. (The priest talked about the beginning of the season of repentance, and they read the same chapter of Joel that we read on Shabbat Shuvah.) Doha is soon going to have its first church, amid controversy. And some of the controversy is because the church is being funded by the government!

It's legal to serve alcohol only in hotel bars/restaurants, leading to a legal fiction along the lines of riverboat gambling: there are entire strip malls attached to hotels so that all the restaurants can claim to be "in the hotel" and thus serve alcohol.


  1. The "Villagio" mall pictured looks exactly like the shopping area in the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas, down (up?) to the fake-sky ceiling. Perhaps there was a dagesh missing in the V.

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