Monday, 26 November 2007

Qatar, the least corrupt Middle Eastern Nation?

Like many young people in England, I recently completed a degree in media studies. It is a popular area of study with very few opportunities for those in pursuit of work. After trying unsuccessfully to get some work experience with a British production company, I decided to pursue an avenue of experience over seas. So off I went to the Middle Eastern Islamic nation of Qatar. Recently declared by Transparency International as the least corrupt nation in the Middle East, whatever that means.

I am by no means a man of the world (yet) and all aspects of Islamic culture save what I had learnt in school or through the reactionary British media were new and exciting. My work experience was with Smart Global, a production company which was in fact an off shoot department of a construction company, what I learnt very quickly in Qatar is that most businesses are in fact just departments of far larger businesses, almost exclusively oil and gas companies run by Arabic families. Nepotism is the rule for recruitment, manual labour and the service industry being the only exceptions.

My work with Smart Global illuminated the influence of English culture and language on Middle Eastern business. They were in the process of shooting a documentary sponsored by the fifth largest enterprise in the world, RasGas, who had organised a trip for a group of young Qatari girls to visit England and learn our language and culture. English is the language of choice for many companies including RasGas.

“It was therefore highly appropriate to support students in their English language skills” RasGas said in a statement to The Gulf Times. The documentary was a way of using education as an investment for the future of the energy business and also as a means of rallying public support for their friendly energy companies. Not that this is necessary, the public are grateful for the changes that are occurring as a result of their energy industry.

I was foolish enough to make the mistake of visiting during the month of Ramadan, although I knew the locals would be fasting, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be unable to eat in public until nightfall not to mention the fact I’d have to endure desert heat without so much as a sip of water. I couldn’t bare the thought of going a single day without lunch, so I scurried off to the cinema every lunch time, which was empty on nearly every occasion, so that I could smuggle in crisps and sandwiches, which I attempted to eat without alerting the attention of the ushers.

Qatar had once been an almost uninhabitable desert whose residents could only make a living using the resources of the sea, primarily fish and pearls. This all changed when it became clear that Qatar was home not only to a healthy supply of oil but also was situated atop an enormous bubble of natural gas, and so Qatar has become incredibly wealthy, enough even to buy out 24% of Britain’s stock exchange. Last year it was predicted that by 2011, the Qatari people could be the richest in the world.

So what is this gem of the Middle East like? How un-corrupt is it? Well most of the population all live in the rapidly expanding city of Doha and only a third of the population are actually Qatari, the rest are comprised of a few Arabic immigrants mainly from Iran and Saudi Arabia, wealthy Westerners out on business and the remaining majority are the imported labour force from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The country is owned and run by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his family, power is inherited or bought in this nation; there is little evidence of immigrants working their way up the ranks. In order to work in Qatar you need to get sponsorship from a native Qatari who is then responsible for you.

The country is governed by a somewhat liberal version of Sha’riah law, there is no way to vote a new Emir into power, and it doesn’t seem any one would want to, the locals claim to love Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani who they believe has rescued the nation from poverty and brought it into the world of 21st century international business, although the lack of human rights laws may cause some of the Indian immigrants to express a quite different opinion. The women of the country are currently gaining more and more power, they are now allowed to work with men, vote and even hold parliamentary office, Doha also has female ambulance drivers (although only women are required to have lessons in order to get a driving license) When contrasted with Western values of gender equality and democracy, however, Qatar like many Islamic nations falls far short. The Emir allows parliamentary elections, but his own power will only be relinquished when it is passed to his son. He claims he wants Qatar to be democratic, and the Americans champion the nation as an example of democracy in the Middle East, but despite this he arrests those who even speak of a coup like the one he instigated to take control of the nation away from his Father.

The fact that America has moved all of it’s military capabilities from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, making it the military headquarters for America in the Middle East, may cause friction between Qatar and its neighbour Iran. As political tensions between America and Iran threaten to lead to another war the future of this industrious and rich nation is uncertain.

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