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Is Qatar becoming the new Dubai?

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Dubai’s failure to maintain its culture is not something most Qataris wish to repeat; the key is balancing modernisation with westernisation, taking the good and filtering out the bad.

Michael Stephens
8 July 2012

Recently much has been made of the increased tensions in Dubai surrounding expatriates and their dressing habits, and the offence this has caused to local Emiratis. The UAE is not alone in having this problem, similar issues have been rearing their head in Qatar in recent months, and on a number of occasions (mostly) young western women have found themselves being confronted by (mostly) older Qatari women seeking to admonish them for not respecting the cultural guidelines.

I travel frequently to Dubai and observe closely the differences that exist between it and Doha. 850m tall buildings aside, the differences are readily and immediately apparent.

Firstly Qataris are far more assertive in their identity than Dubai locals; although facing similar problems with being swamped by expatriate culture there is still no doubt that Qatar is an Arab country, and that Qataris play a highly visible part in creating this sense of Arabness. Particularly in the evenings most restaurants and malls are filled with men in white gutras and thobes speaking Arabic. It is a visual and linguistic assertion of space.

Secondly, despite its outward appearances Qatar remains a conservative society. This is not to say that Emiratis are not conservative, many certainly are; merely that they have allowed a deeper encroachment of liberalism into daily life which has been matched by an associated retreat by Emiratis from the main areas of the city and into the majlis. Although something similar has happened in Doha, it is clear that Qataris have still maintained for the public space a modicum of traditionalism that in Dubai has long since lost.

On the religious front, the mosques in Doha are palpably louder than in Dubai, and Friday prayers can be heard all over the city. The Friday messages in particular are interesting, clerics emphasising the rejection of bidah (literally ‘novelty’, read  ‘western ideas’) is a theme that frequently pervades the public space in Qatar in a loud and assertive fashion that leaves no doubt as to where sympathies in this country lie.

Two weeks ago I sat down for dinner with a Qatari man who espoused salafist beliefs, a deeply ascetic and puritanical form of Sunni Islam. The choice of hotel was interesting; the Movenpick. It is one of the few hotels in Doha that do not serve alcohol, indeed it was the only hotel in which he would spend his money because he was boycotting those venues he felt brought alien practices into the country. The conversation was wide-ranging and thoughtful, but clear in the message was the sense that all westerners should pack up and leave, and take their culture with them.

This was an extreme example of a more widespread phenomenon in Qatar, which is a deep sense of unease as to what modernisation means for the country. Qataris tend to define modernisation as western influences that they accept. Westernisation on the other hand is a negative synonym for western influences that are incompatible with Qatari culture. Specifically in this regard is the idea that Westerners eating pork, drinking or wearing a bikini is not just a religious offence, but an assertion of cultural space that actively blocks locals from entering. It is a representation of domination without listening, a black and white discourse in which only the west is right.

So when a Qatari says: ‘We are not Dubai and we will not become Dubai’ it is not simply that they don’t want women in bikinis walking around shopping malls, it is a reflection of something far deeper. It is to be free of the control of ‘the West’, and to not be told what to do and how to do it.

Dubai’s failure to maintain its culture is not something most Qataris wish to repeat; the key is balancing modernisation with westernisation, taking the good and filtering out the bad. Some like my Salafi friend will never be happy, while others are more willing to accept some change if it improves their lives without fundamentally threatening their heritage.

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