Victor Argo
Last updated: 21 April, 2014

Defense and (un)development in Doha

The ruling family in Doha has been making huge investments in defense. And it's all part of a grand vision. But what is it doing to Qatar as a society?

$24 billion! The Qatar Armed Forces went on a shopping spree in the last week of March 2014, purchasing new tanks, helicopters, warships and missiles at the DIMDEX, a major military trade show held in Doha.

I had come to Qatar to learn more about a country that was unknown to many 20 years ago, but will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. I had a friend who recently moved to Qatar and I wanted to see how she was doing. And while in Doha, I took the chance to visit the DIMDEX, the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition. I was interested to see the latest developments in naval warfare capabilities.

One of the first persons I met in Doha was Robert, a diplomat from an European country. Robert had served in various Arab countries before coming to Qatar, among them Libya and Syria. “How does Qatar compare to the countries you have been before?”, I asked the diplomat. “This may sound strange to you”, he replied, “but Qatar is much more opaque than any other country I was on duty before.”

And indeed, according to Robert, Qatar was a rough terrain for diplomatic personnel. It was very difficult to meet decision makers. There were only a few of them, half a dozen maybe. It was even more difficult to know where Qatar was heading. The vast majority of the people in Qatar was in the dark.

“Qatar is much more opaque than any other country I was on duty before.”

“The 85% of foreigners in Qatar don’t know anything at all”, the diplomat went on. “Certainly not the migrant workers from India, Pakistan and Nepal. And the Western expats don’t want to jeopardize their favorable positions by asking too many questions.”

Before I left Robert, I asked the diplomat what he thought about Qatar organizing the World Cup in 2022. He paused for a while. “Qatar is a country with splendid prospects. However, with hosting the world’s biggest sport event, Qatar may be punching above its weight. We will have to see”, Robert said, “it is a giant challenge that brings the Emir’s management system – centralized to the extreme – to its limits. Organizing a football World Cup is a very complex venture and one man can’t do it all.”

The World Cup in 2022 is only one piece in a mosaic that is the Qatar National Vision 2030. It is a huge project that aims to develop Qatar’s infrastructure and its society at the same time. The new airport is almost finished, the new harbor partly. The construction of a metro system is just about to start and for the new football stadiums the tenders are out.

With the development of Qatar, there comes an increased necessity for security. Wealthy countries like Qatar need a strong military to protect its interests. Spending $24 billion at the DIMDEX was one cornerstone of Qatar’s new defense posture. The national service for all Qatari male citizens was another one.

I met Anwar who told me that he will have to start his service on April 1 when he will check in for three months of basic military training. “Qatar’s national service”, Anwar said, “is based on an Emir’s decree. Every Qatari male, with a few exceptions, age 21 to 35 will have to serve.” 

The Emir pursues several goals with this order: he wants to build up a Qatari army ready to respond to future security challenges. At the same time, the Emir wants to strengthen the Qatari men in general, making them ‘real men’, actually, by forcing them to exercise in the army. “You know”, Anwar told me, “there are even programs for obese people of which Qatar has a lot.” 

“And”, Anwar continued, “by transforming boys to men, the Emir wants to fight homosexuality which is widespread in Qatar because of our segregated society.” “Are you serious?” I asked Anwar, “it is in female deprived environments like an army camp or a prison where homosexuality is most present, regardless of the physical fitness of the soldiers and the inmates.” 

“I will brief you after I have finished my service”, Anwar replied. 

So far, the willingness of the Qataris to serve was minimal. Only a rough 500 out of an eligible 100.000 men had registered for the national service in time. “In any case”, Anwar told me, “the service won’t be as tough as it was announced. Qataris won’t bear with this.” 

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Anwar going to the army posed a particular problem for Mona, his wife. Mona was of Moroccan descent, but born in France. That’s where I had met her for the first time, three years ago. Mona and Anwar married last year and after that, Mona moved to Qatar. In Qatar, and in Gulf Arab culture in general, women can’t live alone in an apartment. Both Mona’s parents in France and Anwar’s family in Doha ultimately demanded that Mona lives with her in-laws while Anwar was in the service. 

The reasoning for their demand varied between ‘it is said in the Quran’ and ‘what will the neighbors think’. “Families in Qatar always use one of these reasons”, Anwar explained to me, “whatever fits better.” 

The next day, I went to the Qatar National Convention Centre to attend the MENC, the Middle Eastern Navy Commanders Conference, held on the side of the naval exhibition. “Why is the navy so important these days?” I asked a representative of a Western maritime force. “Because the center of gravity of global security is drifting towards the sea”, he answered. “90% of global trade is done by sea and on ships”, he went on explaining, “the navies must be prepared to promote and protect the use of maritime highways.” 

The Strategic Studies Center, a think tank within the Qatari ministry of defense, used the MENC to present its ‘five elements to define state power’. Everything in Qatar, according to the presentation, and consistent with what the diplomat had told me, starts and ends with the Emir. The Emir gives, the Emir takes away. 

It was the Emir’s foreign policy that gave Qatar a political dimension, mediating peace deals in Sudan’s Darfur and political agreements in places like Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan. It was the Emir boosting the economical dimension of state power by bringing the FIFA World Cup 2022 to Qatar. And it was also the Emir who was single handedly responsible for the social dimension in Qatar. The current Emir, Tamam, was shown playing football with children. His father Hamad was depicted riding a camel together with the common population.

“The Emir gives, the Emir takes away.” 

“Qatar is a good place for mid-level managers”, said Rashed, a Bangladeshi from Boston whom I met on a trip to the desert. “The salaries are good and there are interesting possibilities to move up the career ladder. And on top of that, the expectations from Qatari employers are low: showing up for work regularly and reliably is already considered excellent.”

Vishram, from Australia and with an Indian background, whom I met on the same trip, planned to stay in Qatar for three to four years and then return to Sidney. “I have encountered a lot of racism here”, Vishram told me. “When people realize that I am not from India but from Australia, they talk much nicer to me.” 

As for Mona, she intends to stay in Qatar for at least ten years. With her husband gone to the army, she was having a hard time surviving in Qatar. One of her recent Facebook posts was telling: “Qataris, hotel restaurant, alcohol”, she wrote, “and then they bitch about how terribly shameful it is for a woman to have coffee outside with one of her girlfriends. No wonder Arabs are so behind everything.”

The last time we spoke, Mona talked to me in French, a language that she had somehow negated in our previous discussions. But now the emotions were overwhelming and she needed to speak from the heart. Mona had always thought of herself as an Arab growing up in France. But the culture in Qatar was different. Different than the Muslim culture she had yearned for while living in France. Maybe she was a French woman of Moroccan origin, after all. 

What shall it be, Qatar? Defending the wealth and developing the society? Or rather developing the wealth and defending the society that is? It will take more than an Emir’s decree, yet probably less than $24 billion, to bring Qatar to the next level.