I had no expectations for Qatar, which was lucky because whatever expectations I might have had were nowhere near the actual level of bizarreness of the society which I found.
As a group we had joked about being described as “emerging young leaders” so it is possible to understand the smiles on our faces as we were greeted off the plane by representatives of the Qatari government and ushered through immigration via a diplomatic channel! From there it got progressively odder: whether it was observing the extreme disparity in wealth between local Qataris and the migrant workers building sky scrappers or tending the immaculate parks and open spaces, or the finding out about the system of allowances to which Qataris have access, Qatar is a weird place.
For instance, for every Qatari, there are nine foreigners in the country (and this extends to all levels of government, the Chief Advisor to the Minister of Development with whom we met is an affable Scotsman who has been living in Qatar for nearly seven years without any chance of ever acquiring citizenship); for instance, all Qatari water (barring a small amount from rainfall which is squandered) is produced in desalination plants where the condensates from the desalination process are pumped back into the Gulf leading to a future salinization crisis in the Gulf; for instance, water is three times more expensive than petrol. Or, what felt to me like almost a mania to create a cultural heritage (see Ketara for instance, a cross between a cultural centre and a destination for the soon to arrive cruiseliner trade).
However, in the midst of all this, there were chinks of individuality and possibilities for human contact. One such moment came for me on the last night in Qatar. We were being hosted by the Diplomatic Club(!) at a dinner with young Qataris. These were not young people as I would normally understand them, for instance, the young man I was sat next to was a member of the Moroccan royal family. However, the young man opposite came from a “normal” family and over dinner we spoke about all kinds of things: from his childhood memories of hunting rabbits on land which is now dominated by high-rise apartment blocks, to the tales that mothers tell their children about evil donkeys to stop them from going out in the midday sun, to the importance of poetry in the culture of the Gulf. Suddenly, there was contact.