Thursday, May 10, 2007


Living in an Emerging Society

Before I came to Qatar I knew bits and pieces about this tiny country situated in the Arab Gulf. Geographically, it was a peninsula jutting out into the Gulf, and bordering only Saudi Arabia. Politically, it was a Gulf monarchy that had been ruled by the al Thani for several decades. Economically, it was endowed with natural resources, namely oil and natural gas. Demographically, it was a country of about 700,000, of which only about one-third are native Qatari. What I had learned in class and read in books was accurate, however, it was not the whole story. This is not necessarily due to the lack of the ability to study this society and record its characteristics. Rather, there has been little interest in this country from the Western political and academic realms. That is until recently.

Qatar is growing by leaps and bounds and is positioning itself within the global economy as one of a few progressive Arab countries, which will contribute significantly to tomorrow's geopolitical landscape. Qatar claims the third largest reserves of natural gas in the world. With recent advances, the economy is diversifying into education, financial service, high-end tourism, and medicine. To do all this, however, requires great amounts of capital and labor. The capital has been accrued from natural resource revenues. Labor, on the other hand, has been imported. And this is one of several interesting social ramifications that creating a global economy and society can have.

"Be careful when you drive because the Qataris drive large metal LandRovers, and they don't stop!" This was one of the first pieces of advice I was given after I arrived in Qatar. On the surface, this comment might elicit a laugh, but beneath it there are plenty of sub contexts being expressed. Most Qataris are able to afford expensive, big, or highly prized automobiles such as a LandRover or a Mercedes-Benz. Most of the time this comes from the government directly or indirectly as a result of oil revenues. The government may propagate the idea that what lies beneath the state's lands belongs to all of the state's citizens. Whatever the reasoning, the vast amounts of natural resources, which bring in vast revenues are shared by the government with its people. The drawback of this, however, in an emerging society has been the fact that most service sector employment is not the ideal place to work for a citizen who has received a state education and state benefits for the duration of one's whole life.

So what do you do when you can't find anyone within your company who is willing to clean the toilets or stamp the mail? You bring in someone from outside who won't dramatically change the cost structure of the company, but who will get the job done. Imagine doing this a thousand times over. Yes, it adds up and what do you get? A state population with an immigrant labor force that outnumbers the actual citizenry. But what happens when you need skilled labor as well? You hire skilled personnel--from outside. Interestingly, Qatar has a varied expat community representing communities from Southeast Asia, Western Europe, North America, and the greater Arab world. Most usually, where you come from qualifies you for the type of job you will perform. This, however, is largely based upon your educational training and expertise, which may be reflective of your origin. Either way you look at it, Qatar has entered the twenty-first century bringing in people from all over in the hopes of beating the bell curve in several economic areas.

Doha, the capital city of Qatar, is booming. Non-stop construction, education projects, new opportunities, and increases in information dissemination are all signs that the state is trying to open its doors to the outside world so that it will be able to take advantage of its resources as well as compete on a more level playing field, which for small states is a daunting challenge. Look at Singapore, though, and imagine the state's dilemma over fifty years ago. State-led development combined with an increasingly educated population and an open door policy to outside investment helped pave the way to a successful economy in the long-run.

The only problem in Qatar, however, is whether or not the state will push its citizens and not its foreigners to strive for a superior education in order to perform the jobs often present in an advanced economy and developed nation. Recent attempts through the Qatar Foundations's selection of premiere international universities (Georgetown, Cornell, Texas A & M, Carnegie Mellon, and Virginia Commonwealth) to set up satellite campuses in Doha have only supported this strategy.

The long-term is what matters the most. What is taking place immediately in the short-term will ultimately decide the fate of Qatar's projected state trajectory. It is an interesting situation to watch, and one that is continually developing, and will continue to unfold for several years to come.

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