Tag Archives: Doha

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

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on the road again: Riyadh to Doha

This week, we took a short road trip from Riyadh to Doha, which is the capital city of Qatar. Doha may not be as ‘famous’ as Dubai among the cities of the Gulf region, but it is notable for being the broadcast home of Al Jazeera and if you watch BBC, you might have seen the Doha Debates. Qatar will also host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The drive to Doha took us on highways across the Saudi desert straight east/southeast towards the Qatari border.

The drive was smooth, with little traffic and wide open landscapes all around us:

Near Hofuf, a city about mid-way through the journey, we saw these interesting rock formations rising out of the desert. They beckon us for another visit to Hofuf, which is famous for itsĀ “Ali Baba Caves” and rock formations.

Road trips in Saudi are pretty much the same as everywhere else. You spend your time enjoying the scenery, making sure you have enough gas to get you to your next destination, and ensuring that you heed the warnings of highway signs. Whereas in North America, you might come across signs like this, warning of slippery road conditions …

… or crossing deer or moose …

… here are some examples of road signs we saw here, warning of drifting sand …

… and camels …

(Most of the time, there are safety fences along the side of the highway preventing camels from crossing the road, but there was one stretch of road where we saw a camel coming dangerously close to the side of the road – more nerve-wracking than anything, especially in my line of work where I come across articles like this).

I always get a kick out of the gas stations, which are usually like small plazas manned by guys in jumpsuits (no one pumps their own gas here) …

… and include a mosque …

… and a shop that sells anything one might need for a family excursion to the desert (from BBQ equipment to camel-hair lined robes for the chilly desert night, to toys to keep the kids amused):

By the way, gas is currently selling at the equivalent of ~$0.15/liter here – less than $10 to fill up our tank. No doubt about it: gas is cheaper than water out here in the Desert Kingdom!