Too Good To Be True

Dubai is a lot easier to see than it is to explain.  Most know it is one of the seven states of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but even that is hard to understand.  I won’t test your patience by naming them all, but I’ll mention Abu Dhabi which most of you might have heard.  Each state has its own ruler who together with his colleagues form the Ruling Council who in turn elects/appoints ministers to oversee foreign affairs and defense.  All else is left to the head honcho in each state.  These states are notable because they happen to sit on a sea of oil and gas (which they haven’t even bothered with yet), and have created wealth that even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would have a hard time coming to grips with.  The other notable fact is that while the UAE and its member states are on good terms with Uncle Sam and are considered to be an ally in an uncertain world, democracy is nowhere to be seen.

S. and I figured, what the hey, while we’re in the neighborhood, why not slip over and see what all the fuss is about.  I know you may not be fussing about Dubai, but they’ve made a pretty big scene for the last ten years or so.  Our first decision was to figure out which of the 300 some luxury hotels would get our trade.  Yes, I said 300.  And yes, I said luxury…as in very expesive luxury.  We settled on Raffles because, well, I don’t know why we settled on Raffles, but I think we could have thrown a dart at the list of hotels and done ok.  I’m glad we avoided the Burj al Arab as rooms there start at $5000 a night and go up quickly.  We did ok though.  A very commodious suite with a lighting system so complex we never did figure it out; causing me to have to shave in the dark two mornings.  Our suite fronted on a view of Bur Dubai, which is on the left and old side of the creek spilling in from the sea.  The skyline was punctuated by the spire you see above which tops Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world….which we were told exactly 174 times.  It is, to be precise, 2760 feet tall and is comprised of 200 floors.  If you probed, you would find that only the first 166 floors are intended for occupancy.  I guess the other 34 or for storage.  One must ask, as I did to no avail, why one would build a building of 200 floors and only intend 166 for use, particularly when there is land as far as you can see not being used for anything but grazing camels.  You’ll not be surprised that I got no answer.

Today Dubai is populated by 1.8 millions souls of which 360,000 are very, very happy.  They are card carrying citizens and on a pretty fat dole for almost every thing.  The other 1.5 million or so are happy too, but less so.  They get pay checks they can send home to Gugerat, Bangladesh, Manila, Nepal, China, and wherever there is an over supply of labor.  These people do all the lifting, heavy and otherwise, that is done here.  They eek out a living for themselves on two year contracts which are renewed if they are good and lucky and don’t get too greedy.

Yesterday, Dubai was pretty much a little pissant fishing village like many others up and down the coast of the Persian Gulf.  After Mikimoto screwed up the economics of the pearling business by figuring out how to farm pearls rather than to dive for them, the predecessor of the current Emir decided to build the port now called Port Rashid.  It was named after, guess who?  You got it.  Sheikh Rashid Makhtoum who was a direct descendent of the family that wandered out of the desert in 1833 and settled here.  The port did some trading business, but things were still pretty slow until 1966.  I know that folks around here count their National Day as the day they got their independence from the Brits in 1971, but their real National Day was that day in 1966 when oil was discovered.  I’ll bet now the Brits really regret letting the Sheikhs take over.

The question that successor Sheikhs grappled with was what to do with all the money.  One can use only so many Bugattis.  Ah hah, they said.  Let’s build some buildings and make a big city in the desert, and then, people will think we’re just like them and forget that we’re sitting on a sea of oil.  And build they did.  And build. and build, and build.  Giant office buildings, giant indoor malls (one with a ski slope), giant apartment buildings, and giant mansions (they have to live somewhere).  Somewhere along the way the architects for these buildings must have in-bred or something.  They went crazy.  They designed buildings with top knots, shooting spires, empty floors, twisted trunks, crooked foundations, and acres of glass.  My favorite is one not quite completed yet that looks like a giant wiener sausage covered with a layer of filagree and a needle on top.  I’ll bet the architect got a bonus and is still laughing.

This city is clear proof of both the herd instinct of man and the notion that excess begets excess.  Everything was going just peachy keen until….you know what happened.  Let me just say that 2008-2010 have not been good years for investors in Dubai.  Hotel occupancy rates in high season (that is when its not 120 degrees and 100% humidity) are hovering at 60%.  Some like Raffles have closed a portion of their restaurants.  All of the malls are sucking the hot air of high vacancy rates.  They’ve even had to lower the price of lift tickets on the indoor ski slope.  I was told, but could not verify, that apartment prices have dropped by about 70% and can only guess that office occupancy is around 50%.  It’s rumored that 500 development projects have been delayed or completely abandoned, and they’ve even had to ship some Bangladeshis home.  Things are tough all around, but the Emir is still planting petunias on the streets and the Crown Prince just moved in to his new abode which is considerably larger than most of the 300 luxury hotels.

What next for Dubai?  Well, I suspect that unless the oil dries up in the next few years, the Sheikhs will continue to spend money on whatever interests them.  Right now its buildings.  Maybe in the future they will conclude that you can only eat one steak at a time and that trees (even palm trees) will not grow to the sky.  Or, on the other hand, maybe it is just too good to be true.

In Summary, Let Me Say

I travel because I like to spend part of my time out of my comfort zone.  Our trip to Qatar, Kuwait, and Dubai certainly qualifies on that count.  That’s not to say that I was ever uneasy on our trip (unless you count the time that I spent with my hand tangled in the bowels of an airplane seat).  We had all the creature comforts one could ask for.  Great, but long, flights.  First class hotels.  Great food.  Wonderful hospitality.  Yet we knew that this was something out or our prior experience or even out of our world.  It wasn’t just the women wearing their abayas and veils or the men and their dishdashis, nor was it the incessant calls to prayer that punctuated daily life.  It wasn’t the camels roaming free in the desert or the desert itself.  It wasn’t the pleasantly murmured “inshallah” that one heard in every conversation.  It wasn’t the humus or tabouleh served with the ubiquitous arabic bread at every meal.  It wasn’t even the acrid cardmom based coffee that one couldn’t agreeably turn down.  It was, I think, as we’d say in Texas, the whole enchilada.

I am now eight thousand miles and several days removed from the scene of these experiences, and I’ve had time to process my thoughts, feelings, and impressions.  If you don’t mind, I’ll share a few of them here with you.

1. Oil is king.  Unlike our British cousins who, when the regent passes, only mutter, “le roi est mort, vive le roi” and continue on their way, when king oil dies, there will be nothing to replace him.  Yes, I know they’re intending to build economies of the future built on education, health care and soccer, but I think it more likely that if all oil and gas production were stopped tomorrow there wouldn’t be another skyscraper or luxury hotel built for a long, long time.

2.  There’s the woman thing.  I heard all manner of explanations about the role of women in the middle east, and I’ve even done some reading since I’ve returned home, and none of it makes any sense to me.  According to my handy CIA fact book, women comprise more than 50% of the population of the region, and in parts of the region not only are they not allowed to be seen wearing culottes, they can’t drive a car or work.  Then add in the fact that they have to traipse around in 120 degree heat wearing a long black frock that covers them from head to toe.  They make a big deal out of the fact that recently a couple of progressive countries/emirates/sheikhdoms have allowed women to vote.  Whoopee!  They can’t be contributors to a productive economy, except in wifely ways, but they can cast a vote in elections that don’t really matter because the rulers are hereditary.  Go figure.

3.  These economies are not only overheated, they are over wrought.  Ok, it may make sense to build an indoor ski slope in an area where no one knows how to ski, but I doubt it.  I know for sure that empty hotel rooms and office space cannot be tolerated forever, and certainly it should be a signal that it may not be a great time to keep bringing in Bangladeshis to sling more cement.

4.  The desert really is in their blood.  The business about training a predator bird and taking him to the desert to kill rabbits or whatever other creatures exist out there is for real.  At least, here in the US of A, we are smart, and comfortable about it.  We take our high powered rifles to our designer cabins in the woods and blast away at whatever we see, and we get to drink whiskey after the sun goes down.  They, on the other hand, sit around camp fires sucking marrow out of sheep bones and washing it down with….tea.  Not my idea of a good time.

5.  Remember the TV show recently which raised the spector of life without Mexicans to do the work in Los Angeles.  That’s small potatoes to what would happen in societies like these where the acquisition of citizenship is virtually impossible for those who do the work.  As many as 80% of the residents of the gulf region countries are expatriates.  That is to say that they are imported from the nether regions of the world to perform those daily tasks of life which make life possible.  Then, at the end of their two year contracts, unless renewed, they go back to where ever they came from.   I’m pretty sure it’s not a sustainable model to have two tiers of society…one which has all the money and all the rights, and the other which has no rights, none of the money and does all of the work.

6.  Societies rooted in tribal cultures are not conducive to democratic governance as we know it.  I asked, wherever we went, about the system of government.  The most charitable characterization was of a constitutional monarchy, but upon closer inspection, it was not one we would recognize.  My own description would be of an enlightened dictatorship with the trappings of some faintly democratic institutions.  I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s just what it is.  Almost all the power resides in the familial hands of a head of state selected by…..well, I don’t know the details of how sheikhs were selected in the old days.  I suspect it had something to do with being the baddest boy on the block.  It’s possible today to bump one off (literally and figuratively), but it pretty much has to be done by members of extended family or tribe.  It happened as recently as 1995 when the head guy in Qatar was dethroned by his son with the help of an uncle, two cousins and a partridge in a pear tree.  I guess it’s better than mounting a recall vote

7.  I don’t know, but I wonder, if wearing flowing white robes and making your women folk walk three paces behind and to the left is a good basis for global integration.  Of course, I remember marketing 101 which emphasized that differentiation is good.  But there are limits.  I know the ancestors of my friend Guiseppi wore a toga in the environs of the Roman forum, but they, like the rest of us, would be wearing designer jeans and button downs today.  They didn’t ask my opinion, but here it is anyway.  Lose the robes and let go of the women a bit.  You might enjoy the 21st century even more.

8.  Religion, government and social institutions are highly integrated.  This would have given Thomas Jefferson a problem, but it doesn’t seem to bother them a whit.  Some allow other religious organizations so long as they don’t insult Islam (whatever that means).  They call this freedom of religion.  They will call a halt to any social activity to honor their call to prayer.  I call this commitment.

The question I came away with is whether it can last.  The risks are obvious. Oil may run out, social/political structures may disintegrate as minority populations become too large and unwieldy, or more likely, the young people who have been born into wealth and comfort will forget how to work.

I’m glad I went.  I was charmed by it all.

Never Ending Cup of Tea

I last visited Kuwait in 1983.  My company was then involved in developing and implementing a major computer system for the Kuwaiti government.  I remember two things about that last visit.  The water towers, two of them, now called the Kuwaiti Towers.  I know, it seems a little odd that one would remember water towers, but these are no normal water towers.  I guess you could call them designer water towers.  They were and are architectural and design marvels.  They guard the northern approach to the city as well as provide water to most of the central area of the city.  I thought at the time that if you ever wanted to conquer Kuwait, all you would have to do is put a couple of pounds of plastique at the base, and then voila!  No more water and no more Kuwait City, and since Kuwait City is Kuwait,  bobs your uncle, you have conquered Kuwait.  The second thing I remember is kissing the ground of wherever I went after Kuwait.  I was really glad to get outta there.

A lot has changed, but not the basics.  Kuwait City is still pretty much the whole show, although it’s stretched out quite a bit.  The desert still pretty much dominates everything else, and after Saudi Arabia, it is still the most conservative of the Arabian Peninsula countries.  No booze but lots of tea.  S.and I were there to visit Arabian horse breeders, and that we did from daylight to dark.  In two days we visited nine different breeders, drove 2000 miles in the desert, drank 847 cups of tea, ate twelve pounds of dates and other assorted sweets, and met some of the most charming and knowledgeable horse people in the world.  They hosted us with grace and treated us like honored guests.  More about them later.

First a little on Kuwait.  It has a population of about 3.5 million, but 68% are residents who don’t have and can’t get a Kuwaiti citizenship.  There are more Indians than Kuwaitis.  Go figure.  Their system of government is called a constitutional monarchy, but don’t think UK.  All the power is in the hands of the Sabah family and has been for generations.  The senior Sabah (Al-Hamad Al-Jabel Sabah) is the Emir, and you’ll see a lot of other Sabahs in the most senior government positions.  He appoints the prime minister and can dissolve what passes for their parliament whenever he wants, which he did as recently as 2009.

As you drive around Kuwait you see banners from every light pole and government building with the pictures of the the Emir and Prime Minister and the script 50/20/5.  It’s not exactly intuitive but it’s meant to celebrate Kuwait’s independence from Great Britain in 1961, getting rid of Saddam in 1991, and the ascension to power of the latest Sabah in 2006.  Get it.  50-20-5.  I dunno.  It makes sense to them.  BTW, you should know that they’ve pretty much forgiven the Brits for making them have round-abouts every few blocks, but they’re not likely to forget or forgive Saddam and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  I’ve looked high and low for some explanation of why Saddam wanted Kuwait….more oil, another seaport, a ready supply of those cheese filled dates…but no one seems to know.  He did some really bad stuff including shooting up the iconic Kuwait Water Towers and burning 773 oil wells on his way home.

There’s no doubt the economy is booming.  It’s funny what having huge oil reserves will do for you, but there are those who say it’s not the same as it was before the invasion.  They just don’t seem to have the go-go spunk that they did before they had to pay the US and others $17 billion to get rid of Saddam.  That and the $50 billion or so they had to spend to rebuild their infrastructure.  I guess if Saudi Arabia and Iraq were your two closest neighbors, that could make you look over your shoulder a lot.

Kuwait is 11th in the world in per capita income with 95% of their export income and 80% of total government income coming from the oil patch.  You might wonder how Kuwait has avoided the “troubles” now plaguing several of it’s neighbors.  It’s simple really.  First, you announce that you’re giving every citizen $1000.00.  Cold hard cash on the barrel head.  Second, you announce that groceries are free…for two years.  Yep, you heard me right.  Groceries are free for all the Kuwaitis who, btw, are the 5th richest country in the world and have a per capita income of $8100.  And what about the other 68% of the population who live in Kuwait, but don’t have Kuwaiti passports…nada.  They get nothing but the proverbial Bronx cheer.  So now we see that there are no flies on the Emir.  He knows the way home so to speak.  Appeal to their greed.  Give them more money.  Buy their loyalty.  It’s worked pretty well so far.

One might surmise from reading the foregoing that I have a bit of a negative view on Kuwait.  Oh contraire.  Actually I found them to be more approachable, full of life, hospitable, and generally happy to share part of their life with you.  Kuwait City doesn’t have the glitz (well, except the Water Towers) of Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it suggests substance.  It seems to me to have more humanity and less slipperiness.  Yes, I know it’s a more than a little presumptuous to reach these conclusions after only three days in country, but then, I’ve always been a quick study.  You know.  Often wrong, but never in doubt.  Let me tell you how I got there.

Most of the horse farms we visited were about an hour outside of Kuwait City which means they are in the desert or at least that one has to drive through a lot of desert to get there.  And drive we did.  Lots and lots of desert.  I expected it to be empty and a lot of it was, but scattered around were compounds of tents with bits and pieces of supporting materials.  Some portable potties, a few temporary fences.  I thought at first that I was getting a first hand look at the ephemeral bedouin, those stateless people that continue to cause difficulties throughout the gulf.  But no.  These were weekenders.  Kuwait City weekenders who wanted to return to their desert roots whenever and however they could.  Think of the Dallas upper middle class family going to their lake house for the weekend.  Except that this was the desert not Lake LBJ.  You know, lots of sand, constant wind, herds of camels wandering by,  a few four wheelers, the kids, and granny all in tents with no AC or running water.  What did they do?  Well, they sat around the campfire drinking tea, eating dates and talking about the good old days.  I’m not talking about the odd extended family or two.  I’m talking hundreds, maybe thousands of these weekend desert seekers.  I’m told that if we had stopped by, they would have invited us to stay for a cup of tea and some turkish delight.  I wish we had.

The second data point for my thesis is the breeders/owners that we visited.  Obviously, if you’re in the horse business in Kuwait, you’re probably don’t need to wait for the Emir’s free groceries,  but these guys were a thing apart.  They didn’t turn over our de rigueur visit to the hired help.  They met us at the gate, so to speak, and not only showed us their farm and their horses, they showed us more than a little of their life and their culture.  They were all delightful, but one stands out.  Usama A. comes from a family of successful businessmen and were connected to the Sheikhs that run the country, but he loves the desert and he loves his horses.  He was larger than life in almost every way. You remember Anthony Quinn in his role of the Bedu chieftan Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia.  Usama was much more refined, of course, but he had the same magnetic personality.  In order to see Usama’s horses you not only had to drive an hour into the desert, you had to endure and pass muster in a preliminary interview that he conducted in his majilis (an Arabic term meaning place of sitting).  His was quite luxurious, but others of his tribe have their majilis in non-descript tents decorated with worn rugs and pillows.  His could have been on Park Avenue.  We talked about horses, and we talked about life.  Mostly he talked and I listened.  You realize how hard this was for me.  Evidently I passed muster.

We proceeded to his presentation arena, and he asked if we wanted to sit in the indoor viewing enclosure or sit outside.  Thankfully, I guessed right when I said that horses should be viewed in the fullness of nature.  He had mentioned that he had 41 horses in the course of our interview, and he presented every single one of them to us.  He did the presentation himself.  No, he was not in the ring.  His Moroccan trainer did that. He told us everything we wanted to know about the horse and more.  He knew their pedigree to the third and often the fourth generation.  It was obvious he appreciated and loved his horses, but he understood it was a business as well.

Finally the presentation came to an end and he excused himself for prayers.  Yep.  He went to pray.  We hung around not knowing how long prayers would take, but the growling of our stomachs reminded us that it was almost two in the afternoon.  Early for lunch for them perhaps, but way past my east Texas dinner time.  We met again in his dinning room which adjoined the stable and ate the best meal of our trip.  I won’t give you the details except to say that you should recall Anthony Quinn tearing off hunks of lamb for his guests and sucking bone marrow thereafter.

Oh, I should mention S. and how she fared in all of this.  She is, as I’ve said before, a trooper.  Maybe a reluctant trooper, but a trooper nevertheless.  Usama knew his stuff when it came to the distaff side.  He cooed and wooed and won her to his charm.  He provided a beautiful wrap when the weather turned chilly, then gave it to her.  He apologized for his wife not joining us.  He insisted she have the first serving of every dish including the sheep brains which she ate without a qualm.

And yes, we ended with yet another cup of tea.

The Perils of Travel

Those of you who are weary road warriors know that travel is never easy and the unexpected is the rule.  Cancelled flights, smelly seat mates, crying kids banging on your seat back are all part of the game.  I have had the odd, pleasant travel surprise, but they are so few and far between that memory fades.

I hesitate to relate my own recent travel saga because I know that all of you will be able to “top that”, but I’m inclined to proceed if only because if I don’t tell the story, S. certainly will.  I think I can paint myself a far more sympathetic character that she would be inclined to do.

Our air travel plan for this trip set up well.  I quick trip to Houston, short layover, and non-stop business class on Qatar Air which was tipped to be one of the best of the emerging airlines.  It looked good as we settled into our obviously new and well designed cocoon-like seats in a mostly full business class cabin.  Our seating space had all the latest technology including a personal entertainment system that offered unending options, and that S. and I could both figure out how to work.  The seat was something out of the NASA space program.  It would move in ways that only a zero gravity space engineer could imagine.  I counted at least 1427 different settings including one which laid the seat completely flat.

The other good thing about this flight was that it left at 8:00 pm.  It was a fourteen hour flight, but if you took out one hour to get settled, two hours for eating and drinking, seven hours sleeping (with the aid of a little magic pill), that left only four hours idle time before arrival.  Enough for a movie and a Kindle read.

And that’s exactly the way it worked, more or less.  A large gin, an unusually good amuse bouche of bits of chicken with an asian sauce as a prelude to a fresh green salad, well cooked lamb chops, and a glass or two of very good vin rouge.  One of the best airline meals in memory.  I played with the seat controls for awhile, spread my sleeping pad, readied my pillow and blanket, but did not use the “sleeping suit” thoughtfully provided as did some of the more progressive passengers.  Oops.  I almost forgot the magic pill.  I settled in with my Kindle and reading light only to fall in to a heavy, dream free sleep almost immediately.  I awoke seven hours later craving a morning cup of coffee even though it wasn’t morning and summoned the flight attendant for assistance.  While she was about her business, I straightened my all-purpose seat, folded the blanket and sleeping pad and thought to look for my Kindle.  It wasn’t in sight.  A further search led me to the small space between the seat and the console that separated my seat from Sandra’s.  Using my fingers as tweezers, I tried to no avail to extract it.  I maneuvered the seat controls to the point where I could see it better and began to force my hand into the small space.  It was tight, very tight, and sharp metal plates pinched at my hand.  In spite of the space age functionality of the seat, it was, after all, an electro-mechanical device with interconnected moving parts.  I fine tuned the seat position with the controls to the point where I was pretty sure that, with a little more umph, I could get my fingers around the Kindle.

Voila.  It worked.  I squeezed my fingers on the Kindle and started to withdraw.  It became immediately clear that my hand and the Kindle couldn’t be withdrawn through the small opening at the same time.  Figuring my hand to be worth more than the Kindle, I let go of the Kindle and tried again to withdraw my hand.  No luck.  The more pressure I exerted, the tighter the grip of the dastardly seat mechanism on my hand.  The flight attendant returned with my coffee which by now was pretty far down the list on things I wanted.  By this time, I was on my knees beside the seat struggling to maintain my composure if not my dignity.  The flight attendant seemed alarmed, but had no earthly idea what to do.  I asked her to find a flashlight, and she scurried away.  Now S. was awake and had sized up the situation.  She started to laugh, but a snarl from me nipped that.  She offered suggestions, all of which I had already tried.  Other passengers started to stir and noticed my predicament.  They, thankfully, kept quiet.   In fact, it seemed they were trying to ignore me and my dilemma much as you would avert your eyes from a man who had a heart attack in public.

I decided that drastic action was the order of the moment and determined to try brute force.  I would only hurt a little while.  I forced my hand about an inch at the expense of a deep gouge in my skin which I knew was seeping blood.  Now I was officially concerned.  I started to run through my options and they weren’t good.

1.  Stay where I was with my hand deep in the bowels of the seat and kneeling in the aisle.  As you can see this was not a good option for a number of reasons that I won’t bother to go in to.

2.  Send a message to the pilot that we needed to make an emergency landing.  Also not a great option in that I knew we were nearing Iran and Iraq, and if I had my druthers, I’d druther not be in either of those places.

3.  Try to maneuver the seat mechanism to create more space for my hand to be released.  I momentarily favored this option until I determined that I might cut my hand off in the process.  I was persuaded to abandon this idea.

4.  My penultimate option was to grit my teeth and give it a tug.  Hell, the thing went in there, it was bound to come out if I pulled hard enough.

At this moment the flight attendant showed up to inform me that there was no flashlight on board.  What!  A Boeing 777-200 LR with all the latest flying gizmos, and no flashlight.  Someone would hear about this….. if I only could untangle myself from this high tech seat.

I took a deep breath, tried to relax, closed my eyes, and voila… hand came out as easily as it went in. I dunno how, and I didn’t care.  I was free.  I still didn’t have my Kindle, but that was a small price to pay.  I did have several gouges and one small gash on my hand and wrist, but, again, a small price to pay.  I don’t know who was happier…me, S. or the flight attendant.

PS.  Just before landing I reached under my seat to retrieve my shoes and there it was, my Kindle, laying on the floor.

The Arabian Peninsula

The image above is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of the lands rimming the Persian Gulf, but this skyline and others like it throughout the region have become the face of the “New Middle East”.  Yes, I know they are protesting in Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and points south and west, and yes, I know that autocrats, kings, despots, and even some benign dictators populate the circles of power in many neighboring countries.  We are on our way to Doha, Qatar and from there will proceed to Kuwait and finally to Dubai of the United Arab Emirates before we make our way back to Doha again for our flight back to Houston.

I was watching the in-flight monitor as neared Qatar just at the moment we were crossing above Iraq and then noted that our flight path would take us directly over Bahrain as well.  One war winding down and one country verging on new violence in an area of the world where violence is not uncommon.

Qatar, on the other hand, seems at peace with the world and more than ready to assume a new, enhanced position in the community of nations.  Most of us know only that Qatar has served as a jumping off point for US forces in our middle east military adventures.  I drove past the US Air Base today which is just a few miles outside of Doha, and it seems to stretch across the whole horizon.  It’s also impossible not to notice the constant stream of US military jests to-ing and fro-ing.

You should also know that a few otherwise unremarkable sheikhs with their roots in their bedu tribes have gotten fabulously wealthy extracting oil and gas from the desert and selling it to satisfy the unending needs of western countries (and now China) for hydrocarbon based energy.

The history of Qatar is relatively unremarkable as well.  While there are some signs of human activity dating back to the 8th millenium BC, nothing much was known, at least from a 21st century perspective, until old Herodotus gave it a mention in his historical writings in the 5th century AD.  I guess the most notable thing about Qatar in the early era, and continuing today, is that the history of Qatar is also the history of the bedu tribes who scratched out a living and a culture long before the first drop of oil appeared.  I’m going to skip over the conquest of the Qatari by the forces of Islam and move on the the modern era which has been dominated more by the al Thani family than by Islam.

I don’t know how you get to be a Sheikh, but if I’d lived around here, I would have given it my dead level best, because these dudes live really, really well.  The Al-Thanis, the current ruling family, took control in the 1700’s and have pretty much ruled the roost ever since.  At the outset, these were pretty tough hombres.  They are a part of the Tamim tribe which has it’s root stock in Saudi Arabia and pretty quickly figured out they liked pearl diving better than herding goats and built a big business out of grains of sand growing in oysters which proliferated the area.  That began to change when the oil prospectors showed up, ultimately leading to commencement of oil production which started not long after WWII ended.  And there you have it.  Hang around, survive and discover oil.  Oh, that and run a tight ship… which the Al-Thanis have shown themselves to be good at.  We’ve heard a lot about generational change lately, but the Al-Thanis set a new standard.  In the post-oil discovery era, several Al-Thanis had ruled in a more or less lackluster way.  The old man Sheikh Abdullah, his son Ali, and his grandson Ahmed pretty much left running the shop to Abdullah’s nephew Kalipha who ultimately threw the old guy out in a bloodless coup in 1972.  Then, he himself was given the deep six by his own son who didn’t think his pops was moving fast enough to keep Qatar in the fast lane.  An interesting footnote to this last change of power is that Kalipha, who was generally recognized as a good, but lackadaisical ruler had an itch for the finer things in life.  He loved eating bon bons and living large on the shores of Lake Geneva which is where he was when his eldest son, Hammad, gave him the heave-ho.

Hammad, by all accounts, thinks big and pays attention to detail.  He is progressive (relative to the general run of Arab rulers), even implementing women’s suffrage, of a sort, giving them the right to vote, drive a car (wow) and work outside the home.  He evidently believes that the oil spigot will run dry sooner or latter (that date has been pegged at 37 years hence by those who know this kind of stuff), and has a plan that will allow Qatar to continue to be a big cheese without oil.  This plan focuses on Sports, Education and Medicine.  Not bad at the 40,000 foot level, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is.  He has already hosted the Asian Games, has been selected for the 2022 World Cup and is preparing for the next Olympic bidding cycle.  He has conceived and built Education City wherein are housed cooperative ventures with major western educational institutions including Carnegie Mellon and even Texas A&M.  He is now building the largest acute care and teaching medical facility in the Middle East.  New real estate developments are like johnson grass.  They are everywhere and spreading at an alarming rate.  Huge shopping malls with every high end retailer known to mankind.  Huge mixed use developments with all manner of high end retailers.  I suspect, but don’t know, that occupancy rates are low and retail rates are subsidized in the hope that the market will catch up with them sooner or later.  They are impressive nevertheless.

We had dinner last night with Bart V. a Belgian who has lived here for 12 years and got the expat lowdown on what’s going on.  His boss is one of the Sheikhs of the five families, and he deals with others of that tribe at the highest levels of the country.  Notwithstanding that he has made a personal long term commitment to the country, he was at the same time bullish on the economic future and cynical about the idiosyncratic “democracy” that coexists with what is, at it’s heart, a culture that’s still rooted in the tribal allegiances and behavior that is not far removed, in space or time, from inviting the goats into your tent.

We’re off this morning for Kuwait which is another step back in modernity.  We’ll see what we think after we leave there.  Qatar may look pretty good comparatively speaking.