The state of Qatar, which protrudes into the Persian Gulf with Saudi Arabia to its south and Iran to its north, is only a little larger than Connecticut. Despite its size, however, it is an excellent place to observe current affairs, not least those pertaining to religion. This is what I learned during a recent visit to Doha’s decade-old International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue—among the first institution of its kind in the religiously conservative, historically inward-looking Gulf States.
Qatar became independent of Great Britain in 1971, and has since sprinted into modernity, funded by abundant natural-gas fields. A few decades ago it was a tribal, desert society with an economy based on pearl diving, fishing, and camel and horse breeding. Now it is, per capita, the wealthiest country in the world, with a skyline catching up to many major cities.
Buildings reflect commercial and governmental needs, but culture is also part of the mix. In 2008, Doha opened a new Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the celebrated I. M. Pei and holding some of the most exquisite examples of Islamic art in the world. Pei took the commission on the condition that Qatar build an artificial peninsula into the Gulf to showcase his work. Qatar agreed.Development continues frenetically, barreling toward 2022, when Qatar will host the World Cup. Several money-is-no-object stadium projects dot the skyline, along with other works of urban infrastructure. Promising to “Deliver Amazing” in its campaign to host the event, and beating out the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia for the honor, the country candidly recognizes this as a bid for “soft power.” It wants to punch above its weight on the word stage.
Home to the most popular media outlet in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera, Qatar is also rapidly becoming a regional center for higher education. Its 2,500-acre “Education City” in Doha has lured major American universities—Texas A&M, Georgetown, Cornell, Northwestern—to set up not simply study-abroad centers, but entire satellite campuses. One might receive advanced degrees from these and other institutions without ever leaving the tiny kingdom.
Yet beneath the razzle-dazzle lurks disquiet.
The remainder of this article is available here on the website of Commonweal magazine. It appeared in the issue of 3 May 2019.