Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth by John McManus - review by Barnaby Crowcroft

Barnaby Crowcroft

Full of Gas

Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth


Icon Books 400pp £10.99

In Arabia Through the Looking Glass, when he wasn’t comparing everything to Alice in Wonderland, Jonathan Raban likened his experiences in the Gulf States at the height of the 1970s oil boom to passing through a ‘time loop’ into Britain at the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Today – in polite academic circles, at least – it would constitute a major faux pas to compare the societies of the Middle East with those at some earlier stage of Western historical development. Yet, forty years on, one gains a strikingly similar impression from John McManus’s picture of life in 21st-century Qatar, from the outsized ambition, the extraordinary rate of economic growth and the transformation of the urban environment to the dreadful working conditions, the open racial hierarchies and the persistence of traditional rentier elites. To venture ‘inside Qatar’ in 2022, as McManus puts it, is to get a ‘glimpse of life at the coalface of globalisation’.

Qatar is little more than a frail-looking promontory sticking out into the Persian Gulf from the great landmass of Saudi Arabia, about the size of Devon and Cornwall. It is home to three million people, but Qataris make up only 300,000 of them – equivalent to the population of Doncaster or Lambeth. Yet this diminutive state demands our attention, for at least three reasons. First, Qatar possesses the third-largest deposits of natural gas in the world, supplying fully a quarter of all British imports; because of this, its sovereign wealth funds own perhaps a similar proportion of Knightsbridge. Second, Qatar rose to become the Middle East’s premier peacemaker early in this century, and later its political pariah, suffering an extraordinary economic blockade by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States between 2017 and 2021. And third, this December Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup.

McManus came for the football. The decision by FIFA in December 2010 to award the tournament to the oil-rich state stoked anger among football fans, and is still dogged by claims of bribery and corruption. But McManus, who has previously written a socio-anthropological study of Turkish football, was determined to get to know the new host country for himself. One thing that became immediately apparent, he writes, is that Qataris not only love football but have also demonstrated real achievements in it. He describes the extraordinary story of how Qatar trained up its national team, from an available pool of perhaps five hundred players, through the creation of a specialist youth academy, exhaustive scouting, and scholarship programmes, all under royal sponsorship. Ranked 102nd in the world in 2017, this Qatari side went on to win the Asian Cup in 2019, defeating Japan (with a population of 126 million) in the final. We must all ‘shoot down the canard’, McManus writes, that the World Cup is going to a nation ‘that doesn’t know or appreciate the Beautiful Game’.

Inside Qatar is most valuable as a history of all that has happened in Qatar over the twelve years since the World Cup was awarded to the country. One of the major growth areas has been its labour laws, which in the early 2010s were retrograde, even by Gulf standards. Since 2017, Qatar has introduced a tranche of labour legislation – including allowing expatriate workers the freedom to change jobs and to exit the country without permission – has introduced a minimum wage and has even allowed employees to elect representatives to ‘workers’ forums’, through which they can air grievances with company managers. In 2017, the first law recognising domestic service workers was introduced; in the same year, the International Labour Organization was allowed to establish a mission in Doha. This efflorescence of legislation is suggestive of the kind of involuntary Westernisation international sporting events can lead to, the prickly and individualistic Qataris having at first floundered under a media spotlight they do not seem to have anticipated and then enacted a whole load of things that diplomats and international agencies had been lobbying for without success for decades. Combined with the transformation of the urban environment by the building of $10 billion worth of new stadiums and close to two hundred hotels (there were just nineteen in the whole of Qatar in 2000), it is little wonder that people in Doha speak about 2009 as if it were some ‘ancient past’. Qatar years, McManus writes, seem like dog years.

What do the Qataris themselves make of all this? Inside Qatar opens with a brilliantly drawn account of an expedition which the author joins to go out into the desert and train falcons, the birds that have become a cherished symbol of Qatari identity. His companions are young Qatari city workers who pay vast amounts of money to ‘turn bedu’ for a day, and McManus ponders the challenges faced by a people that have become a small minority in their country and lived through a period of headlong change. Yet for the remainder of the book, the Qataris remain a shadowy, occasionally sinister presence in the background, and all the ‘hidden stories’ are centred on Qatar’s hundreds of other resident nationalities. In the final chapter, McManus admits that the day’s falcon hunting was the only time he ever spent with Qataris; despite his best efforts, he never succeeded in getting himself invited to Qatari parties, weddings or family dinners, or made any Qatari friends. His acquaintances from the hunt never invited him out again.

One can’t help but sympathise with them. McManus displays an irritating, Jimmy Know-All temperament, which seems surprising for someone who spent less than a year in the country and doesn’t speak the language, though which is probably among the requirements for a doctorate in social anthropology. In the lengthy interviews that form the main substance of the book – with Kenyan maids, Ethiopian taxi drivers, Nepali construction workers and retired British policemen – he is always sharing with us the superior thoughts he was silently thinking and telling us how he ‘wince[d]’, ‘recoiled’ or felt ‘a prickle of annoyance’ at his subjects’ failure properly to appreciate the finer points of climate change or the historical legacies of colonialism. When he does manage to make a friend, a phenomenally hard-working West African labourer-cum-safety inspector who stubbornly persists (poor fool!) in believing in the ‘Qatari dream’, McManus tells us about how he was forced to pooh-pooh his aspirations with a lecture on the realities of structural racism.

In fact, throughout Inside Qatar one constantly gets the sense that McManus’s subjects are far cleverer, more experienced in life and more insightful in their politics than is our social anthropologist. It is a shame, indeed, that one of them did not write this book.

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