Unexplained prohibition reflects emirate’s balancing act between religious puritanism and pursuit of modernity
There are car dealers on both sides of the road – Rolls-Royce on the right, Ferrari on the left – leading to the bridge over to the Pearl in this new district of Doha. Located on a man-made island to the north of Qatar’s capital, a mixture of big houses with private beaches, 50-floor luxury hotels and marinas for the ultra-rich, the Arab Riviera, as its promoters have dubbed it, is the emirate’s most recent folly.
But the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned on the island at the end of last year and gloom has gripped many residents. The managers of top-notch restaurants and boutiques complain sales have dropped by about half.
“When we heard the news we thought it was the end of the world,” says a waitress at the Mango Tree, a Thai restaurant where the bottles behind the bar have been replaced by water jugs. The foreigners who once turned up in droves on weekend evenings, filling the cafe terraces of this golden enclave, have taken refuge in the hotels at West Bay, the business quarter of Doha, where alcohol still flows freely.
“We’ll die of boredom here,” says the proprietor of a coffee stall.
The prohibition order was issued by the United Development Company, one of Qatar’s leading shareholding companies. The Pearl is its flagship operation. But a member of the ruling al-Thani family is clearly behind this move. As to the reason, one source cites an over-indulgent binge, the sight of which supposedly upset some Qatari passers-by. Another notes the need to tidy up the emirate’s image for the Pan-Arab Games last December. A third source suggests a communication campaign by the ruling family a year before the country’s first general election.
With no official explanation, foreign investors are assuming this is just a temporary drought. They remain convinced that, once consumption of alcohol has been restricted to the inside of restaurants, the ban will be lifted all over the 400-hectare island.
But the episode has made a lasting impression, being symptomatic of the tension that has taken hold of Qatar, predominantly conservative in religious matters, since it started to come to terms with the extreme modernity championed by Doha. “Qataris are basically pretty traditional,” says a French expatriate. “They are not as broad-minded as their rulers.”
The Pearl affair also illustrates the divisions at work in a country (population 1.7 million) where four-fifths of the residents are foreigners – primarily Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese and Filipinos – making up the workforce on which the Qatar miracle is based. It was for their benefit that a subsidiary of Qatar Airways, the Qatar Distribution Company, started selling pork in its supermarket during the buildup to Christmas. This new departure prompted an outcry on the internet “I never thought the day would come that I have to ask the waiter in a restaurant in Qatar what kind of meat is in their burgers,” one tweeter complained last November.
This reaction, mainly voiced on social networks, is unlikely to sap the power of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. At the beginning of December the emirate won its bid to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022, with the undertaking that special areas would be set aside for consumption of alcohol.Two weeks later the regime opened a new mosque in Doha in honour of Abdul Wahhab, the Saudi founder of the fundamentalist branch of Islam which bears his name and theoretically still holds sway in Qatar. “It’s a constant balancing act,” says a foreign diplomat, “but for the time being the Emir has things under control.”
The latest example of this schizophrenia is Doha’s acquisition of The Card Players, a painting by Cézanne, with a bottle of wine in full view between the two players.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde.
from Benjamin Barthe