Return to Qatar: A Second Qatari Travelogue
I recently went back to Qatar to do some light-to-medium maintenance work and help fix and prevent a handful of little maintenance problems. I mostly worked somewhere between 10 and 12 hours a day, but I traveled with a couple of other folks this time (both of whom were excited about the opportunity to get out and do stuff), so I actually went out to see a handful of sights and gather a handful more insights into my own culture by looking at it through the lens of another.
Driving wasn’t any better this time than last time. Drivers quite regularly “blocked the box” and created gridlock. We’re not talking about a light little “oh, the yellow is kind of stale, I think I’ll go through” but a “the last six guys went through the red light, I’m not going to sit here like a chump.” Then they block the box and prevent the next light from moving anyone.
I make jokes about Colorado having awful traffic due to all of the Californians driving next to New Yorkers driving next to Texans driving next to Bostonians driving next to people who are stationed at one of the five military bases here in town (which means that they could be from hundreds of different places) and none of these people have the same driving etiquette/conventions and so nobody knows what to expect from anyone else. Qatar has people from Qatar, from India, from Sub-Saharan Africa, from Germany, from America, from China, from Australia, from any number of countries. People from this social stratum driving next to people from that one. None of them share the same etiquette.
It creates a race to the bottom.
One night we went to dinner at the Indian/Chinese fusion restaurant and one of my co-travellers asked the waitress which country she came from (it was, of course, a third world country that has had some pretty awful war stories printed about it in the last decade) and he asked what country she thought we were from. She said that she thought that we must be Americans because we were very friendly and we talked a lot. She was gracious enough to fail to mention that each of us at the table had also achieved a certain weight class.
Remember being 14 years old? What would you have done to/with yourself if someone had given you six figures?
Looking at myself, I suppose if the best of me were to answer, I’d say “I’d have paid off my family’s house, and if there was any left over, I’d have set up a college fund for me and my sister, and, if there was anything left from that, I’d have taken us on a sweet, two-week, vacation to Europe or something and then put the rest in savings.”
The worst of me would answer something like “I would have ruined my life. Good and hard.”
Now looking how the worst of me would have gone on to ruin my own life, I think about what would have happened if I had gotten another six figures when I was 15.
And what I would have done if I *KNEW* I would be getting another six figures when I was 15. If I knew that, I might even change my “the best of me” answer.
And then another six figures after that.
Most of the ways I would have ruined my life would have been mitigated by another million bucks. Mostly because there are a lot of things that people are willing to overlook for a handful of cash.
The souk had a falconry district. Shops filled with perches and perches filled with falcons. 20, 30 birds, all hooded. Sitting, waiting for a family to come in. We saw a dad and an 8ish year old boy dressed all in white robes in a shop, the boy proudly holding his gloved hand out and having different falcons placed on it. We passed by a falcon hospital with gleaming white walls and people in scrubs wandering waiting for patients to come in.
There was a booth where they made naan in a kiln. The guy working the kiln handled a wad of dough for five or six passes between his hands where he made it into a disc, he placed the disc on a bag full of something that held its shape and, in one expert motion, stamped the dough on the side or roof of the kiln. There was room for four such discs in the kiln and by the time he was done with the fourth, the first was done cooking. He grabbed it with a forked spear and threw it into a large basket. He was able to make about 8 naan a minute. He was barely able to keep up with demand.
We had mutton pies baked between two naan that were then quartered. The naan surely had no more than 4 or 5 ingredients and the mutton probably didn’t have many more ingredients than that. It was the best tasting meal I had while I was there and the only meal that made me say “It would be worth the various risks to bring Maribou here to experience something like this.”
Qataris get money every month based on how closely related they are to the Emir. 14% of the country are millionaires. No one lives below the poverty line. There is less than 1% unemployment.
A society with high levels of equality, trust, and collaboration can be weakened significantly by giving it large amounts of unearned wealth. Once everyone is wealthy, you’ll find that you don’t have anyone willing to shovel dirt. So you have to import people willing to shovel dirt. Which creates an outgroup and there will be harm done to “equality” at that point. Make people wealthy enough and you not only won’t have people willing to shovel dirt, but you won’t have people willing to scoop ice cream or wait tables. So you have to import those.
Even wealthier and you won’t have people willing to do not only jobs with low prestige associated with them but jobs with fair-to-middlin’levels of prestige. Computer jobs, say.
So you not only create one outgroup, you create several outgroups on different strata. Now you’ve pretty much shattered the concept of equality. Trust then becomes something only for members of any given stratum and cooperation between strata depends primarily on immediate exchange of benefit (e.g., money) rather than on maintenance of ties within group membership. So cooperation is grudging and trust atrophies. The richest folks don’t need to trust each other because they don’t need to collaborate beyond keeping the people from the outgroups in line… and they can hire people to do that.
Which means that the society is buoyed by the wealth now. If the wealth were to disappear tomorrow, so would the mercenary members of the outgroups. The mercenaries leave and leave only the Qatari nationals to live in Qatar… a society of people who never learned to do computer jobs, let alone scoop ice cream, wait tables, or shovel dirt.
And then the society will have to go through some serious callisthenics to re-establish even medium levels of equality, trust, and cooperation.
If enough of the society has atrophied, that’s a recipe for the social equivalent of a heart attack.
With all of the above in mind, it seems to me, that if you want a society with high levels of equality, trust, and collaboration, it cannot be too wealthy. It needs to be poor enough that pretty much everyone needs to work (exceptions can be made for the differently abled or people who achieve a particular age or something, but, for the most part, everyone needs to have a job that adds value… it doesn’t necessarily have to be employment as homemakers would count as doing an important role too, but the whole “we’re all in this together” thing has to be embraced by pretty much everybody).
There’s no way around some amounts of inequality. Skilled workers will command more esteem than unskilled. People who provide manual labor will be held in somewhat lower esteem than people who are thought workers. There will always be some sorting of sneetches and the ones with stars will be seen as higher on the totem pole than those without. Let’s assume an equality band where there is a lot of wiggle room within the band, with room both for sneetches with stars and room for those with none upon thars. Everybody is within the band, though. Like, say, the members of the countries operating with the Nordic Model.
The best way to enforce that level of equality would be something like a national church. A meeting place where everyone is expected to go once a week, show up, shake hands with strangers, have something like “we are all brothers/sisters/siblings” said in unison before a holy man mumbles an uplifting anecdote before affirming that all of us are members of the ingroup, there are no outgroup members here… and everybody shakes hands again, maintains some of the wear and tear that social bonds were subject to during the week, and then everyone is back to the daily grind. The sneetches with stars hang out with other stars, most likely, and those without hang with those without… but come the holy day, we re-establish that we are all sneetches and stars have nothing to do with sneetchosity.
The religion will also push for collaboration in the name of that which makes everyone equal and, if collaboration is enforced for a while (and mutually), that will start planting seeds of trust.
Eventually, if you’re lucky, the purpose of the church is to give preventative, and not corrective, maintenance for issues of equality, trust, and collaboration. The community itself will re-enforce its own norms that do a good job of cutting down the tall poppies, reenforcing collaboration, and helping create an environment where trust can flourish. Sure, there will be stars and the lack of stars which has some superficial resemblance to ingroups and outgroups, but the emphasis is not on the stars but on the sneetch.
Now, achieving high levels of equality, trust, and collaboration is not necessarily the end-all/be-all for any given society. They may be willing to allow for other goals at the cost of lowering the levels of equality/trust/collaboration (or any two or all three).
But if you want the highest levels that have been demonstrably been achieved, it seems to me that you need a system like the above.
The day I was going home, I had an opportunity to sit and talk with one of the countless hospitality workers (a cab driver) while I was out and about. (I’m going to be vague on the off chance that something like this might get back to bite him in the butt.) He was from a third-world country and he explained to me that he had kids and his kids were why he was there. He wanted a better life for them and this job was something that he could do in order to make sure that they had a better life. He looked around, as if checking to make sure he could tell me a secret, and he told me that Qatar was a decadent place and that no one was there for any reason at all but to make money. If there was no money, he told me, poof. Everyone would leave. The climate is no reason to stay, the culture is no reason to stay, the people are no reason to stay. He just wants to make a better life for his kids. His culture back home, he told me, was beautiful and he misses it. Everyone is hospitable, everyone is family, when a guest shows up, they are family. He invited me to bring my wife and come to meet his family. “We’ll go up into the mountains and drink mountain wine!”
In the course of a 10 minute conversation in which he asked me about my cats and I asked him about his children, we went from being two members of the outgroup to being two members of an ingroup.