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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.

(Picture is “Doha Skyline from the museum of Islamic art” by Jimmy Baikovicius. Used under a Creative Commons License.)

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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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109 thoughts on “Return to Qatar: A Second Qatari Travelogue

  1. I’m going to subtitle this, “In which Jaybird takes steps towards becoming a communist.” [Little ‘c’.]

    A few more trips to Qatar and you’ll be one of us. Gooble gobble.


  2. This was really great.

    This is likely a product of me being raised by my father, but this entire setup sounds hellish to me. Especially for the Qatari people. To not work because there is nothing to do sounds bad enough to my ears. But to not work because you are importing everyone to do things for you sounds soul-crushing.


    • Your comment (and @jaybird’s comment about being 14 in the OP) made me wonder specifically about Qatari teenagers. I’ll be reading more later but so far I’ve found out that half the people living in Qatar are under the age of 20, and that nearly half of Qatari youth suffer from mental illness.

      Here are a couple of dang interesting links, from which I garnered the above statistics:
      A UN/Qatari joint effort entitled Expanding the Capacities of Qatari Youth

      A website that seems to be more or less Huffpo-like, albeit with a far more youthful and more religious demographic: JustHere Qatar (“JustHere covers everything that is of interest to those who live in Qatar, and call it home be it for a year or a lifetime. It looks deeper into issues that affects the residents and provides commentary and triggers debate. Its rich and original editorial content, and interesting take on life in Qatar, makes it a one-of-its-kind portal in the country.” )

      Fascinating stuff.


  3. There is probably an interesting story in having clean and limitless energy sources being created and what it does to Oil Rich countries like Qatar where everyone gets money from it. The money would dry up overnight as you say.

    Parents tend to be split on whether they want their children to follow in their career footsteps. My parents are pleased that I became a lawyer like dad. My parents thought I could make a good teacher but did not want me to become one for a variety of reasons. Among blue-collar trades, I’ve noticed the same thing. “I don’t want my kid to do back-breaking labor like I do” and “Being a steel worker/dry waller/painter/whatever is good enough for me, it is good enough for my kid” in equal measure.

    I question whether anyone really wants to dig dirt. People dug dirt because it is better than starving and/or they were told that digging dirt is your lot in life. I question your national church version of unity. It seems to me that a national church can do something more like “You were born to dig dirt and work the fields. This is your lot. You will be rewarded in the next life for all the back-breaking done on earth.”

    Outgroups might need to be created for their to be ingroups. Conservatives would need to create liberals if liberals did not exist and vice-versa. Part of something that creates group adhesiveness is being able to point and say “We hate those other guys.”

    Another thing a national church might need is a serious dislike of any sort of pleasure. Boston has a lot of wealthy people but it is considered more tacky to show off that wealth than any in New York. Boston could never produce a Donald Trump. Perhaps a reason for this is Boston is still influenced by the Puritan and Quaker strains that worshipped profit but abhorred consumption. Boston is very much rooted in old ideas of inherited furniture and worn tweed jackets and wealthy people driving old Volvos to and from their estates worth millions of dollars.


    • I question your national church version of unity. It seems to me that a national church can do something more like “You were born to dig dirt and work the fields. This is your lot. You will be rewarded in the next life for all the back-breaking done on earth.”

      Perhaps so. Without automated dirt digging, however, you’re stuck with having people do it.

      How to deal with these people? Are they “your” people? If so, isn’t it better to have them know that they’re digging dirt as part of their lot in life and that they will be rewarded, if not in this life, the next, for dirt digging?

      Would you rather import people to dig dirt? That way you don’t have to give them any strokes at all. Just money.

      Boston has a lot of wealthy people but it is considered more tacky to show off that wealth than any in New York.

      Ostentatious wealth would do a good job of invoking envy in others not as fortunate. If you consider your neighbors to be one of you, you’d probably want to make sure that they don’t resent you. Don’t be a tall poppy. Don’t show off your star prominently.


      • I don’t think serfs were ever treated very well except in a few locations. Look at the recollections of people who worked downstairs during the Downton Abbey era. A lot of them talk about a rage at being treated as a second-class human. Here foreign staff might have been treated better because they were more skilled and sort of a form of consumption since it was considered smart to have a French chef and what not. Or Foreign tutors and nannies for the children.


        • Serfs aren’t treated particularly well in any part of the world even today.

          That said, being a valued part of the community is better than being part of the outgroup.

          And, in Qatar anyway, the ones who work in the fields under the hot sun aren’t 2nd class citizens. They’re 4th class citizens.


              • I am not sure how many cultures and societies truly disliked ostentatious displays of wealth. There were sumptuary laws in many countries and cultures but people found ways around them. Japan during the Shogunate and sumptuary laws but common people just wore silk on the inside of their clothing instead of the outside.

                The United States has largely gone away from decrying ostentatious displays of wealth. If anything, we largely relish in it. One theory about Trump’s popularity is that he is rather ostentatious with his wealth, none of the tasteful minimalism that is done by urban liberals. Hip-Hop is largely about boasting on your ostentatious wealth as far as I can tell. Bottle service at clubs is about ostentatious displays of wealth.

                Even in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, women wear very fashionable and potentially tight and skimpy clothing underneath their burquas. Eye make-up is popular.

                I think you would need severe totalitarianism to clamp down on ostentatious wealth.


                  • More seriously, I think Boston still has Blue Laws which severely limit the sale of alcohol on Sundays or it did until recently. There are a lot of places in the Northeast which close a lot of retail on Sunday still. This is a sort of paternalism that I think your libertarian side would rebel against. New Yorkers complain about how lots of stuff closes early in San Francisco. IIRC things shut down even earlier in Boston-metro.


                    • This is a sort of paternalism that I think your libertarian side would rebel against.

                      Whether or not I would rebel against it is besides the point, it seems to me.

                      What seems relevant is under what circumstances it would work and whether those circumstances are attainable.

                      If we want a society with high levels of equality, trust, and collaboration, we need those things to exist organically and not imposed from the top down. (Because, out of those three, you pretty much can only impose equality.)

                      It seems that they exist in Boston.


    • I am still waking up at 3:30 in the morning but there is nothing to make you love being at home in your own basement with your own wife and your own cats and your own fuzzy clothing than going nine time zones away for a couple of weeks.


  4. Fascinating stuff Jay, truly fascinating.

    It makes an interesting bit of grist for GBI proponents to mull over. The significant difference, of course, being that GBI posits that we’ve got some sort of tech, robots or huge efficiency increasing devices, that makes a very small number of people capable of fulfilling a very large number of people’s needs.. So that ameliorates the biggest problem you describe which is the back bent laboring underclass. It also eliminates the soap bubble aspect of this in that feeling that this isn’t capable of lasting.

    Did you hear anything about oil prices in Qatar? I’d assume with them so low the Qatari are feeling the pinch?


    • an interesting bit of grist for GBI proponents to mull over

      Not just GBI, but also strong proponents of aggressive income equality, since

      14% of the country are millionaires. No one lives below the poverty line. There is less than 1% unemployment.

      ….that’s some income equality, right there, yet according to Maribou above,

      nearly half of Qatari youth suffer from mental illness

      – the linked paper talks about things like risk-taking behavior etc.

      Correlation, causation, yadda yadda, but…every Qatari being pretty equally-rich-and-not-poor doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily making everybody happy.

      the biggest problem you describe which is the back bent laboring underclass.

      Again given Maribou’s comment I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem; but it is a big problem, and perhaps troubling as we think of all the Mexicans Here To Do Jobs That Americans Won’t Do (TM).

      a very small number of people capable of fulfilling a very large number of people’s needs…It also eliminates the soap bubble aspect of this in that feeling that this isn’t capable of lasting.

      These two things seem bound to contradict and then conflict in the long run, given human nature, since:

      A.) A majority often tends to abuse a minority, because they can.
      B.) A minority that has something the majority needs (in this case, the expertise or manpower to keep the majority gravy train running), may try to use that as leverage, to gain concessions from the majority; if they are very successful, de facto minority rule with the attendant historical ugliness; if they fail, GOTO A, since majorities who feel that minorities are taking advantage of them tend towards the ‘scapegoat and pogrom’ program.

      I’m also thinking about the presupposed non-bubble nature of a post-scarcity society; things happen in fits and starts and backslides, and the future arrives in waves…people that THINK they are living in a fully-post-scarcity society, which then suffers some shock or setback or recession or burst-bubble due to [massive solar storm EMP/geomagnetic reversal/rare mineral or ore shortage/other X factor], are going to be in a lot of trouble.

      Anyway, yeah. Lots to chew on. A possible future.


    • Did you hear anything about oil prices in Qatar? I’d assume with them so low the Qatari are feeling the pinch?

      Last time I was there, the news alternated between “Israel, Israel, Israel, America, Israel” and “The Emir sent a congratulatory telegraph to the Crown Prince of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan on his country’s 230th anniversary of its independence.”

      When I flew out there this time, I did what I could to pay attention to the newspapers and, the first couple of days I flew out there, the front page was *FULL* of fnords. Israel this, Palestine that, the 3rd Intifada, how America is screwing up everything… I was stuck wondering what in the heck was going on and what they were trying to distract me from.

      By the time that I left, the front pages were all boring as heck and full of sports scores and precious little “distraction” kinda stories.

      I have no idea what happened in the time between.


  5. The exact relationship between cultural or ethnic homogeneity and equality, trust and collaboration is not exactly clear. I think that the high levels of homogeneity during most of the 19th and 20th centuries is one reason why the Nordic model developed. However, the much more stratified and culturally diverse United Kingdom also developed a vigorous socialist movement and one where the social democratic party remained committed to the idea of national ownership of the means of production much longer than any social democratic party in a Nordic Country. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea are ethnically homogenous countries with high degrees of trust and collaboration but did not really get into social democracy at all.

    There has to be something more than a homogenous culture or a national church when it comes to developing the Nordic model. A vigorous democracy and some form of class conflict is also necessary. Its a combination of homogeneous culture, democracy, and class conflict that created the Nordic model.


    • One of the reasons that England was able to build that level of social support network was that it had just had the ever loving piss beat out of it. WWII created a level of social trust in GB that WWI did not, mostly due to being seriously attacked (blitz, U-boats destroying convoys of supplies, etc.) That created a We Are All In This Together feeling in the country.


      • It worked this way in the United States to an extent. We weren’t flattened but the Great Depression and the shared effort during World War II did allow for a certain amount of welfare measures like the GI Bill to get passed. Than a old bugbear of race came quickly along.


        • It’s a mistake to consider the GI Bill ‘welfare benefits’ in the context your describing. First, because it’s not at all universal (of course). But second, because the US federal government’s main spending priority for nearly a century before WW2 was veterans benefits. The back and forth of politics between the end of the Grant administration and the start of McKinley’s Denali’s was a) how much do we spend of veterans benefits and b) how high can we raise taxes (i.e. tariffs) to do so. Then we had another, shorter go around with this battle after WW1 with the bonus army and such.

          But all that is substantially different than the idea of the New Deal, which on paper was universal, and, moreover, had large chunks cast off and discontinued as WW2 reinvigorated the economy. There was the second go around in the Great Society, as Johnson took advantage of a unique and temporary political alignment. (and again, independent of any war. In fact, *despite* the war that he was also fighting).


  6. This was great. I hope you have a chance to visit Japan sometime, for a view of a society that is (for better or worse) about diametrically opposed, equality-wise, to Qatar. It’s an interesting argument where American society generally sits in between and which way it’s moving.

    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.

    I have often said “I can tell those guys are American—they’re dressed like giant 8-year olds.”


    • I don’t know that my job will ever have me go to Japan (whenever we do something in Eastern/Southeastern Asia, my boss tends to end up going).

      In the absence of that, what sort of observations have you made from there?

      Are there huge amounts of equality in Japan? Everything I’ve heard is that there are all kinds of qualifiers for names and the wives of salarymen have to periodically go through transitions when one of the husbands gets a promotion because the honorifics and terms of endearment need to be modified.


      • Japanese culture is pretty opaque from outside, but it’s an interesting parallel universe from which to view your own culture. Vis-a-vis inequality in Japan and the U.S., it’s kind of like the comparative differences in public safety. You may not feel like you live in an urban combat zone back home, but after a week or so in Tokyo, Americans start to notice that a lot of facets of Japanese culture are made possible by the absence of fear of crime—people sleep on public transportation, carry cash, let little kids run around on their own, etc.

        It’s like that with social inequality. Japan doesn’t immediately seem like an egalitarian utopia—they have a literal noble caste, after all, even if it’s basically invisible and irrelevant. But describing U.S. society to Japanese people sometimes feels like describing an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. I realize that I frame a lot of the discussion on a class structure that I wasn’t really aware of in the States. Telling people your school was crappy because it was in a poor neighborhood, for example, or explaining that you pretty much have to have a car to avoid being at the mercy of the local bus system (so if you can’t afford a car, you’re screwed)—Japanese people have to use their imagination to grasp this stuff, since here, rich or poor, there’s a general feeling of being in the same boat, or on the same crowded train, at least.

        And when they use their imagination, it can be uncomfortable. They interpret what they see in U.S. popular culture alternately like Fox news pundits and Oberlin faculty.


        • Dave Barry described it as–here I paraphrase–“Japanese society is like being a member of a club. You might not know the person sitting next to you on the bus, but they aren’t really a stranger–they’re a member of the club. And so it’s not really strange to be polite and helpful to that person, any more than it would be strange for two Elks members from different lodges to be cordial and helpful to one another.”


  7. 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.

    There is so much in this sentence, and the section it comes from.


    • It involved the last thing that I had to do before going home, so when I left, I gave him an additional tip of the rest of the Qatari money in my wallet. (Probably amounted to little more than 10 bucks, all told.)


  8. Now if the Qatari were smart, and were reading the writings on the wall, they’d be pushing money heavily into R&D for all manner of energy storage & generation. I imagine in that part of the world, Solar power is quite lucrative, and I can think of a few ways to take advantage of the extreme temperature differentials to create power. If you then have a way to store & transport that energy, you can still keep the economy running when the wells or the demand for their output runs dry.


  9. A healthy society that seeks to rise above poverty needs to conduct a balancing act: enough economic equality that neither jealousy nor stratification causes the basic ethics of the culture to erode, but also sufficient economic opportunity for the generation and enjoyment of wealth to exist that people continue to work, become educated, and contribute whether intentionally or inadvertently to the commonweal.

    We’re not the first to notice that a sociologically sudden influx of massive money causes significant problems even as poverty seems to alleviate. Corruption, indolence, decadence, disengagement, discrimination, and overload of infrastructure are only the easy things to identify from nations like, well, the Qatar described here, where petrowealth has eroded something valuable out from the interior of a culture even as it creates a glittering shell around where that culture used to be.


  10. By the way, was that building in the Qatari skyline in the front page image intentionally built to look like a giant inflated orange condom, or is it just me?


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