Perched on top of the world’s largest natural gas fields, the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar is living, swaggering proof that money can’t quite buy everything in life. With approximately £370bn in its sovereign wealth fund, it’s the richest nation in the world per capita. And over the years, it has splashed its cash everywhere – packing its streets with Ferraris and bling hotels, and buying up prime global landmarks – in London alone, both Harrods and the Shard.
Yet despite hiring droves of expensive PR firms from London and New York, it has not been able to buy good headlines for its biggest vanity project of all: the 2022 World Cup. Instead, the country has faced unprecedented international scrutiny: the abuses of migrant workers, its lack of democracy and charges that it bribed Fifa officials to get the tournament in the first place. So much for hopes that the World Cup might “sports wash” Qatar’s image.
Should the ruling family be looking for a new PR man, though, they are unlikely to want John McManus, whose new book, Inside Qatar, paints an equally unflattering picture. Published ahead of the tournament’s start in late November – Qatar is far too hot to play in summer – the book is aimed at anyone interested in the “modern day boom town” outside the stadiums and fan zones.
As a social anthropologist by trade, McManus’s focus is not the secretive intrigues of Qatar’s ruling family, but on the lives of ordinary people – in particular the estimated 2.3 million guest workers who outnumber the locals by nearly 10 to one. Yet this too is a world that is off-limits. Most guest workers are reliant on visas sponsored by employers, meaning few are willing to speak critically, let alone on the record. Fortunately, McManus is an engaging writer, who can bring even anonymous interviewees to life. Indeed, the fact that “Kumar from India” and “Yusuf from Senegal” dare not voice their real names speaks volumes about the kingdom’s caste-style social system, where Qataris come first, Westerners second, and everyone else a distant third.
An opening scene sets out Qatar’s uneasy relationship with both modernity and the outside world. McManus spends a day in the desert with Nasser, a local who practises falconry – one of the few sports Qataris can genuinely call their own. The romance of this Bedouin tradition, though, is ruined by the 60-inch TV in Nasser’s desert “camp” and his retinue of Bangladeshi workers, who are treated like feudal underlings. Their $500 monthly wages, McManus notes, are a fraction of the $35,000 that one of Nasser’s falcons cost.
Nobody dares complain. Doing so can lead to the loss of one of one’s work visa, and in the event of a dispute, few expect their word to be taken over that of a local. En route back from the falconry trip, McManus cites how Nasser nearly has an Indian man arrested for taking a discreet pee behind a car.
The book is full of workers’ tales of woe, from Nepalis hurt in building accidents to lonely Kenyan housemaids working 6am to midnight. The housemaid’s lot is often the worst of all, being deprived even of the camaraderie that might be come with a night shift at Starbucks. Wages aside, few of the foreigners McManus meets have much affection for this gilded gulag. He senses, though, that Qataris themselves aren’t much happier – especially the younger ones, who want for nothing in their lives except meaning. Most work in cushy, state-sector non-jobs, where the real toil is done by the vast overseas servant class. Aside from a more outgoing ones who indulge in hyper-expensive “gap yahs” to Antarctica or the Himalayas, most also remain deeply conservative.
Which is hardly surprising. Because despite all the modernisation, their home remains at heart an old-school absolute monarchy, with little real chance for them to shape their own futures. Activism of any sort is off-limits – despite the fact that a carbon-based economy like Qatar’s could probably use a few Greta Thunbergs asking questions.
As McManus asks: “Will we see a cadre of educated Qataris shaping global agendas? Or a nation of rich spoilt rich kids, left to clear up the mess when the gas runs out, the sea levels rise and migrants move on?” The answer to that will only be clear long after World Cup fever has come and gone. In the meantime, though, don’t expect the Qatari Tourist Board to be handing this book out to fans at the airport.
Inside Qatar by John McManus is published by Icon at £10.99. To order your copy for £9.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books