By Samantha North
Ten years ago, how many average people in the Western world had any reason to think about Qatar? How many people had even heard of it?
Fast forward to 2012, and Qatar has become the country everyone’s talking about. And usually for the right reasons, thanks to the determined image building and reputation management strategy implemented by the country’s leader.
Qatar has been getting richer since its independence from Britain in 1971, when it began to fully exploit its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. After ousting his father from the throne in 1995, the current Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has put this tiny country firmly on the map.
As discussed in detail by Kenneth Wardrop in his recent article for Place Management & Branding, Qatar’s nation branding efforts have been extravagant, as befits a country with unlimited wealth. As Mr. Wardrop pointed out, Qatar showcases a unique and fascinating ‘if money were no object’ nation branding exercise. Qatar is ambitious, and its efforts range from mega construction projects such as the New Doha International Airport and super-luxury dwelling complex the Pearl, to hosting major international events such as the World Petroleum Congress, Asian Games, and bidding for the 2020 Olympics. This month, Qatar will host its biggest international event yet – COP18, the United Nations conference on climate change. But Qatar’s biggest achievement so far has been winning the right to host the football World Cup in 2022 – the first ever Middle Eastern country to do so.
Wealthy as Qatar may be, the oil and gas won’t last forever. Guided by the Qatar National Vision 2030, a detailed development plan, the Emir of Qatar has created an ambitious strategy to promote Qatar as a world-class destination for higher education, sport, culture and tourism. As well as providing distinct economic and political benefits for the nation, the combination of all these elements presents a very attractive national image.
Qatar has already made a great deal of positive progress and indeed has much to be proud of. But all that glitters is not gold, and a wealth of social and political problems lurks under the shiny surface of Brand Qatar. Kenneth Wardrop mentions the existence of various ‘cultural, environmental, economic and social challenges’, but discussing them in further depth is beyond the scope of his article. As a keen social observer and an expat in Qatar for the last two years, I’d like to talk about what I believe are the key challenges facing Qatar as it rushes headlong towards the future – challenges that cannot be solved simply by spending money.
Human rights feature big among the challenges, and Qatar’s record is poor– particularly because of the controversial sponsorship system that makes expat workers virtual ‘slaves’ to their employers, and provides prime conditions for worker abuse. Workers from poor countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh have few rights in Qatar, can be deported at the drop of a hat, and therefore can not easily stand up to a bullying employer. In theory, Western workers should be in the same boat, but in practice, the powerful reputations and robust nation images of many Western countries shield their citizens from the worst abuse in Qatar.
As an expat in Qatar, your passport often determines the type of job you get, and the pay level you can expect to attain. Westerners almost always command higher salaries than Africans and Asians, and of course the locals command the highest. Take a Filipino doing the same job as an American. They both have the same qualifications and experience, but the former usually attracts less than a third of the latter’s salary. These problems stem partly from the issue of racial stereotyping and Qatar’s pronounced ‘caste’ system, exacerbated by the type of corruption that is central to Qatar’s originally tribal society.
Corruption threatens to blight Qatar’s national image and hamper the development of a fair, just, and transparent society. It’s based on the Arab concept of ‘wasta’ (loosely translated as ‘nepotism’ or ‘who you know’) combined with Qatar’s racial ‘caste’ system. This means you get treated firstly according to where you come from, and then according to ‘who you know’ – your connections, the central concept of wasta.
How does this translate into daily life? For example: in shopping malls, where locals wearing thobes sit in Starbucks, smoking with impunity underneath the ‘No Smoking’ signs. The mall security guards (usually Indians) are too afraid to stop them, fearing the repercussions that may come from offending a powerful local. On the roads, traffic violations and serious accidents are common, because many people use their connections to escape fines. Some even bribe officials to give them a driving licence without passing a test. In Qatar, well-connected individuals can literally get away with murder, facing little, if any, punishment for serious crimes such as hit and run, manslaughter through gross negligence, and the like. A member of the ruling Al-Thani family is likely to be immune from prosecution – no matter how serious the crime he/she commits.
Finally, Qatar’s safety standards hit the international news earlier this year, when a nursery in Doha’s newest mall caught fire and 19 people, including 13 children, died in the blaze. The subsequent investigation revealed an alarmingly lax approach to safety standards, and exposed the endemic use of wasta to circumvent rules designed to protect lives. The key defendant, nursery owner and daughter of a prominent Qatari minister, has yet to show up in court, despite multiple attempts to hold a hearing. Rumour has it she already left the country, fleeing to Brussels with her husband – who is Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium.
We should not forget that Qatar shot to wealth and fame in only one generation. Just 30 years ago, Qataris made their money by pearl diving and trading camels in the desert. They lived a quiet, anonymous life as citizens of a tiny country with no international ‘brand image’ to speak of. Now they drive big cars, take out huge loans, and have a government that wields considerable international clout. Adjusting to this new power and status takes time, so it’s understandable that a country going through this process will have issues. But Qatar must ensure it acknowledges these thorny challenges honestly and directly, taking clear steps to address them, not just papering them over with money. To paraphrase Simon Anholt, a strong nation brand relies on more than just mega-projects and international events. It requires integrity. Integrity comes from a government held to account for everything it does, that allows public scrutiny and allows its citizens to participate in important long-term decisions that affect the nation’s well being. As Anholt says, a nation brand ‘isn’t about painting: it’s about doing.’
So Qatar, do keep this in mind. You’re in the spotlight at the moment and the whole world is watching your often-laudable efforts at ‘painting’. We’re impressed. But be sure to back up these actions with ‘doing’ – by implementing real social change. Find long-lasting solutions for the problems that drag down your society. You’ve got all the necessary resources to do so. Only then will your nation brand develop genuine integrity that, if nurtured and developed, will garner Qatar international trust and respect for years to come.