People

Just 25% of Qatar's population is under age 25, a far smaller proportion than other countries in the region. More than 99% of the population lives in urban areas, there are three Qatari males for every female, and foreign workers make up around 88% of the population. Indians comprise the largest such group, followed by Nepalis and Bangladeshis. Under a new law, 100 foreign expatriates will be granted permanent residency, a first for any Gulf nation.

Lifestyle

While observant of a conservative form of Islam, many Qataris will extend hospitality to those of a different mind. While it is still unusual to see Qataris drinking alcohol, there is a certain tolerance of visitors who do, by the more liberal Qataris at least. Local men and women are very discreetly dressed, and women who are not fully covered will likely experience unwanted stares. Indirect campaigns about dress code are prevalent on social media and signage around Doha, and promote conservative attire. That said, modestly dressed women can walk around freely in Qatar, and no activities are off limits to women.

Wahhabism does not preclude women working outside the home or driving, but it does forbid any activity that may incite illicit relationships between men and women. In Qatar, unlike in Saudi Arabia, driving and working are not considered areas of likely temptation. Most significant is Qatar’s press, which compared to its neighbours has enjoyed a certain amount of freedom of expression since 1995, resulting in one of the most controversial and celebrated media phenomena in the Middle East: Al Jazeera.

In public, the country reflects the espousal of Western materialism while paradoxically retaining something of the Bedouin simplicity of life: the day can stop for tea with a stranger, and family life still lies at the heart of Qatari society.

Multiculturalism

An arriving visitor will be stamped into the country by a Qatari, but thereafter they could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into another country – or at least pockets of many. There are car-hire attendants from Pakistan, shopkeepers from India, nightclub entertainers from the Philippines and Brits turning pink in the afternoon sun during a day off from the oil and gas industries. Qatari men are recognisable in the multiethnic crowd by their impeccable white thobe (floor-length shirt-dress), gutra (white headcloth) and long, black-tasselled agal (head rope), and Qatari women by their narrow-eyed yashmak (veil).

The relative broadmindedness of an otherwise conservative nation stems not only from interaction with the thousands of immigrant workers who have helped build the country but also from the fact that so many Qataris have travelled or studied abroad. Alas, that broadmindedness doesn’t always translate into fair treatment of the immigrant population, many of whom continue to be treated as second-class citizens. This issue came to the fore in 2013 when the International Trade Union Confederation published a report claiming that 1200 workers from India and Nepal alone had died while working on construction projects associated with the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Qatar denied the accusations, but the fact remains that migrant workers very often live and work in appalling conditions that have everything and nothing to do with the glossy facade that Qatar likes to present to the world. Under international pressure, a Qatar law changed in late 2018 to allow most migrant workers to leave the country without permission from their employers, but 5% of contractors still may have their passports retained. Further regulations were due to be announced regarding workers who remain under their employers' complete control, and unable to travel freely.

Feature: Bonding Beads

Sit in a coffeehouse in Qatar, be present at a business meeting or watch a party of shisha smokers and you will notice that men are bonded by a common activity: twirling a set of beads between thumb and forefinger, or flicking the entire set of 33, 66 or 99 beads around their wrist. At a party or wedding, people may even be whirling them overhead like a rattle.

These are not any old beads: they are misbah (prayer beads), traditionally threaded by women, and carried by men since the early days of Islam to help in the contemplation of God. A user typically rolls each bead while reciting the names or attributes of Allah.

Misban can be pearl or jade; bought in the local souq, or collected bead by bead and at great cost from around the world. Qataris favour amber beads, however, and a trip to a specialist misbah shop in Souq Waqif will gladden the eye with strands of yellow, gold and treacle-coloured amber.

While many continue to use the beads for religious purposes, prayer beads in Qatar have become a social item, and if you really want to be in with the in-crowd then you'll acquire this necessary accessory. Let them sit in your pocket ready to be whipped out when the haggling gets tough or, like a ‘How are you?’ that can be repeated 10 times or more in the course of an evening’s engagement, bring them out when a pause threatens conversation. If you let them function like a piece of discourse, as well as talisman and storyteller, comforter and companion, you'll find you are holding the ultimate symbol of Qatari male bonding.

Arts

Although Qatar's rapid modernisation has encouraged a certain Westernisation of culture, some distinctive elements of traditional cultural expression remain, particularly in terms of music and dance. This is especially evident during the Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr religious holidays or on social occasions such as weddings. Only a specialist is likely to pick up the nuances that distinguish Qatar’s music or dance from that of other Gulf states, given their shared Bedouin inheritance, but numerous events throughout the country make Qatar one of the easier places to encounter these art forms. Check listings in the Gulf Times, the Peninsula or the Qatar Tribune to see what’s happening where.

Interest in orchestral music is enjoying a revival with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (www.qatarphilharmonicorchestra.org), sponsored by the charitable Qatar Foundation and playing at the Qatar Opera House and other venues around town.

For contemporary arts and crafts, spare an hour to browse round the new galleries in Souq Waqif and Katara Cultural Village.

Poetry & Dance

On National Day (18 December), you may be lucky to see a troupe of male dancers performing Al Ardha in a display of patriotic affection. It’s hard to know whether to call this performance a dance with words or a poem in motion, as a poet chants celebrations of horsemanship and valour while threading a path between two opposing lines of dancers, each of whom echoes a verse of the poem while fluttering his sword in the air.

Another fascinating spectacle sometimes seen on National Day is Al Qulta. Witnessing this kind of spontaneous poetry-making is remarkable for those who understand Arabic, as two facing poets improvise with great skill on a given topic. Even without knowing what is being said, the occasion is exciting, as the poets are accompanied not by instruments but by syncopated tasfiq (the slapping of palm to palm), while the audience gets carried away with the rhythm of the poetry.

There is a long association between the Gulf countries and those of the east coast of Africa, and an interchange of culture is an inevitable bonus of trade. One dance that reflects East Africa’s more relaxed integration of the sexes is Al Lewa, which can be performed by a mixture of men and women.

At weddings, which are gender-segregated, it is a traditional mark of respect for the young women in attendance – often daringly dressed, in the absence of men, in low-fronted, backless ball gowns – to dance for the bride. Today, the music is often imported from Egypt and is a sort of pan-Arab pop, performed by men hidden behind a screen. If lucky enough to be invited to a wedding, a female visitor may be treated to Al Khammary, performed by a group of masked women, or to Al Sameri, a thrilling spectacle in which the dancers gyrate their loosened hair in time with the accelerating beat.

Crafts

The traditional Bedouin skill of hand-weaving carpets, tents, rugs and curtains was practised by modern Qataris until as recently as two decades ago, when machinery and cheap imports shut down the industry. Carpet wool, however, is still often prepared in the traditional way. Wool is washed and soaked in lemon juice and a crystalline mixture to remove impurities and oil, boiled for about 10 hours, dried in the sun and then dyed. Goat hair is still used to make tents (particularly the black tents with white stripes that are now seen more readily in the garden of a wealthy villa than in the interior). Camel hair, plaited using two hands, one foot and a strangely shaped piece of wood, is used for ropes and bags. A form of basket-weaving called al safaf (using palm leaves and cane) is still practised in the villages.

Jewellery-making is a craft that continues to thrive: while the traditional Bedouin pieces of silver and stone are now difficult to find, expert local goldsmiths and jewellers engage in centuries-old practices of sword decoration and bridal ornamentation. The burda (traditional Qatari cloak) is still worn in Qatar and the cuffs and sleeves are decorated by hand, using thin gold and silver threads.

Feature: Gypsum

Look up at the door lintels or window frames of any old house or mosque in Qatar and chances are it will be decorated with a filigree of white plaster – only it isn’t plaster, it’s gypsum, otherwise known as calcium sulphate. Found in abundance locally, and sometimes combined with chippings of driftwood washed up on the beach, it was used to clad the exterior of houses, forts, mosques and wind towers as an improvement on mud. Able to withstand extreme changes in temperature and humidity, this durable material lent itself to moulding and carving. Some of the abstract plant designs and geometric patterns that can be seen on important buildings across the Gulf illustrate how working with gypsum has evolved into a complex craft.

Environment

The Land

One would expect the land area of a country to be finite. Not so in Qatar, where extensive reclamation programmes keep adding to the total with each passing year. The area of the Qatar peninsula is generally given as 11,571 sq km – about 160km long and 55km to 90km wide – with 700km of shallow coastline. It includes one or two islands, but not the neighbouring Hawar Islands, which were a bone of contention until the International Court of Justice awarded the oil-rich islands to Bahrain in 2001. While Qatar is mostly flat, the oil-drilling area of Jebel Dukhan reaches a height of 75m.

The sand dunes to the south of the country, especially around the inland sea at Khor Al Adaid, are particularly appealing. Much of the interior, however, is marked by gravel-covered plains. This kind of desert may appear completely featureless, but it’s worth a closer look: rainwater collects in duhlans (crevices), giving rise intermittently to exquisite little flowering plants. Roses even bloom in the desert, though not of the floral kind: below the sabkha (salt flats that lie below sea level), gypsum forms into rosettes, some measuring 20cm to 25cm across. These roses are the inspiration for the look of the new National Museum of Qatar.

Wildlife

A passion for hunting, traditionally with falcons or salukis (Arabian hunting dogs), has marked Qatar’s relationship with birds (particularly the tasty bustard) and mammals, with the unsurprising consequence that there is little wildlife left.

The gazelle, oryx (Qatar’s national animal) and Arabian ibex are all locally extinct, but ambitious breeding programmes aim to reintroduce the animals into the wild. A herd of oryx can be seen, by permit only or while on a tour, at a private reserve near Al Shahaniya. There are also protected areas north of Al Khor for the endangered green turtle, which nests on the shore.

Altogether easier to spot, a rich and diverse number of birds (waders, ospreys, cormorants, curlews, flamingos, larks and hawks) frequent the coastal marshes and the offshore islands. A golf course may seem an unlikely birding venue, but the lush oasis of Doha Golf Club occasionally attracts the glorious golden oriole and crested crane. The mangrove plantations north of Al Khor are another good place to get the binoculars out.

Qatar's Natural History Group (www.qnhg.org) has some information on local wildlife and runs occasional excursions.

Environmental Issues

Qatar has virtually no naturally occurring fresh water, and relies increasingly upon hugely expensive desalination plants for its burgeoning water needs. And what little water there is may be getting harder to find. Qatar is now 2m higher than it was 400 years ago thanks to ‘geological uplift’, a phenomenon by which movements in the Earth’s crust push the bedrock up. As a result, the underground water table sinks, or at least becomes more difficult to access. In Qatar, uplift has resulted in increasing aridity and sparseness of vegetation. This, combined with encroaching areas of sand and sabkha (salt flats that lie below sea level), has given environmentalists much to be concerned about.

There are also human-caused environmental issues such as the 24-hour air-conditioning found in virtually every building in the country (at least in the summer months), which releases greenhouse gases into the environment and consumes lots of electricity.

Qatar has 12 land reserves and two marine reserves, including the largest reserve, Khor Al Adaid, Qatar's 'inland sea', and the Ras Abrouq Nature Reserve, where ostrich and gazelles roam freely. In Al Thakira Nature Reserve, Qatar’s mangrove wetlands provide a breeding ground for waders and crustaceans such as shrimp.