Last November, the International Labour Organisation closed its case on a complaint about working conditions in Qatar. Reforms meant that some two million workers now enjoyed better protection. ‘Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf States,’ the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, ‘and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.’ In April, the ILO inaugurated its project office in Doha, its first in the Gulf, to support a programme on working conditions and labour rights in Qatar.
Qatar, unlike the other Gulf states, is tied to Saudi Arabia by its adherence to the form of Sunni Islam described by everyone else (but not themselves) as Wahhabism. The family of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, known as the Al ash-Shaikh, has been the partner of the House of Saud and guarantor of religious orthodoxy since the state was founded. The Qatari royal family, too, claims descent from bin Abd al-Wahhab. But it has declined to join the Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Shia crusade. Like Kuwait and Oman it has important shared interests with Iran and has kept the door open to diplomacy.
There was a bride in full wedding regalia on my plane from Cairo to Doha last month. She was wearing a sequinned, lacy hijab and a long, tight mermaid skirt that flared at the bottom, over a wire hoop. It wasn’t easy to manoeuvre the hoop down the aisle of the plane. She was travelling alone, and in the long empty hallways of Doha's new airport made laborious progress. I didn't see who came to meet her.
The Museum of Islamic art is closed on Tuesdays, the taxi driver tells us. En route to the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Jacqueline Rose and I, soon to be joined by Andrew O’Hagan, have stopped for the night in Doha for this collection, to see the medieval lamps, the carpets, the emeralds, the Kaaba curtains, the manuscripts of the Quran, the maps of the world – maybe the map of Qatar when it was a pearl fishing port and an infamous haven for pirates. After all my browsing on the museum’s site, how could I have missed the opening times? We resolve to find a way: personnel must be on duty even during closing hours. Guards present. Temperature controls purring. Lighting on to protect against stealthy intruders. We email and text anyone who might have an entrée. I am a little embarrassed.
The streets of West Bay, Doha’s skyscraping financial centre, were deserted last Tuesday morning, as prominent Qataris filed into the Emiri Diwan to welcome the new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Most people in Doha seemed mainly concerned with whether Sheikh Tamim would announce a national pay rise to celebrate his accession; in 2011, Qatari nationals working for the government saw their salaries go up by 60 per cent. They were hoping for another boost. Non-Qataris – about 80 per cent of the population – were hoping otherwise, worried about a further hike in the cost of living.