Sheikh Hamad's Qatar is a place where women have been given the vote, and where a population raised on tribal monarchy was recently urged—by its monarch—to get out and vote. It is home to two U.S. college campuses, including a medical school imported from Cornell University, giving Qatari students unprecedented access to modern ideas and opportunities. It has also mounted the world stage: as a key staging area for U.S. military forces in the gulf and as the home of Al Jazeera, the Arab world's answer to CNN.
Such changes might be expected to resonate with the young. Yet it's the younger generation that appears to be most unsettled by the reforms of Sheikh Hamad. Young men, feisty and politically aware—and educated largely in the West—are heavily influenced by the broader currents in the Muslim world, including the Islamic activism they encounter in local mosques. And young Qatari women are, it turns out, even more conservative than young men.
No one had been pounding on the palace gates, beseeching the emir to reform his country, share political power, or grant women political rights. The reforms had been his idea. All of which poses the question: Can a tradition-bound Arab country, even one as small and fabulously wealthy as Qatar, be reformed by royal decree, from the top down?
I arrived in Doha after an absence of 18 months; much had changed since my previous visit, which came before the tragedies of September 11. In late 2000 Qatar had assumed leadership of the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference, and in November 2001 it had successfully hosted the leaders of the World Trade Organization. It had also experienced its first terrorist attack, when a gunman opened fire on U.S. troops at a Qatari air base; he was killed in the exchange.
Qatar seemed considerably richer than on my last visit, and I soon discovered why. Its economy—arguably the fastest growing in the world—was being lifted by revenues from natural gas. As a result, Sheikh Hamad's subjects, whose per capita income is estimated to be more than $28,000 a year, are now among the richest in the world. And wealth had brought its own kind of revolution.
At night the sparkling lights of Doha, which had always resembled a necklace of pearls, were now studded with neon baubles from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. For morning coffee I had a choice of Starbucks (where a crowd of young men told me how wonderful Osama bin Laden was) or a coffeehouse in the suq (where a crowd of old men told me how wonderful Saddam Hussein was).
Both men and women are increasingly flocking abroad to Western, including American, universities. On their return to the sheikhdom, many become part of the growing number of young technocrats who serve in the government. Others take over professional and managerial posts. Everyone is encouraged to take up jogging, tennis, or golf—the influence of Sheikh Khalifa, who, as other Persian Gulf sheikhs were transforming their nations into mercantile centers and financial hubs, was riding around Doha in a black Mercedes, inspecting the construction of museums and sports clubs. So today young women, shrouded from head to toe in black abayas, can be seen jogging along Doha Bay in bright new running shoes.
Qatari society is so small that everyone seems to know everyone else—with the possible exception of the guest workers. Of the sheikhdom's total population of 600,000, less than 200,000 are citizens of Qatar. The other 400,000 are foreigners, who tend to live in their own compounds and keep to themselves. Qatar's oil and gas industries are run in part by Americans, Canadians, Britons, and French; its government offices are frequently staffed with Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians; its taxicabs and restaurants, with Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis.
Take to an airplane and Qatar recedes to a tan flatness, but on the ground its deserts become undulant mountains of sand rolling down to the sea. Geographically, the country is a peninsula the size of Jamaica: 4,400 square miles (11,400 square kilometers) of land protruding from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf.