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Racing Horses Toward Modernity In Qatar (PHOTOS)

Posted: 02/15/2012 7:00 am

Diana Untermeyer's book Qatar: Sand, Sea and Sky is available in bookstores and on Amazon.
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In the spring of 2004, the White House asked my husband Chase to serve as US ambassador to Qatar. Expatriate communities use a pejorative term for what I would be: "a trailing spouse" -- the silent partner that following along in the lee of a high-flying executive.

Raised in Wyoming as part of an old ranching family and as the daughter of an early feminist freedom fighter, I don't settle easily into anyone's shadow. Before moving to Qatar, it was difficult to find current information about the country. I did however receive multiple copies of Arabian Horses of Qatar. My childhood dream of galloping across the desert on one of these mythic steeds seemed on the verge of coming true.

Within a week of arriving in Doha in the steamy August heat, I was rubbing noses with horses at the Emir's famous Al Shaqab Stud, where my daughter Elly and I joined the riding school. Before long, I was riding Arabians through the desert and getting to know teenage boys who would introduce me into their families. Chase called this "equine diplomacy." Along with volunteer work, it brought me deep into the Qatari community where I learned about the human side of Qatar's dramatic drive towards modernity, an audacious story manifest in a skyline transformed.

There are just a few immutable facts about contemporary Qatar. Qatar is a small thumb-shaped country slightly smaller than Connecticut jutting off the coast of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Most Qatari citizens are Sunni Muslims from the Wahhabi School. Qatari roots are either from the desert-dwelling nomadic herders known as Bedouin or from settled coastal villagers, known as Hadher. The Hadher used to fish, dive for pearls and trade using wooden dhows. Finally, the coastal waters of Qatar cover modest oil reserves and the third largest natural gas field in the world. For generations, Qatar's small population lived in tribal units at a subsistence-level with prevalent illiteracy. When Japan introduced the mass-produced cultured pearl in the late 1920's, Qatar's economy was devastated.

Qatar was, in short, not predestined to boast the highest per capita income in the world or to feature stunning art museums and world-class universities. A quick look around the region tells us that oil wealth neither guarantees prosperity for a country nor freedom for its people. I have Qatari friends my age - almost 50 - who remember living without electricity, running water or enough food. These friends are professionals now leading solidly upper middle class lives.

HH Sheikh Hamad was the axis around which furious development spun. When the Emir assumed power in 1995, Qatar was essentially bankrupt. He took huge financial risks, floating loans to develop Qatar's natural gas resources, which now make Qatar the largest natural gas exporter in the world with the highest per capita income in the world. The Emir also founded Al Jazeera, which now broadcasts to the world in English and Arabic and has revolutionized press coverage in the Middle East by replacing government-controlled media with uncensored, independent reporting. Al Jazeera's emphasis on hard-hitting journalism is matched by an effort to teach young people to debate. Teaching kids to ask hard questions is a sure sign that Qatar is serious about building a strong civil society to participate in a nation that is being transformed from the rule of tribes and sheikhs to the rule of law.

The challenges Qatar faces are legion. Qataris enjoy huge benefits, but with the 250,000 citizens accounting for only 1/7th of the total population of 1.7 million people, there is a legitimate concern that their culture will be overwhelmed. Additionally, the whole scale transformation of expectations is leaving many behind. The entire school system is being revamped from rote learning to critical thinking. The workplace is now more competitive and employees are expected to work longer hours and assume more responsibility. This rapid change creates fears that the quiet, family-oriented life Qataris value will be lost.

There is a long road ahead, but I believe the Qatari dream is worth believing in.

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