Travel fantasy made reality in Qatar

Richard Turen

DOHA, Qatar — I arrived here via yacht rather than by jet. By doing so, I managed to experience the 62 guest/84 crew Crystal Esprit during a 10-day cruise out of Dubai that also visited Oman and Abu Dhabi. The yacht is, in my view, the finest cruise experience currently available on a noncharter product. But more about that another time. Arriving by sea made me miss the opportunity to fly into Doha on what many regard as the finest airline in the world.

You see, at the moment, I am sipping a cup of tea facing the water in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

First impressions are wrapped around visions that one has stepped into a travel fantasy world where crime, poverty, dirt and anything “ordinary” have been removed. When I think of my several days here, I think most often of the city skyline framed by the Corniche, with its pristine walkways lining the water, reflecting rays of sunlight off the glass of the experimental architectural showcase that is the city center. There is water, the city center and then, not far beyond, the desert and the oil rigs.

I quickly looked for pearl divers. Qataris once earned their living as pearl divers, a dangerous and not always rewarding profession. But the divers are long gone. Locals now dive for pearls at Tiffany, the Villaggio Mall or, perhaps, Graff Diamonds.

But never let it be said that this country forgets its traditions. In tribute to their past profession, Qatar has built a series of artificial islands in the shape of a string of pearls. You can purchase one of the small islands to build your dream home. As an American, however, you will never, ever have citizenship. None of the 91% of the labor population on work visas will ever become a citizen.

I glance back up at the skyline. Buildings gleam in the sun, one after another, in an area about the size, it seems, of lower Manhattan. Each building is a piece of performance art: wrapping floors, blue-tinted windows, angles never seen before on high-rise office buildings. And there’s not a speck of paper or dirt on the sidewalks or the streets. This city is pristine in the extreme, all supported by the new economy.

So how did this unremarkable desert kingdom come to be one of the world’s wealthiest economies? The drilling began in 1939, and it didn’t take long for the state-owned Qatar Petroleum to discover the Dukhan Field. Fate struck again in 1970 with the discovery of the huge Bul Hanine oil field.

Today, this tiny little place about the size of Connecticut is producing more than a million barrels of oil per day.

But Qatar has a little extra level of financial security: It possesses the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves.

Qatar lives in a volatile neighborhood, and it must keep all of its neighbors happy. They are not intent on growing tourism here, but they wouldn’t mind growing that new sector of the economy.

Residents here don’t as much work as they “manage.” The chances are good that the average tourist will never actually meet a “Qatari” once they get through passport control. With average income/assets in the millions, one “tends to the books” rather than engaging in physical labor.

Eighty percent of the men in Qatar own at least one falcon. They love their birds and love to show them off. Qatar Airways allows falcons to occupy seats next to their owners on flights, and I assure you, they are not flying coach.

Education is free for all through the doctorate level. Medical care is fully inclusive, and should you need medical intervention beyond the abilities of local surgeons, the country’s health care system provides free flights to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., along with all expenses. I am not sure if Bernie Sanders is aware of this perk.

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