Qatar In Transition

In summoning to mind the timeless images of Arabia, one might picture stark vistas of seemingly endless desert, dark-browed men in flowing robes, or the haunting beauty of dawns reminiscent of ancient caravans.

So what do the eye-dazzling lights and hearing-impairing volume of an American rock band in concert have to do with it?

Well, nothing, and everything. In Qatar, a spit of sand smaller than Connecticut jutting into the Arab Gulf, both stereotypes and contradictions flourish. Even as Qatar's 150,000 citizens strive to remain quintessentially Arab, American ways are finding a place.

"We should be pragmatic. We can't afford to be other than that," says Hassan al-Ansari, head of Qatar University's Gulf Studies Center.

"I think right now the United States is the major balancer in the area, and the United States is the country that is able to provide security for everybody," he adds.

So Qatar spent a billion dollars on an air base with the longest runway in the area, and then virtually signed it over to the American military. That does not, however, mean Washington has unquestioning support there.

Professor Muhammad al-Musfair says the Bush administration must understand that no one there wants war with Iraq. If the U.S. does take military action, al-Musfair warns that, "a chaos will be created in the region."

"They [the U.S.] will lose friends, in the highest authorities, and they will lose friends among the intellectuals," he says.

And the U.S. has deep and obvious interests in Qatar. Barely one percent of Qatar's land is arable, but it holds substantial oil, and enough estimated natural gas reserves to supply the U.S. market for the next 200 years.

Qatar's early economy was based on the bounties of the Gulf. Foreigners who have come to share the prosperity - and do the work - outnumber Qataris by four to one. But more than that marks the country as the archetypal rich Gulf state.

Falconry is still the preferred sport. Blindfolds are used to keep the powerful birds calm and they are fed only prime quality beef - no skimping for a hunter that can cost nearly $30,000.

That's still cheap when you consider what they use for afternoon diversions in the off-season. Racing Ferraris along the seafront is just for fun, no prizes. But when Qatar has an athletics day, they play some more unusual music and hold a 10-kilometer race with a prize that even world-class runners like Haile Gebraselassie can't refuse. His winner's check was $1 million.

He could use it to go shopping in malls that rival anything the West has to offer - with a few differences. The lucky draw for a $25 purchase is for a top-of-the line Mercedes, and a kilogram of pure gold.

It would be wrong to assume that Qatar merely squanders money, however. This vast complex called "Education City" will house several foreign campuses, including an extension of Cornell University Medical School. Dean Daniel Alonso says graduates will meet U.S. standards.

"We wanted to work here exactly the same way that we work in New York, with the same prerogatives, the same freedoms, autonomy, and they said yes to all that," Dean Alonso explains. "I am convinced that we should be doing a lot more of this. We're bringing something that is good in America, bringing it in here and having an impact."

The wife of the Emir inaugurated the project without wearing a veil, marking the first time the face of a woman of her rank had ever been seen in public. That was no small thing in a country where most women are covered at puberty. Qataris are Bedouins, and conservative traditions run deep.

The preferred transport may be luxury cars and SUVs, but camels still count. The market opens at dawn, and getting your used camel to the lot can be something of a project. Since you can't really ride a new purchase through the city, it's best to come with a few friends to help get the animal home. There are no cash-back deals, but everything is negotiable.

Prices go from about 400 dollars to thousands. Auctioneer Rachid Ali says not even oil and gas can change the Qataris love of the "ship of the desert."

"They are part of our history," Ali says.

The hobbles used to keep camels from straying are celebrated in the "aigal," the black ring that holds the traditional Arab head covering. Qataris wear theirs with a string hanging down, so their neighbors jokingly call them "Lipton tea bags."

Being one of the smallest kids on the Gulf block, Qatar is trying to distinguish itself by modernizing. But politically, it remains very much part of the old gang; power is in the hands of one ruling family; there are no political parties; and no viable opposition is tolerated.

On the other hand, Qatar is home to al-Jazeera, the most-widely watched and believed TV network in the Arab world. Its freewheeling style of reporting has upset the ruling elite of several powerful Arab neighbors who have pressured to have al-Jazeera reigned in, but so far the Qatari leadership has resisted.

"Our agenda is to develop our natural resources, to develop our human resources, to reform our education, our economy, and we cannot do that without securing this place," says al-Ansari.

And security counts more than anything. For all their love of tradition, Qataris want to ensure that they move into the twenty-first century with more than just camels.