A Garden in the Heart of Doha

I was one of many surprised when Qatar was chosen to host this year’s COP.  Qatar is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas producer and home to the world’s third largest natural gas reserves. The country’s pro tennis tournament is the Qatar ExxonMobil Open. An OPEC member chairing a climate change conference? Simply put, carbon has made modern Qatar what it is today. Sixty percent of the nation’s GDP comes from oil and natural gas. Due to high prices and increased output, the country is booming.

While some were disillusioned with the selection, Qatar is actually the perfect place to host a COP. Ignoring fossil fuel production and consumption isn’t going to achieve much and OPEC nations have a role to play. Bill McKibben would argue this role is to keep 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground but I’ll let him speak on that.

My experience in the Middle East is limited to the U.A.E. and Oman. Prior to my energy coursework, the only thing I knew about Qatar was that it was home to Al Jazeera, would be home to probably the hottest World Cup on record in 2022 and that Anderson Cooper often (mis)pronounced it “cutter” (there is a guttural emphasis on the “Qa” if anyone out there is still wondering). Upon arrival I learned that this was a city and country changing rapidly.

The old Doha meets the new. Photo by Adedana Ashebir.

Several classmates and I were on the same Sunday evening flight. It was safe to assume at least 80% of our fellow passengers were participating in the COP. After immigration and baggage claim, we searched for taxis. A few men quickly led us to unmarked vehicles. They suggested a price higher than we were told to expect. Wait a second. I’d seen this movie before, I know how it ends. I wasn’t in the mood to haggle and we turned around and found the metered taxis.

Ten minutes and thirty Qatari riyals later (1USD= 3.64 QAR) we arrived at our hotel in Old Doha. The only thing I could make out in the darkness was a butcher and a Turkish restaurant.  I was excited to see Doha in the morning.

My first look at Doha was through my hotel room window. It was incredibly hazy, the sky looked almost yellow over the worn beige cement buildings. No building appeared over seven stories tall but I could see several minarets in the distance. Clotheslines hung over the balconies and rusty satellite dishes sat atop the roofs. Only men walked through the streets. I was a bit tired from the journey but Old Doha was wide awake. I heard honking, airplanes taking off seemingly every twenty minutes and the adhan, the call to prayer. I quickly got ready, ate breakfast, and headed to the shuttle. There are 33 shuttle lines taking an expected 15,000 participants from various hotels to the Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC) and back daily.

Doha means “the big tree” and the capital is home to well over half of the country. According to the IMF, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world. The country is a bit smaller than size of Connecticut and with 1,747,540 people as of October 31, 2012, Qatar has half of Connecticut’s population. A staggering 94% of the workforce is comprised of foreigners. In this regard it was similar to Dubai. Qataris work mostly in the public sector and South and Southeast Asians and Africans comprise much of the service sector. The hour-long shuttle ride was a great way to see the city and its development. Throughout the ride Doha shifted from old to new back to old back to new to old to even newer. It was definitely rush hour. The roads were packed with white cars of all makes, mostly Land Cruisers and Nissan trucks. A caravan of three Maersk trucks rolled by, further evidence of Qatar’s export boom.

We made our way from Old Doha to the city’s impressive new skyline via the Corniche, a 4.4 mile (7 km) promenade along Doha Bay. Dhows, traditional boats, were anchored in clusters as Qataris and foreigners alike walked along the water. A large sculpture of a pearl in an open oyster paid homage to Qatar’s history as a major natural pearl exporter. This artwork and the artificial island The Pearl, located 12.4 miles (20 km) north of the central business district, are some of the few traces of this rich past. The Pearl sits on an old pearl diving site and is now a complex of luxury homes, upscale restaurants, brand retail and marinas. It reminded me of the man-made Palm Jumeirah and the The World Islands in Dubai.

The new skyscrapers seemed to be a world unto itself. I didn’t see sidewalks leading into the city center. These densely built new feats of architecture are the headquarters of several state owned and foreign oil companies and financial firms: Qatar Petroleum, RasGas (the country’s first LEED certifiedcommercial space), and PricewaterhouseCoopers just to name a few. Along the Corniche, a walled barrier around a construction site served as advertising for the Qatari Diar project in progress. Idyllic color paintings showed multi-generational Qatari families leisurely walking, playing soccer, and sitting outside at a table. In between the photos were promises of “supper and stroll” and  “a garden in the heart of Doha.” A garden in the desert? Now, the Middle East isn’t alone in wrestling with nature – in fact this is very much a global phenomenon – but it was a bit difficult to reconcile this with the Qatar Sustainability Expo that our shuttle later drove by.

We drove in and out of roundabout after roundabout. The skyline was now behind us and all I could see was a vast field of white sand and dirt. Lining the highway was construction site after construction site. Housing developments (all pink, beige or dark yellow or white) with fancy names like “Riviera Gardens” are being built alongside embassies, beauty shops and barbershops. This will all be the suburbs one day. I particularly enjoyed the photos on the barbershop windows. Nick Carter, Ludacris and Leonardo DiCaprio (in his tween “Titanic” days) are apparently hair icons. We sped past a Marks & Spencer, a popular British supermarket chain, and a TGI Fridays. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Friday is the weekly holy day in Islam.

After passing by Education City, a complex of international universities sponsored by the non-profitQatar Foundation, we arrived at the QNCC. The walls were glass windows and the front of the building had what looked like large branches extending upward from the ground to the roof of the building. A big tree supporting the country’s largest event to date.

A garden struggles to survive in the heart of the QNCC. Photo by Adedana Ashebir.

It was still hazy but much hotter; the low that day would be 73 degrees Fahrenheit (23°C). To enter the QNCC, I walked through the parking garage, its stitched metal façade reminded me a bit of Beijing’s Bird Nest. Registration followed the security checkpoint. I presented my passport and my invitation letter, sat for a photo and received my badge, a laminated piece of paper with a burnt yellow band across the bottom screaming in bold block letters my affiliation with an NGO. I wouldn’t be able to enter official negotiations but I could attend the many side events. After a long drive through Doha’s past, present and future, I was finally at the COP.

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