Tourism is not the only way

I caught a report on CNBC’s Business Arabia show this week that Qatar has set aside $20 billion for tourism investment over the next three years. Sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking why.

To replay some of the numbers – Qatar is the world’s richest country by per-capita GDP, according to the IMF. It is a major oil producer as well as the world’s leading producer of liquefied natural gas. The Qatari economy is predicted to grow by a mammoth 16 percent this year, creating a budget surplus of more than $2.6 billion. (Compare that with Europe’s minuscule growth and cavernous budget deficits…) Qatar’s proven reserves indicate that oil production will continue at current levels for another 37 years.

And so on. This is not a country that has to worry about where the next meal is coming from.

Which makes me wonder why on earth Qatar has bought into the one-dimensional Gulf fashion for pouring resources into encouraging tourism. This is no Dubai: to start with, Doha lacks even Dubai’s evidence of cultural heritage – but Qatar also notably lacks other touristic assets, such as a tradition of trade beyond its home region or a diversity of landscapes.

I don’t mean to run the place down – that’s not the point – but I do wonder where the urge to self-identify as the world’s Next Big Destination comes from. Is government policy being fed by a PR agenda? Even aside from tourism, Qatar is pouring billions into bidding for the football World Cup in 2022 – except that the summer heat is so extreme that they are ploughing yet more money into developing open-air stadia capable of supporting fans and players through a football match in comfort. It’s like running down the up escalator.

(This, incidentally, in a country which is considerably smaller than Swaziland. At least people won’t have to travel far between games…)

Play to your strengths

Here’s a different vision for a small, flat, hot, homogeneous country with a conservative outlook and a global image problem (or should that be ‘image vacuum’), backed by virtually limitless money. Qatar, currently, is also the world’s leading per-capita emitter of carbon. $20 billion could buy an awful lot of good research into renewable energy. Such fabulous wealth, channelled in the right directions, might quickly gain a reputation for Qatar as the responsible face of big oil, irrevocably committed to hydrocarbons for historical reasons but equally committed to using the resultant wealth to fund the global development of renewables, for the benefit of humanity and the world. It could knock Abu Dhabi’s Masdar – itself a roughly $20 billion concern – into a cocked ghutrah.

Heck, they could start by throwing a measly one billion at renewables, and still have nineteen billion left over for luxury hotels.

On that note, how about this? If one billion might go to renewables, how about one billion to AIDS research, one billion to raise literacy levels in the developing world and – let’s think big – one billion to combat the kind of desperate poverty that leads Pakistani, Jordanian or Nigerian teenagers to imagine Islam as a violent, wronged, vengeful religion. Never mind chasing skyscrapers, big airports and fancy hotels – imagine the kind of profile and global name-recognition Qatar might get on the back of that. And there’d still be sixteen billion left over for hotels.

Instead, Qatar seems to want to turn itself into another over-resourced, over-developed place to stop over for a few days, on the way to somewhere less embarrassing.

Everyone – countries included – should play to their strengths. Tourism is not the only way.