For much of the Western imagination, Qatar is practically a blank slate. Until not so long ago, the peninsula on which Qatar rests was populated almost exclusively by Bedouin nomads. As Qatar has grown in recent years, it has built its modern culture, education, politics and society nearly from scratch. Its modernization has also incorporated many elements of its nomadic and anti-colonial past. Qatar is not a blank slate. It has a history and a present as complex and variegated as any other – for those who take the time to learn from it.
Qatar now appears as a two-way mirror. A singular sheath, it looks out to the different histories of built cultures around the world, while at the same time those cultures begin to look at it. What does each see? What can be learnt from a society that appears to have developed outside of standard narratives of modernization? And what can such a society learn from other nations with vastly different trajectories of development?
Unlike its neighbours who have gone through massive urbanization projects, Qatar keeps a grain of its Bedouin rootlessness, even as Doha expands to a city of 1 million. Rather than imposing a model and a narrative of modernity, Qatar remains open to the influences and traditions, presents and plans, of nations around the world. Qatar cannot be imposed upon, and it cannot impose.
Modernity in Qatar thus can mean only change. And perhaps that change has an inflection of the utopian, which, as the theorist Fredric Jameson reminds us, is less about imagining the future than it is about the capacity of the imagination to disrupt the present. As the world looks for new models of sustainable development, what Qatar imagines and creates for itself may indeed disrupt the global present as such.
Learning from Qatar aims to bring experts form different fields together to reflect on these ideas at a level at once critical and open, at once practical and utopian. The goal is dialogue, and above all dialogue that raises questions. The possibilities are infinite. True learning always takes place on these terms.
Angelique Campens & Jan De Cock