Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Saturday, 4 April 2009 12:11 UK

Trying to lift the veil on Qatar

This week Qatar hosted the annual Arab Summit in its capital Doha. It was dubbed the reconciliation summit after months of serious rifts in the Arab World. The tiny country had put the noses of some of the big players out of joint by trying to adopt the role of regional mediator, traditionally played by heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Our Middle East correspondent Katya Adler reported on the summit and set out to find out more about Qatar, one of the region's richest nations.

Qatar Airways plane (Photo: ARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Foreigners outnumber locals by four to one in Qatar

This was my first visit to Qatar and I admit I failed in one of my main missions, to get under the skin of the country.

On Qatar Airways, I met Filipino cabin crew.

The airport ground staff were Pakistani, the hotel receptionist, Sri Lankan, the barista who made my cappuccino on the way to the Arab Summit, Nepali.

My hunt to meet Qataris in Qatar had begun.

Statistically, foreigners in Qatar outnumber Qataris by four to one.

Hidden society

"They get us to do all their hard work for them," a Palestinian called Mazan Barakat told me. I met him in a lift.

"Asians do the menial jobs," he went on, "other Arabs, Americans and Europeans work in the gas and oil industry. We don't care. We earn a lot more working here than we ever would in our own countries."

Mazan has worked in the gas business in Doha for 20 years. How many Qatari friends does he have, I wonder. "Erm, none", came the slightly reluctant reply.

Qatari capital Doha
Qatar's GDP per capita is the second highest in the world

"Of course, I know Qataris at work," Mazan hastened to add. "We drink tea, they invite me to their wedding parties."

But had he ever been invited in to a Qatari home?

"Never," Mazan told me. "In two decades here I have never met the wives or children of my Qatari colleagues. Foreigners don't, can't rent properties in Qatari compounds. However long I live here, I can't get Qatari citizenship."

Qatar is very much a veiled society, physically and socially.

Qatari women dress head to toe in black. Most cover their faces, some even their eyes and hands.

Men also keep their heads covered. Public signs of Qatari life are limited to seemingly endless shopping malls and wide-laned dusty roads, lined with skyscrapers and packed with shiny tank-like cars.

This Bedouin nation has changed dramatically since discovering oil and huge natural gas reserves. GDP per capita here is the second highest in the world.

There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques - but in public the emirate has to appear perfect

Naima, schoolteacher

"It's wrong to say Qataris are born with a silver spoon in their mouths," schoolteacher Naima told me. "It's a gold spoon, encrusted with diamonds."

Naima and her husband Jamil are Lebanese and have lived in Doha for 16 years.

They laughed at my determined efforts to get to know Qatar.

"Not even Qataris really know what's happening here," they said.

"They're not allowed to. Unless they're a member of the ruling family. Just look at the press here.

"There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques. But in public the emirate has to appear perfect."

No opinions

The Qatar-based satellite news channel al-Jazeera boasts that it tells things like they are.

But not when it comes to Qatar. It is so close to the emir who rules the country that al-Jazeera staff were employed by the Qatari Foreign Ministry to look after the press centre at this Arab Summit.

Jovial, pot-bellied Faris joked with international journalists throughout, chain-smoking so hard that ash was permanently falling down his once-pristine galabia.

But he looked nervous when I asked him about Qatar, its character, its role in the world.

"Hey, I just work for TV," he told me. "I have no opinions. Qatari, all Arabs. We just talk and talk, you know. But we never do anything. Give me football any day."

Al-Jazeera headquarters
Not even TV station al-Jazeera can reveal Qatar's secrets

I tried foreign ministry officials. Saud bin Ahmad Il Thani is a thin, moustached member of the ruling family.

He put me in mind of the Spanish saying used to describe enigmatic types, "If you met him on the stairs, you wouldn't be quite sure if he were going up or coming down."

"Qataris are the realists of the Arab world," Saud told me with conviction.

"We accept everybody. We've worked with Israel in the past. Unlike a number of other Arab states we don't fear Iran, we understand it," he said.

"It's our neighbour. Ours is a transparent society. We're straightforward. Straight-talking."

The straight talking did not last long at the Arab Summit. The meeting closed suddenly after only a day.

The official reason - everyone agreed with everything. The real reason, a Qatari official told me off the record, was that the longer the Arab states stayed in one room, the more they would bicker.

Qatar preferred things to go smoothly.

Mystery unresolved

My last-ditch attempt to get under Qatar's surface was to book a Doha City tour.

The guide was Indian. I told him I was keen to understand Qatari culture. He suggested we go to the equestrian centre, Olympic sports complex, the main golf club, the biggest mall in the world oh, and the best bit, the Waqif market - 200 years old but knocked down and recently rebuilt.

Here you can buy so-called Qatari antiques from South Asian shopkeepers.

I hope to return to Qatar and renew my efforts to get to know the country.

As my Philippine-staffed Qatar Airways flight took off, Doha and the rest of the tiny country were soon shrouded. Swallowed up and hidden in the sandy dust.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 April, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service.

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