It is amazing how the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf have this ability to zoom in on the most insignificant detail about their country and transform it into something of historical significance.
Take Qatar for example. In the mid-1990s I was invited by the government to attend the first tourism festival in the country. I accepted the all expense paid junket almost as a joke to find out what Qatar had to offer as a tourism destination. My early recollection of Qatar in the 1980s was wide empty spaces and open roads punctuated with a few modern buildings, including the only five-star hotel in the country. Upon arriving at the airport, I was whisked away from the other passengers then taken into a small VIP hall and treated with all the usual amenities given to visiting dignitaries. The next morning, when I went down to join the other guests at breakfast, I was pleasantly surprised to find about half a dozen gorgeous women seated at the table marked “tourism festival guests.” I parked myself next to a tall stunning blond and proceeded to make conversation only to be told that she did not speak English. I then attempted the same with a brunette on the other side and got pretty much the same response. Feeling a bit embarrassed by my frugal attempts at making small talk, I turned my attention to something more pressing and proceeded to devour my breakfast. As I was about to take my first bite, a woman seated across from me asked, half jokingly, if I was there to “attend the festival or here to meet the Polish models flown in for the fashion show.” I later found out that this woman was one of the event organizers.
After breakfast, our group of around a dozen guests, which included tour operators, travel journalists, and of course the models, was taken to a small conference room and given a briefing about our first destination, al Zubara fort on the northern tip of the Qatari peninsula. After hearing in great detail about the history of the fort, its significance and the government’s grandiose plans to turn it into a first class tourist destination, I expected to find something right out of Walt Disney’s animated film Aladdin. After an hour of traveling over barren landscape, we arrived at the fortress. At first glance I was a bit taken aback as it was nothing like the Acraba that I had envisioned during the presentation. In fact, if this fort were to be located in any other country, for example Egypt, Jordan or Syria, it would hardly be noticeable among all the other forts, castles and historic sites of antiquity. In short, the Qataris were devoting a great deal of energy to build up what little they had and to earn historic credibility in the Gulf region.
More recently, while covering the Dubai Tennis Championships in February, I received a packet which is given out to visiting journalists as a welcome gesture. The packet included a book entitled, Fly Buy Dubai, The Remarkable 25 Year Journey of Dubai Duty Free. Understandably, Dubai Duty Free is interested in promoting its achievements over the last quarter century. As a sponsor of a number of prestigious events, including the annual tennis tournament, it was only natural that the company wanted to showcase its accomplishments.
I can see publishing a pamphlet or even a small book for the occasion, but I was shocked upon seeing the 500 plus page book. Out of curiosity, I actually began reading the book to see how one could write so much about a duty free shop. Interestingly, the book begins by looking at the origins of the duty free experience at Ireland’s Shannon Airport in 1947 and examining how the concept spread from there to the rest of the globe.
It’s funny though how the book reaches to include Dubai from the very beginning. It attempts to draw a parallel between the father of the duty free concept, Irish entrepreneur Brendan O’Regan, and Sheikh Hasher bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, the great-grandfather of Dubai’s present ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Sheikh Hasher is credited with establishing Dubai as a tax-free haven at the end of the 19th century to attract businesses to the then obscure emirate. As impressive as the move was at the time, it can hardly be compared to the duty free revolution that Brendan O’Regan embarked on.
The historical section of the book is quite informative. The most interesting tidbit was how the name Irish Coffee was coined in the 1940s by the head chef at the Shannon airport restaurant, Joseph Sheridon. On a very cold night, he decided to add a drop of whiskey to a pot of coffee he made for a group of transiting Americans. When one of the passengers asked, “is this Brazilian coffee?” Sheridon replied, “No, Irish Coffee!” The rest of the book goes into every detail about the company and draws on many anecdotes from Colm McLoughlin, the Dubai Duty Free managing director and one of the original consultants sent from Ireland to set up the duty free in 1983. The book has its interesting moments but, by all accounts, it is way too long.
In short, Qatar’s tourism festival, the hype surrounding its al Zubara fort and the 500-page book commemorating the 25-year anniversary of Dubai Duty Free, are examples of how big money is spent in this part of the world to procure a place in history. Then there is the other side of the coin, countries with considerable history but with no money to preserve it.
Norbert schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer