DOHA, Qatar (CNN) — Saad Al-Jassem slips out of his dishdasha revealing a body in extraordinary shape for a man who turns 70 this year. On a traditional wooden dhow off Doha’s corniche, Saad is getting ready to show me how to dive for pearls.
My producer Schams Elwazer, our cameraman and I, joined by our diver and a smiling man steering the craft all crowd onto the tiny boat.
“Should be okay,” Saad tells us with some hesitation before we board. Not too reassuring, I thought, wondering how long it would take me and the crew to swim back to shore if we capsized.
Out at sea, Saad explains: “Pearls were before oil and gas.” I try to balance my weight. “Because there was no other income at the time.”
That was the Qatar of Saad’s father, who sailed off for months at a time to support his family on the mainland, a time when Qatar was one of the poorest countries in the Gulf.
Today, Qatar and other regional states like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain rank among the richest in the world in GDP per capita, thanks to massive revenues from oil and gas; but it’s how those nations are using their money that will shape the future of the Gulf.
Qatar certainly wants to be heard: it funds Al Jazeera, the sometimes controversial but widely popular pan-Arab news channel, which has revolutionized the way the Middle East consumes news in the last decade.
As we drive on the Corniche, we pass a huge plastic Oryx, the mascot of the upcoming Asian Games Doha will soon be hosting, investing millions in sports facilities and transportation.
Also, with its seat on the U.N. Security Council during the Israel-Lebanon conflict last August, this nation of less than a million inhabitants spoke in the name of all Arab countries and has pledged money for reconstruction, as well as troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon.
Qatar often made headlines in Lebanon, where I was part of the team that covered the war for CNN.
Like its neighbors, the UAE and Bahrain, Qatar is taking the money and running, modernizing at breakneck speed.
Still, it remains a deeply conservative country, ruled (like all Gulf states) by a single family; and analysts say it will soon be confronted by difficult choices.
In Qatar and the UAE, almost nine tenths of the population is non local — they need expatriates to grow. The question, some ask, is how long those societies can survive with only a tiny minority holding on to all the political power and most of the economic perks.
Perhaps more worrying, the Gulf’s stellar leap into the modern world and its close ties with the West (Qatar hosts the region’s largest U.S. military base) is angering Al Qaeda: In a tape released last September 11, Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, warned that American interests in the Gulf were now a target.
With one foot in its pearl-diving past and bedouin desert sands, and one foot in the flashy, media savvy world of the oil-rich, Qatar and its neighbors are still hovering between two worlds.
There’s no going back to the days of SaadAl-Jassem’s father — a time when a single pearl could feed a family for days, that’s for sure; but what next?
On my way back to the corniche, Saad helps me pry open a few live Oysters he fished out from the shallow waters a few hundred meter from Doha’s white sandy beaches. Perhaps I’d get lucky and find a pearl, I thought. That day, though, it wasn’t meant to be.