Saturday, May 13, 2006

Puttin on the Ritz (Carlton in Doha, Qatar)`

Day Two of my trip with the Ambassador. As always, I can not discuss the substantive details of any meeting. Also, I apologize for not having photos from the trip, but to be honest, I didn't want to look like a tourist while traveling with the Ambassador.

- As soon as we get off the plane in the middle of the night in Qatar, we are hit by a blast of hot air. The Persian Gulf, apparently doesn't enjoy the same cool Spring weather as does Amman.

- It is about twenty minutes form the airfield to the hotel, but even in this relatively short drive I'm struck by the amount of construction on condominium developments and "McMansions" (Middle-Eastern style, of course), I see en route. Doha bears a slight resemblance to Las Vegas, in that out of nowhere in the middle of the desert the lights of a modern city suddenly appear, and everywhere somebody is building something. (The next day I see a sign for "The Family Fun Park of 1,001 Delights" with a roller coaster visible in the distance). I'm told by somebody from the U.S. Embassy that Qatar's growth rate is something like 20% per year.

- Our hotel turns out to be the Ritz-Carlton, Doha. Whereas I only had a normal room in Amman, this time I have two nights in a junior suite that is larger than Marya and I's last apartment in Quincy, MA. (And yes, I recognize that by revealing this I immediately squander all sympathy anybody may have had for me). The lobby is filled with Qatari men in dishashas and kaffiyehs, Western businessmen, and some U.S. military personnel who are attending a conference. There is also a conference "The Future of Palestine" by a group called the Islamic Scholars Association (or names similar to those) whose logo is a map that, of course, does not include Israel.

- Our first appointment of the day is at the Royal Palace, where the Ambassador has an audience with the Emir, followed by lunch with the Deputy Emir/Heir Apparent. What the Jordanian royal palace lacks in ostentatious decorating, the Qataris make up for in excess. We enter the palace into a four-story atrium with a gleaming marble interior, and massive chandeliers. (For science fiction/fantasy geeks, think the royal hall in "Conan the Destroyer").

- Before meeting the Emir, the Ambassador meets with the Qatari foreign minister. The minister is a tall, impressive looking man, wearing a silk robe over his crisply pressed white cotton dishasa. His office is roughly 50'x30', with portraits of the Emir and Deputy Emir on one side, and floor-to-ceiling windows on the other that provide a spectacular view of downtown Doha across the aqualine blue waters of the bay/Persian Gulf. His desk is ten feet long, and a 25'x10' carpet covers the center of the room. About five minutes into the meeting, three servants in white dishashis enter the room bearing golden teapots and pour us shots of coffee. The minister's deputy uses this occasion to retrieve a partially smoked cigar, which the minister promptly relights and smokes throughout the meeting.

- As the Ambassador meets privately with the Emir, we are taken to another waiting room with the Qatari Ambassadors for Arab and European Affairs. At 1245 the Deputy Emir enters, and we are taken into the next room for lunch. The menu at the Royal Palace? For starters, a lobster salad with salmon sushi, asparagus, and greens, supplemented by bread with two kinds of hummus, tabouli, a small Mediterranean salad, and yogurt. The main course is roasted beef filet with potatoes, sauteed pea pods, and yellow rice. For dessert, we have a chocolate truffle pyramid with berry sauce and fresh fruit. To say the least, it was a nice break from the Dining Facility. (Also, there was about one waiter for every two guests, so that everytime I had a sip of water or orange juice they refilled my glass right away).

- In the afternoon the Ambassador is interviewed live at Al Jazeera's headquarters. Although we have the rest of the evening free, I'm busy drafting a speech for Iraqi Media Day the next day, and hence don't get to enjoy all the amenities of the Ritz. We fly back to Iraq the next morning, and by Thursday night I'm back in my own trailer, sleeping on a mattress who's exposed coils poke into my ribs throughout the night. This has to be one of the greatest comedowns in the history of man.