AL KHOR, Qatar — Every afternoon, Muhammad Al Misned leaves his office in Doha, the Qatari capital, jumps into his white land cruiser and drives to his second home in the desert. There, behind a castle-like facade, is his sanctuary — with three swimming pools, two soccer fields, a bowling alley, a stable, a volleyball court and one carefully manicured hedge maze, among other luxuries.
The daily visit to his estate, in the northern town of Al Khor, has offered him much-needed respite since the men’s soccer World Cup turned Qatar into an exhausting, round-the-clock carnival, he told me. Once the tournament is over, he plans to recuperate in London, where he’ll hire a personal trainer to work out and eat every meal with him, lest he ingest too many calories. But like his desert home, this is all — Mr. Al Misned said — quite normal.
“I’m not a rich person,” he explained.
Only a generation ago in Qatar, this nonchalance toward obvious markers of wealth would have been unimaginable.
For much of the 20th century, the country was little more than a barren desert of fishermen and pearl divers who made their living off the salty water of the Persian Gulf. But the discovery of gas fields off its northern shore in the 1970s — and the resulting energy boom — reversed the country’s fortunes. Qataris now enjoy some of the highest average incomes in the world — along with free health care, free higher education, housing support, cushy government jobs, financial support for newlyweds and generous subsidies.
Much of that personal wealth is hidden in the privacy of Qatari homes, which are rarely opened to outsiders. And it is not shared equally. The country is highly stratified, with approximately two million migrant laborers enlisted to facilitate a luxurious lifestyle for about 380,000 Qatari citizens.
Although the country is only the size of Connecticut, it often seems as if those two worlds could not be further apart: The minimum wage for migrant laborers is $275 a month. By one measure, Qataris’ average annual income is around $115,000.
As one Turkish construction worker in the country put it, there is no such thing as a poor Qatari; there are only the rich, the richer and the richest, he said.
Still. Mr. Al Misned, 57, insists that, by Qatari standards, he is not wealthy.
Mr. Al Misned grew up in Al Khor, where his father worked in construction and raised his children in a low-slung mud brick home. By the time Mr. Al Misned was a teenager, the state was flush with gas money and had begun paying for its brightest students to attend universities abroad — a policy designed to cultivate a class of English-speaking Qataris able to effortlessly interact with Western investors.
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Mr. Al Misned attended university in Colorado, and now owns his own consultancy firm with investments in construction projects across Qatar, England and the United States.
His desert home is about an hour’s drive from Doha through a desolate stretch where beige earth melds with a washed-out sky. The journey ends at a palatial gate, manned by a guard, who, on a recent visit, swung open the gate to reveal a lush, green landscape divided by narrow roads lined with palm trees.
Mr. Al Misned welcomed a photographer and me at one of the houses on the property, and then drove us on a tour of the estate, which also includes a shisha lounge and a gym.
Spread across the property were 1,000 sheep, eight Arabian oryx, four horses, two camels and one falcon — what Mr. Al Misned called his working farm — cultivated over the past decade.
He was, though, not much of a falcon guy, he explained as the bird of prey perched on his arm. His friend — who is a falcon guy — had given the animal to him as a gift earlier this year.
“I said once, if I make money, I want to have a farm and I want to build myself a hotel to live in,” he said. “So if you go to Doha, my house is like a small hotel actually.”
At one point between the stable and gym, Mr. Al Misned veered off the road and across a pristine stretch of lawn to show us one of several guesthouses. As we pulled away, he greeted several groundskeepers from South Asia and East Africa, planting fresh patches of sod.
“The minute you say, ‘salaam alaikum’ — ‘hello,’ you know — you give them a lot. They just feel respected,” Mr. Al Misned said, driving back across the yard.
The workers were part of the influx of migrants who have reshaped Qatar’s population in recent decades — and who often have to deal with arrogant bosses and, sometimes, abuse. The treatment of those who built the infrastructure for the World Cup drew widespread criticism before the tournament, and has been a point of controversy throughout the games.
The opulent estate seemed like an apt reflection of Mr. Al Misned’s generation, many of whom grew up with little to no electricity and now drive luxury cars. The stark reversal of fortune seemed to breed a fear of fleetingness, as if wealth could vanish as quickly as it had appeared — so they must spend money, and spend it lavishly, while it lasts.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Al Misned’s wife, Alanood; their daughters; and female relatives gathered in the main clubhouse to watch the Qatar vs. Senegal soccer match. In keeping with Qatari custom, the men vacated the area.
The women lounged on sofas in front of a large television, their kicked-off four-inch stilettos scattered across the floor. The girls wore deep purple Qatari jerseys and skinny jeans.
When Qatari strikers wove through Senegal’s defense, the women erupted in cheers — “We want a goal! We want a goal!” — and pounded on traditional drums, laughing.
Every few minutes, staff members wearing purple dresses and white cotton gloves made the rounds with trays brimming with bowls of sweets, cappuccinos in gold-rimmed cups and a pot of Arabic coffee. One passed by with a bouquet of flowers so large that I could see only the legs of the housekeeper carrying it.
During halftime, Alanood — who has a different last name from her husband and asked that only her first name be used out of privacy concerns — and her guests stepped outside for a jaunt around the property in golf carts. Most of the women were uneasy drivers, accustomed to being driven by their chauffeurs, so I took the wheel of my cart. As we zoomed among palm trees wrapped in shimmering lights, they sang wedding songs.
Returning to the clubhouse, Alanood told me that she and her family had attended the opening game of the World Cup, when Qatar played Ecuador. But they left at halftime, disappointed by both Qatar’s defeat and the fans. Qatari men in the stadiums wore thobes, the traditional dress, instead of soccer jerseys, and there was no screaming, no arm flailing, no electricity in the crowd — which she had expected after the hype for the world’s largest sporting event.
“Everyone knows everyone, so they don’t want to embarrass themselves,” her teenage daughter explained.
I asked Alanood whether she had visited Doha’s souk — now packed with crowds of foreign fans — or any of the music festivals or carnivals the country had put on for the tournament.
“I cannot,” she said firmly. “There are TV crews there and, you know, you don’t know who might take a photo of you.”
“I like my privacy,” she added.
That was a refrain I’d long heard from Qatari friends. They often said that despite Qatar’s conservative reputation and low-key vibes among the few bars in Doha, anything went in the privacy of Qataris homes — and that they liked that privacy. With the start of the tournament, it was as if the country had been turned inside out, with revelry long contained to the home suddenly playing out on the street, though mostly among foreign visitors.
When the game against Senegal ended (Qatar lost, again), the women sat down for a three-course meal beneath a canopy of twinkling lights and accompanied by a live singer. Around 9 p.m., the guests layered abayas over their jeans and silk blouses, clasped their Hermes purses and headed for the gate.
After Alanood gave me a warm hug, I asked whether she would attend another World Cup match.
“Maybe,” she said. “My friend might get a skybox.”
Erin Schaff contributed reporting.