The Cost of Things in Qatar

My first meal in Qatar was at an Applebee’s. We just landed that evening and, after dropping my luggage on the tiles of my new foyer, I had just enough time to get a sense of the apartment layout and wash fourteen hours of jet cabin grime off my face. I reconvened with my new colleagues—we were there to teach English—in the lobby of my new highrise and we piled into cars belonging to some of the veteran teachers who’d formed the unofficial welcome committee. “We thought you’d like a taste of home,” they said. “Let’s go to Applebee’s.” I was too tired and too disoriented and too polite to object.

I tried my best to hide my disappointment with the fact I’d traveled eight thousand miles only to wind up at a glorified fast food chain. I had left the U.S. specifically to get away from home, tastes of and otherwise. I wanted something local. I had no real clue what that entailed, but, as I was soon to find out, places like Applebee’s are as much a part of the Gulf culinary landscape as makbous, hammour, and flatbread.

The first thing you notice in Qatar when you step off the plane is the thick heat. The country is a desert, but it’s also incredibly humid, owing to geography: a tiny peninsula—a skin tag, really—surrounded by the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Gulf, as they call it here.

The second thing you notice is the ubiquity of American fast food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa Johns, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Johnny Rockets, Hardees—God, so much Hardees. I’ve quite possibly seen more Hardees in Doha alone than I’ve seen everywhere else combined. But fast food doesn’t cater to or represent the lowest common denominator the way it seems to in the States. While we bemoan, quite rightly, the underhanded evil of the dollar menu, the poorest in Qatar, mostly the laborers and service people, can’t really afford to eat fast food all that often. When you make anywhere from QR500 to QR1000 a month ($135 to $270), a five-dollar Big Mac meal suddenly isn’t the most economical use of calories. Instead, if you are going to eat out, a one-dollar falafel wrap is a better bet. American fast food is more popular with the nationals. After lunch at the school where I teach, the garbage cans are packed with empty KFC boxes and Burger King wrappers. A night out at Chili’s or TGI Friday’s isn’t slumming it; instead, it is a kind of marker of modernity and luxury for the people.

What’s more, many restaurants deliver. Here, McDonald’s delivery isn’t a piece of 1990s ephemeral trivia; it is a very real fact of life in the Gulf. Make a phone call and in an hour your afternoon is booked: an appointment with your couch and your gastronomic shame.

Combine this fast food culture with the carb-heavy, traditional Gulf diet, and it’s no surprise here that so many new expats quickly succumb to the infamous Doha Dozen.

Luckily, most living spaces have gyms. Whether it’s a highrise in the glass-and-steel Diplomatic Area or in one of the many villa compounds, there’s going to be a gym nearby. It’s a necessity of living here as an expat. The city is spread out and so very little walking actually happens, and the recklessness of the drivers makes jogging anywhere but on the Corniche fairly inadvisable. Add to that the oppressive heat between April and November that keeps everyone indoors and air-conditioned and you start to realize that if you don’t make use of those gyms, your body is going to start to atrophy and sag.

That first night, belly full of Asian chicken salad and Diet Pepsi, I arrived back at my apartment, in no mood or condition for sleep despite my fatigue. I took stock of the living space, which was larger than anywhere I’d lived in my post-adolescence. My apartment in Houston, where I’d lived during grad school, was a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom—all of it dilapidated and poorly insulated, with doors that didn’t quite close and ceilings that sagged and floorboards that groaned. Basically, it was typical grad student fare, the sort of thing you could find for $500 a month in a major city.

My Doha flat—the fast food may be American in Doha, but the lingo is decidedly British—is not so much a step up as it is a high jump. For starters, it’s on the seventh floor (the eighth, if you count in American), which tops my previous record of a fourth-floor Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan, where I lived before striking out for Brooklyn, as one inevitably does. The flat has a foyer, a larger living room/dining room, a sizable kitchen with lots of cabinet space, two bedrooms (one of which became my writing office) off a hallway perpendicular to the foyer, four bathrooms (two with bidets), a maid’s quarters, and a balcony overlooking the front of the building and the pool belonging to the flats across the street. The amenities in my building include an impractically shaped pool with an island, a gym (one for each of the sexes), underground parking, and a cafe that serves up Indian, Arabic, and, for some reason, Italian fare. It’s all rather nice and I was pretty shocked and pleased that first night. After all, I was twenty-seven and had never yet felt the caress of a bidet, and once you do, well, that’s best left only for the anointed to discuss.

And my building isn’t even nice by Western expat standards in Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi. The equipment in our gym is sparse and the machines are poorly maintained, as are the general facilities and appliances in the whole of the highrise. The carpeting is disintegrating and no one really bothers to wash the windows outside. Many buildings have convenience stores and luxury gyms with functional saunas and steam rooms and hot tubs and cafes with more conservative fare, food that doesn’t send the reek of onions and curry up the ventilator shafts at random hours of the day. Some of this inconvenience is owed to the fact that I’m a seconded employee of the government here, and public sector jobs for expats often mean you get put up in the same buildings as your colleagues. Working for a private company comes with a bit more freedom. You receive, typically, a sizable monthly living stipend, something in the ballpark of $2,000, often more, and you find a place yourself. Most expats I know find roommates and get a cheaper room ($1,500 a month is cheap here) in a highrise or in a villa with a private pool or lagoon access and pocket the difference.

But my occasional annoyance with these facts of life in my building shows how pampered people can become here. In New York and Houston, I took it as a mark of pride that I never once had a cockroach problem. Two years later I find myself complaining that the washer/dryer doesn’t get fixed quickly enough or that one of my four toilets is on the fritz. It gives me pause and I have to remind myself that things aren’t so bad. Still, it’s common to find Westerners in the Gulf griping about problems they’d never have considered griping about before the move.

A lot of Westerners here can be downright nasty to the service and laborer class, a fact I find galling, considering the man bringing you your bill at the bar is often making less in a month than you may have just spent on a burger and a round of beers. This kind of classism is commonplace in Doha with expats and nationals alike.

Part of it, I suppose, at least from my perspective as an American, is that Western expat egos can become as puffed up as the rental rates. Many people come here because things weren’t going so hot back home. It’s no secret that it’s difficult to find work back in the States. People come here because they couldn’t find jobs or because they could make more money than they otherwise would to pay down their underwater mortgages and soul-crushing student loans.

Professionally and perhaps otherwise, a lot of us had nary a pot in which to piss, and Qatar took us in and allowed us to be the things we wanted to be: teachers, journalists, salesmen, advertisers, whatever. Al Jazeera is one example. For many young English-speaking journalists, this is their first job in the industry. Take an out-of-work politics major with a solid command of English, just add sand, and you’ve got a foreign correspondent. I doubt you will find so many people with so few credentials getting hired by a similarly esteemed news organization. Al Jazeera, like Qatar in general, offers many expats a place to gain hard-to-find professional experience.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that expats tend to forget their humble situations. Between the jobs offering people unprecedented amounts of money and responsibility, the expensive cocktail hours, the fancy brunches, the beachfront apartments, and the brigades of deferential staff everywhere, expats often prove true the adage that there is no snob like the newly rich.

And maybe some of the arrogance comes from the fear of what will happen to us when we go back home.

Some of the economic realities of expat life in Qatar is due to the standard practice of subsidized housing. For professionals, this means that large bill due on the first of every month is taken care of in some form or another, whether it’s a bump in your paycheck or the company or ministry paying the landlord directly. While this is certainly nice and few would complain about it, it also helps to create the inflated prices of many goods and services, since the wealthy foreigners have more money to throw around—not to mention the locals, who are guaranteed high salaries, thanks to the abundance of natural gas that gives the nation most of its famous supply of cash, a reality that affords things like across-the-board sixty-percent raises for citizens. Some of the overall high prices of goods are also due to the difficulty of shipping perishables and electronics and automobiles and clothing and books and libations, but the ability and, more importantly, the willingness of people to pay certainly plays a large part. The subsidization feeds into this willingness to pay into the inflated rent structure where a standard two-bedroom apartment in a Dafna or the West Bay Lagoon will run anywhere from QR11,000 to QR16,000 (roughly $3000 to $4400) and you don’t have the benefit of a New York or London-esque walkable neighborhood surrounding you.

On the other end of the spectrum—and there really isn’t much middle ground—is the laborer and service class, who make a startlingly low salary, considering the cost of goods here. Two common justifications exist. One is that they are still making more than they would back in Mumbai or Manilla or Katmandu. Maybe this is true; maybe it isn’t. In the end it’s beside the point. The other justification is that these workers receive free housing. Hotel workers, for instance, receive room and board, true, but often as little as QR500 (about $135) a month.

Many of the people here aren’t in for the long haul, and this makes for a reverse bell curve of haves and have-nots.

The pampering of expat professionals, the foreign knowledge economy of Qatar, is not entirely an accident.

Living here, it’s easy to forget that you’re very far from home sometimes. You forget that to friends and family and half-forgotten Facebook followers your life is pretty exotic. You live in the Middle East, after all. But for a lot of Westerners especially, life is designed to forget that fact.

I do not count myself among my peers in that regard because I teach and work with Qataris every day, or rather Sunday through Thursday, the Islamic work week here. I lecture to them and am in meetings with them and some of them are my superiors and that for me became normal fairly quickly, as familiarity tends to make happen. I’ve learned a lot and have had a unique experience in that regard. I’ve eaten goat with my hands off a communal tray on the floor of a majlis and sipped karak with bedouins and have met and hung out with locals from a lot of walks of life here. I count it as a personal victory that I’ve taught some how to throw an American football and how to spike that ball after you’ve scored a touchdown.

I often forget that because I’m an educator, I have a particular cultural position; most of my friends here rarely meet the locals. Part of this is because roughly ninety percent of the citizen workforce is in the public sector. Private sector jobs, from labor to management, tend to be expats. Foreign companies and institutions come in to drill, consult, educate, design, sell, trade, report, engage in diplomacy, and basically help to form the modern civic and capitalist infrastructure. Western expats can wake up, eat, go to work, go to the gym, do some shopping, grab dinner, have a drink, go home, watch television, Skype, and go to bed without ever really interacting with people who aren’t more or less like them.

The neighborhood where I live is dubbed the Diplomatic Area by Westerners but is technically called Al Dafna. Al Dafna translates to “reclaimed land” or “landfill.” If you do an image search on Google of Doha, Dafna is where all those skyscrapers are. Dafna and the nearby West Bay area are where most of the young Western professionals call home, removed from the older areas of the city and the walled villas where Qataris generally prefer to lay their heads at night.

Qatar is home to just under two million people, by recent estimates. Only about a quarter of a million of these residents are Qatari. They are a slim minority in their own country, a fact that leads to an odd cultural dynamic. While the isolation of Westerners stems much from the fact that the country tries to accommodate these foreign professionals where it can—housing, entertainment, alcohol, even the occasional pork—, a lot of it also has much to do with Qataris trying to hold onto what they see as their identity dissipating in a sea of Westerners, Levantines, North Africans, Persians, and Central and East Asians.

The dual instincts of modernization and traditionalism come into conflict, often resulting in cultural compromises for the sake of both the expat workforce and globalization, the latter of which is perhaps best symbolized by the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, an event that is a flashpoint for the general anxieties facing Qatar. How do they accommodate and attract hordes of foreigners without compromising everything? From a practical standpoint, they need buildings and stadiums and hospitals and a larger airport and more attractions. From a cultural standpoint, what to do about alcohol and legions of drunk soccer fanatics? On one hand, the locals have a point when they say that this is their country and the visitors should abide by their rules, even if it is the World Cup. On the other there are the material circumstances of becoming a global city. It is a two-way street.

Qataris are predominantly a Sunni Islamic people, and more specifically Wahhabi, though less conservative in many ways than their Wahhabi neighbors, Saudi Arabia. Still, there are Shiites and Christians and Hindus here and they are free to practice their religion, so long as there is no proselytizing or open public displays. Many of the laws of the country are directly influenced by Sharia, but there are still allowances made, for instance, for alcohol, which you buy for your home at the country’s only liquor store, the Qatar Distribution Center (which is also the only place you can buy pork products), or in bars inside or at least on the grounds of hotels.

This last point makes for a strange social scene in Doha. Instead of heading over to the local dive bar and listening to Johnny Cash on the jukebox or catching the game at the neighborhood sports bar, your local drinkery is more likely going to be a glitzy lounge or a club or a very mannered hotel restaurant/bar with overly obsequious staff. You make due and these places become your haunts. To friends you suggest going out to the W or the Intercon or the Four Seasons in the same manner you’d suggest going to Union Hall or Rio Rita or Linda’s Tavern, and while there are bars in Doha that try to replicate the experience of a Western pub, like the Belgian Bar or the Irish Harp or the Old Manor, you can never quite escape the sterility that is seemingly innate to hotel establishments—that and the fact that, for instance, the Irish Harp predominantly serves sugary vodka drinks and Fosters tends to undermine the authenticity of the experience. You also are going to spend typically $8 to $12 on a single pint of beer and up to $20 on a shot. Life, as I said, is expensive in Doha and the bar owners know that homesick expats are going to pay what they’re saving on rent on a double shot of Scotch. Accommodating foreigners and their habits from home isn’t just about globalization; it’s also a reliable business.

There are two big grocery chains in Qatar: Carrefour and Lulu. The former is a French company and the latter is based out of the U.A.E. They are both versions of a model that is foreign to Americans: the hypermarket. It’s like a supermarket, but also kind of like a Walmart. The brands they sell are typically unfamiliar, either Arab or European products somewhat resembling what you might find in the states. (There is even a well known Saudi food brand called Americana.) You can get produce and yoghurt and digestives (a delicious kind of English biscuit not unlike a graham cracker), toothpaste, condoms (yes, even in the Middle East), jumper cables, and two-week-old Us Weeklies with the camel-toes blacked out with permanent marker by a censor. You can pick up a new laptop or flatscreen, if you’re feeling like a splurging while on a run for Diet Coke and skim milk. They sell American brands sometimes too. They have Heinz ketchup and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but it never tastes the same. Some companies change the chemistry of their processed food for foreign tastes, and even if some don’t, there’s at least a placebo effect.

Sometimes it’s just necessary to drive the extra distance to Megamart, a small grocery store catering to homesick American and British expats. You can find Amy’s or Tombstone frozen pizza, but it’s going to cost you $12 for a pie. There are black beans and that’ll run you $5 for a small can. Maybe 0% Fage? $10. Here your choices are confined to whatever overstock they happen to be able to get their hands on, and when you see something you really like, you buy a lot of it because you never really know when it’s going to come back or if it ever will. And of course you frequently admit to yourself at Megamart what a privileged, entitled piece of shit you are. Why would you expect Qatar, a country on the other side of the globe, to have your favorite brands? But then again, you’re used to it, because this place, for a whole host of reasons, seems to go a long way to make it feel like you never really left home, yet at the same time constantly reminds you that you aren’t a part of this place, that you’re a Jerseyan who’s a long, long way from the boardwalk.

There’s a story I like to tell, and truth be told, a friend back home tells it more than I do. I think she likes the symbolism and the incongruity. The gym where I work out—or not so much work out as grimace and flail around—is, like so many things in Doha, in the shopping mall. Late one night, after a particularly painful 5K on the treadmill, with only soccer and a Turkish soap opera to watch on the flatscreens, I walked down the escalator to the Carrefour to grab a few groceries. In twenty minutes I had a basket full of lentils and tofu and bottled water and various other things I hate but eat in order to live past fifty. Of course, I also had to venture over to the frozen food section, specifically to where they keep the weird Saudi pizza and chicken nuggets and ice cream. I had a hankering for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. The problem is that when you see a familiar brand, they may only have one flavor of it. Sometimes I get lucky and they have Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or Oatmeal Cookie Dough. That day, as I wiped away the condensation on the glass, it was a flavor I’d never seen before. I reached in and grabbed a pint to inspect it. Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler. No offense to Mr. Nelson, but it looked suspect, and I’m almost always willing to suspend disgust and roll with the Ben and Jerry’s mad scientist shit. I shrugged and threw it in the basket.

Back home I showered and changed and settled onto the couch for an evening of Hulu and self-loathing. I took my first spoonful of the ice cream and it was awful. Still, I forced down half the container, distracted by Jon Stewart’s familiar, humorous vacillation between smiling good will and rage-filled incredulity, and left the rest in the freezer. It sat there for six months, only being nibbled at when I was rifling through the fridge and freezer, searching for anything that’d kill the hunger pangs at two a.m. It sat there, this image of home, this American product with its packaging and chemically enhanced taste designed to be reminiscent of an Americana that doesn’t even exist back home, much less here on a small peninsula attached to the Arabian Peninsula. It sat there in the freezer as some kind of fitting symbol for the American expat in the Gulf.

Because the other thing that being here reminds you is that as much as you miss home, the home you miss doesn’t exist. If it did, you’d still be there, probably. Though, much like with the image of the West they try to recreate here in the hotels, much like the image of yourself that you create as a professional and a heavyweight in your field, much like with the package of Ben and Jerry’s Willie Nelson Country Peach Cobbler, the most painful thing is you suspect that what you miss is either gone or will be gone when you get back or maybe never existed at all.


Dane Wisher lives in Qatar. photo by robert raines


35 Comments / Post A Comment

LD (#3,719)

This is fantastic. Let’s get more from this guy!

kellyography (#250)

THIS is what I was talking about. Very interesting.

EH (#3,721)

I currently live in Turkey and it’s amazing how Westerners often seem blind to the privilege they have here. I get especially pissed when they complain about anything and everything – it seems like when they stepped off the airplane, they forget their empathy in the overhead luggage bin.

Aha, this is exactly what I like to read about!

blueblazes (#1,798)

To echo everyone—this was wonderful. Tell us more, Dane!

Megano! (#124)

This was AMAZING. If I thought that I or my corgi could survive the humidity (WE PROBABLY COULD NOT), I would applying for work there right now. I’m unemployed! I have like, no skills! I AM PERFECT.

LeroyJenkins (#3,727)

Regarding the World Cup, no, the Qataris really get to complain. Not when their government bribed the corrupt officials at FIFA for the rights to the game. They wanted it…well, then they are going to get it, both the good and the bad. Countries of 2 million with no history of the game and weak infrastructure to support said game don’t normally get the World Cup.

LeroyJenkins (#3,727)

@LeroyJenkins I meant to say “the Qataris really have no right to complain.”

TSM (#3,745)

@LeroyJenkins No history of the game? What about South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup? Do they have a history of the game? Weak infrastructure? What about Brazil hosting the upcoming 2014 World Cup? They still do not have enough stadiums for the football matched and FIFA are currently helping them. Besides, the World Cup we’re hosting is in 2022 and it’s still 2013. Stadiums were designed a long time ago and many other attractions were already planned. There is a solution to the extreme heat. You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

Laura (#454)

This is awesome and I want more. I’m curious about how this experience might be different for a woman?

Heckyes (#1,162)

@Laura I’m a lady, and I lived in Qatar for about a year. My experience was pretty similar, actually. Ladies in Qatar (unlike in Saudi Arabia) can drive and can walk around un-accompanied, and I often did so. I spent a lot of time at the mall and on the Corniche, both very public places, and never felt unsafe. However, there are a disproportional number of male expats, so my female coworkers and I were on the receiving end of a lot of stares when we went out without men, which often made me a bit uncomfortable. But I learned to ignore it, and to keep my head down and avoid eye contact when walking around the mall by myself, a practice that extended a bit too long after I got back to the US (though I’m better now!).

I was also a teacher, so interacted with Qataris more than some expats. Some of the male Qatari students took a bit of time to become accustomed to a lady telling them what to do, but they all came to respect and like me by the end of the year.

Overall, good experience, but I’m glad to be back in the US where I feel comfortable wearing shorts when it’s hot out.

How timely, I’m in Qatar right now. Mostly subsisting off conference center buffet food, which is free, and cigarettes our hotel concierge keeps in a burlap sack under his podium for some reason — $2.75 for a pack of Marlboro Lights, considerably more than at the shops but a great deal to me. (No Camels, despite this being the Arabian Peninsula and all.)

Last night, after a day of seminars about sustainability and green business, they bused all 2,000 of us out to the desert, where we took a massive convoy of SUVs through what should be protected sand dunes to a beach with a clear view of the refinery hellscape across the bay for an “Arabian Nights” dinner staffed entirely by Burmese and Filipinos. They even had attendants to clean out the Port-a-Potties each time someone used one. Very Qatar.

I’d say that between the traffic, the heat, the entitled expats, the entitled Qataris, and the $15 Heinekens, you’d have to pay me a LOT of money to live here. Then again, I guarantee you this place won’t exist in this form in 15-20 years, so I guess enjoy it while you can?

Haha I’m listening to some lady give a half-baked Silicon Valley pitch to some Emiratis behind me right now. These people are all going to lose their shirts.

questingbeast (#2,409)

This was great. Ben and Jerry’s Willie Nelson Country Peach Cobbler sounds too much like a Simpsons joke to actually be a thing that exists.

@Bernadette Is this performance art? Because you’re doing a grade A job at hitting pretty much every “colonial ex-pat” stereotype. I particularly like the pearl-clutching over his “vulgarity”.

You only got an A instead of an A+ for not protesting that YOU pay your maid/nanny well and love her like family.

Robert (#3,736)

This brings back memories for me. I worked for Dyncorp at the US Army base from 2004 – 2007, outside… Anything over 43 degrees began to get very uncomfortable. Average temps in summer were 48, around 118 degrees, with terrible humidity. Add a flak jacket and helmet, then drink a LOT of water! I was advised to drink it more warm than cold after I had a heat injury in June (only about 107 too). I drank cold water from the ice chest, which is very wrong. Water won’t assimilate while cold, it remains in your stomach. I noticed that I had stopped sweating, but I didn’t feel differently. Outside in that heat was very uncomfortable and it felt like your brain was boiling inside of that helmet. I went into medical and was given two IV ringers and felt like new. Very dehydrated. Shortly after that, a contractor on base died after he went outside and refueled his vehicle, died right there at the gas pumps. That heat is no joke.
I always felt the plight of the Asian expatriates. They live in squalor and earn almost nothing, working 12’s for 6 days. Friday is the rest day in the Middle East. I gave away a lot of money in tips. I tipped everyone. I’m making 20 times their salary. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Even though I don’t drink, I got a liquor license (you need a salary letter from your company and must earn 4000QR/month to qualify in order to buy from the one liquor store) and would get a case of vodka and whiskey mixed and drop it off to the underpaid guards at our villas. As you can imagine, they loved that. My Nepali brothers… I had a Pontiac Firefly I bought from a coworker going home (Australian made) that I drove for 6 months before I cracked the head. I signed it over to a young Nepali guard, who was able to change the engine with his cousin and sell it to buy a ticket home to see his young child and wife. He was unable to go, didn’t have enough money, so I just gave him the car. It was the right thing to do. Yea, I had a car titled to me in the Middle East, driver’s license too. Insurance is dirt cheap despite being one of the worst places in the world to drive, having 7 times more horrible accidents than the US. The insurance is on the car, not the driver, pays 100% of medical and repairs, but you can’t sue anyone, and was transferred with the car when I bought it.
Utilities are interesting there. Water was piped to our villas every morning from 4am to 7am. Water goes into storage tanks outside. Cheap places have them on the roof. Ours had ground level tank with a pump. When the pump breaks, you have no water, and it will break at times. With temps outside over 110, the “cold” water showers would be unbearable! The trick was to shut off your hot water tank, and allow some room temperature water to mix in with the tank water, and stand as far away as possible to allow it to cool before it burns your skin. You would love to take a cold shower after working outside, but ain’t gonna happen.
We had electrical problems with a splice at the road every summer. In a cement building without a/c, it quickly gets super humid. Opening the windows does not help! Electrical work was performed by a guy from Sri Lanka who likely would not be performing electrical work back in the states. “It will be fixed by tomorrow, Insha allah (if it is God’s Will). This is what we affectionately called, “Arabic time.” Tomorrow would likely be two or three days… A lot of places closed from 12-4pm every day. Very frustrating trying to get anything done. The opening time at 4pm was in Arabic time, usually closer to 5pm. Most government offices opened at 6am and closed at 1pm, and were staffed by Qataris and others who really weren’t all that concerned about what you needed.
I worked for 1 1/2 years with various contractors of Middle Eastern decent in the Qatari Army. I admired these men as well as the Muslim religion, excepting their treatment of women that I don’t agree with. Guys from Oman, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, etc. I have very good insight into what they believe and think of us. They liked American people ok, but despised American government, and most were able to draw the distinction between the two. They hated the Islamic extremism as much as we do because it gives them all a bad name, all from a miniscule fraction of Muslims. Men from those countries were honorable and religious. They considered Saudi, UAE and Qatar to be bad Muslim countries because of how badly poor expatriate workers are treated. All men are supposed to be equal. I really miss working with those guys. We ate together every day, myself remembering to only eat with the right hand per their traditions. Tea time was a reverent thing. Most anything stopped for tea, and also prayer times. I took me awhile to understand why I got so energized from the tea. It was really good! Qat leaves were brought in from Yemen, where it is legal, and brewed in the tea. Two or three small tea cups worth made the working shift end swiftly. I actually felt honored they would include me in tea time, and acted accordingly. I was always respectful and was actually awarded for my efforts of liaising with Host Country Nationals by the Army.
You need an “Exit Letter” to leave the country if you are not there on a tourist visa, i.e. having a working visa. That’s right, you are not permitted to leave unless you have a letter from your sponsor (your company) that says that you are allowed to leave. If you go the the airport without one, you will be turned away. Now, being from a western country, I could go to my embassy and get one, but anyone from an Asian country is stuck. Once they get to Qatar, their passports are taken “to get working visas” which takes less than a week, but the passports are routinely kept the entire time they are under contract, likely two or more years. These workers are stuck and can’t leave. We aren’t subject to things like this, being impoverished and abused and no one willing to help, including their respective embassies. Labour laws are not followed, workers are abused, and often unpaid for at least their first few months and sometimes longer. Once, to my surprise, the newspaper ran a story about a the “inmates” in the “labour camp” that was not up to code. There were 120 inmates in this particular set of villas (stacked and racked 6-8 per closet sized room, pretty standard stuff) with only 12 bathrooms, 4 of which were broken. I always wondered why some of these guys smelled so terrible. Well, if you aren’t able to wash yourself because the facilities are woefully inadequate… The camp was ordered to fix the facilities, but I would bet not a thing changed. Whoever brought this to light regretted it, I’m sure.
I met the Deputy Minister of Interior at a tea house around the corner from my villas. We were mixed in with locals, usually less than half in the compound, for security reasons. I got to chatting with him regularly. He informed me that the Qatari government only gives to its citizens (there was no taxes then but may be now). All schools are paid for, and if you complete a 4 year degree, you are guaranteed about $70,000/yr. The government makes up the difference, cuts you a check yearly. When you get married, you are given a plot of land and about $220,000 to build a home and get cars. If that is not enough, money will be loaned to you, and repayment will be forgotten in 3-5 years. All of your utilities are paid for including your mobile phones and cable, most being owned or controlled closely by the government. Stipends are given for each child as they desire to increase population. Basically, I believe they only have to pay for their food and housemaid. Every Qatari household has one. She makes a small amount, is not allowed to leave the home except maybe on Friday, the rest day, and may be allowed to stay out all night or be required to return at a certain time. Those in domestic employ are not allowed to change to a job working for a company, they are stuck in domestic employ for that particular sponsor (family). In fact, you need sponsor (your company) permission to change jobs, to work for another company. Guess how often that happens? Almost never. They are stuck working for their contract duration and can’t leave, and can’t change to another job, no matter how horribly they are treated, even if they aren’t being paid. It’s hard to believe stuff like this is still going on in this day and age, but it is.
You are forbidden to associate with a member of the opposite sex that is not a family member. If there is a woman in your villa, she better be the cleaning lady. Americans weren’t bothered by the Religious Police much, as long as you weren’t flaunting it in public. No matter if you are married, public displays of affection will deport and fine us, and bring 2 years jail time to the less fortunate. Most of us had ladies living with us though. Real Asian ladies, not Asian-American, are awesome. I’ve been married to one for 6 years now. She’s so great. And I feel that way still.

@Robert Now that’s more of a slice of the reality I experienced in Qatar. Thanks for sharing.

YMills (#3,738)

I lived in Doha from 2004-2011 and it’s like you were in my head! Well-written, entertaining, and honest. I’m impressed you have so much insight after only 2 yrs. It took me a lot longer to make the same realizations that you so poignantly describe.

LD (#3,719)

@Bernadette No self-respecting English teacher would ever use the phrase “firstly.” Instead of taking Dane to the airport, you should probably just drive yourself straight to the looney bin, Bernadette.

Bernadette (#3,735)

At last, a decent review of Qatar…since he left Qataris received a 60% pay raise…120% if in the military and police. Credible rumors say another 60% increase is to be made!

The backbone of the country is the poor Asian. It is modern day slavery….and they have no voice.

vintner (#3,741)

@Bernadette Interesting review. I wonder what you found so incorrect and abominable about this piece? The observation that there are a lot of fast food places in Qatar? The comments about the sad plight of Asian workers which you refer to in your own comments? The very perceptive and self-aware criticism of 1st world expats who complain about what, in reality, are their very pampered living conditions? The absolute fact that most expats work in Doha because they can make more money there than in their own countries? (In fact, when you deny this last point, you only show your own naivete and lack of worldly experience.) I think that the writer does an excellent job of contrasting the romanticized notions that many Americans (including, as he admitted, himself) have about working overseas with the reality of day to day living in a country that is very Americanized in many ways. Having spent most of my career working outside the US myself, it makes me chuckle to read/hear the self-righteous observations of people like yourself who think they truly understand a place because they’ve lived there for a few years, learned a few expressions, and have local “friends”. You never will really understand. So, your opinion of what is a “decent” review of Qatar and what is not is inherently inaccurate and juvenile.

umyacoub (#3,742)

@Bernadette Have you not read anything else on The Billfold? It would serve you to get to know the audience and general tone of writing on this site. The author seems to have navigated these elements quite well.

vintner (#3,741)

@Bernadette Well, thank goodness the article appears on an website that publishes opinion-type pieces. Why are you reading articles on this site if you expect pieces you would normally find in Newsweek? I doubt his purpose was ever to evince a deep understanding of the Gulf. He seems intelligent enough to understand he could not accomplish that. Unlike others. It is poorly written according to the standards you would use for an academic essay? Brilliant analysis. So,show us, master wordsmith, how would one “capture that which is Qatar”? Is it a country trapped between old traditions and modernization? Yes. And the author does a very good job of showing that through his perspective. The personal anecdotes bring it to life in a way that statements like “due to the financial downturn in the West” never would. The way you judge writing tells us that you are not a usual reader of because they usually publish “blog” type writing. It’s almost as if you only came to the site and posted in order to vent some long-pent up personal vitriol. Jealous of youth much? You keep saying he is a “youth” and “adolescent”, yet who is the one launching personal attacks via forum posts?

Bernadette (#3,735)

“Firstly”- is proper British English…sorry, the entire world does NOT use American English…

Many, like Dane, have come to Qatar and it is their first time outside the US. They are not worldly and as in his case, terribly myopic in their world view.

Dane’s views, lack of understanding and poor composition- I firmly stand behind my assessment that this is an extremely poorly written essay. Unfortunately, there isn’t a grade below F.

Sorry to disappoint, but I do not have a maid…again, misunderstandings and misperceptions.

umyacoub (#3,742)

An accurate overview of ex-pat life here in Qatar! Well done.

umyacoub (#3,742)

@Bernadette The article seems to have struck a chord with you. Perhaps you were an underemployed professional prior to coming to Qatar? It is no secret that people take jobs in the Gulf either for financial goals or because they were un- or under employed at home. People certainly don’t move here for the weather, freedoms, or cheap beer! You claim the author writes poorly, something I happen to disagree with. Still, style preferences can be subjective. What is clear, however, is your lack in reading comprehension skill. Your comments seem to be nothing more than a personal attack. My guess is you are either extremely insecure or have a personal vendetta against the author.

Bernadette (#3,735)

@umyacoub only 1 question…would you want your child in his class?

umyacoub (#3,742)

@Bernadette If I had the choice between a teacher who virulently spews her distaste for a presumed colleague (how else would you know this much about him?) on the Internet and one that openly and honestly reflects on his experience and privilege as a Western ex-pat in Doha, I would overwhelmingly go with the latter. I can only imagine that someone with as much ill-will as you display here brings some of it into her classroom.

LD (#3,719)

@Bernadette I’ve been teaching advanced writing at a Research 1 university for over 10 years now, Bernadette, and I have a lot of letters behind my name that make me qualified to say that this is absolutely not a poor composition. It shows a tremendous understanding of the audience for THIS SITE and the tone, narrative, as well as the reflective structure, all add to the piece as a whole. It’s excellent writing.

But what you’re demonstrating, a personal attack, a lack of awareness of audience, on top of an absolute lack of emotional control, are all the defining points of that elusive below-F essay you mention. I have no idea who you are or who Dane is, but what I see here, from the perspective of an academic, is an embarrassing display of departmental politics-taking place in a space outside the department-meant to undermine a colleague. You should be ashamed of yourself and your role in undermining a respectful academic discourse community. I hope your chair shuts this down immediately.

@Bernadette I’m not interested in commenting on the writing style of this essay but I lived (and taught at an American university) in Qatar for 11 years so this interested me. In terms of content, I also find Dane’s account very stereotypical of a neophyte expat who perhaps is enamored with this (maybe?) first brush with the “exotic”. His opinions clearly are shaped through his perceptions of how he thinks other expats in Qatar are filtering their own experiences, and that is perhaps the part of this essay that I had the most difficulty swallowing.

But then again, I don’t think it’s written for people like us. It is written for people who have never been to Qatar and for Qataris who will feel better about having an expat “get it”; so in that sense I think he has hit his mark and understand why people like this.

I dumped my “privilege Western guilt” within my first 2 years of living in Qatar and then began to open my eyes and build sustainable relationships with those people open to such. I think Mr. Wisher needs to really get out more, spend more time in Qatar and then revisit this essay in 5 years (assuming he still lives there by that time).

sidewalkchalk (#3,759)

Oh my goodness get over yourself dear author. I don’t know who you hang around with, but they are very different than the expats I come into contact with. My husband works with nationals, I have gone back to University here and interact on a daily basis with, and am friends with, many Qatari nationals. I am curious and respectful of their culture and have learned so much from them. My children go to school with Qataris, some of which are their closest friends. My children seized the opportunity to start learning a little Arabic while here. My family and almost all my expat friends and I seek out opportunities for unique cultural experiences. We’ve visited mosques, local museums, appreciated incredible local cuisuine and give back to the community by donating to local charities. I have three children and don’t have a maid. We have employed a driver to help out with the school driving, and he is amazing and appreciates the work we have given him so much. We don’t live in a fancy beach front apartment and I don’t know anyone who does. I have only been to a fancy brunch once here, at Christmas time. Maybe you need to find a new circle of friends.

And now even CALIFORNIA TORTILLA the mexican-grill restaurant opened up!

Ah, Carrefour! Visited it many a time in Europe. How interesting that it’s in Qatar too.

zacchaeusn7 (#5,906)

Great article. Would you be able to offer some links to understanding the permanent residence card, visa application, etc?

thomas1 (#6,922)

The stuff in the blogs blows out my mind.
Villas marrakech

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