One of my favourite tweets of recent times was from a Qatari on holiday in the USA. “Why does every petrol station I’m passing seem to be closed?” he asked. You see, we don’t get out of the car to fill up our tanks in Qatar. A pump attendant does it for us, even during the summer, when it can get up to 50C outside. And that petrol – well, it’s cheaper than bottled water. A four litre 4x4 costs around £10 to fill out here. When we go home to the UK for holidays, we avert our eyes when we pay for our fuel.
We also never pack our own shopping bags, wash our own cars, and many also have housemaids who take care of the cleaning, laundry, and in a lot of cases, the children, too. Eating out is a national pastime; Friday brunches pack enough food in to last you a week, and if you sit outside a fast-food restaurant in your car and beep your horn, someone will come to take your order – and bring it to you when it’s ready.
I asked my followers on Twitter what living in Qatar – the world’s richest country by GDP per capita – means to them. One said that shelling out for an iPhone no longer takes any deliberation. Another said that when going on holiday, anything less than five star feels wrong. After all, this is Qatar, home of a forest of luxury hotels, and, of course, “the world’s five-star airline”, Qatar Airways.
So far, so luxurious. But anyone coming to Qatar expecting the streets to be paved with gold will be disappointed. In my area of town, they’re more likely to be covered in dust, surrounded by piles of rocks, and frequently dug up for mains drainage, new electricity cables or roadworks.
One of my friends once told me that the main difference between Doha and Dubai is that Dubai is finished. Qatar is still a country in transition. Its “2030 vision” pledges a world-class infrastructure, a large part of which is an extensive metro network, which only had its ground-breaking ceremony this month. As the country works towards hosting the 2022 World Cup, its residents have a great deal of disruption, demolition and diversion to look forward to.
Qatar’s population is booming. In September there were 1.84 million people in Qatar, up 143,000 on the previous year. UN figures estimate that 500 new immigrants arrive in the country every day. School places are rare as hen’s teeth, with many expats having no choice but to educate their children at home. Doha’s roads are buckling under the strain – friends report commutes which have doubled in duration since this time last year. Qatar has become a country of bumper-gazers.
My adopted home is also a place where the need for so many foreign workers mingles uncomfortably with cultural traditions, and what some see as a fading national identity. A recent “decency” campaign designed by Qatari women and aimed at expats appealed for “modest” dress, covering shoulders, midriffs and knees. These are unwritten rules which have been in place for decades, but the fact that this campaign was felt to be needed, and that it caused such widespread upset, suggests a country with much yet to discuss.
It’s also a country of uncomfortable differences. The vast gap between the very rich and the very poor is not easily ignored. Qatar’s rapid growth is being driven by a continuous influx of labourers, mostly from South Asia. Many arrive already in debt, having paid large amounts to “agents” for visas. Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, said that these men are at risk of “serious exploitation and abuse.”
Despite the fact that Western expats are blessed in comparison, moaning amongst many of them is almost a sport. Get them going on the traffic, the schooling, the bureaucracy or employment rights, and they’ll have you booking your flight home within minutes – primarily to avoid listening to them anymore. “Surround yourself with positive people” is still my favourite piece of expat advice.
You see, it may not be perfect, but Qatar has become my home. Although its day-to-day frustrations are undeniable, I do truly believe it’s a country with a grand plan and an important role to play.
I think about what Khalifa Haroon, a well-known Qatari businessman, said recently on Twitter. People were discussing the familiar refrain, “If you don’t like it, leave.” Haroon put it perfectly. He said: “It’s simple. Just say: I prefer to stay here and make it better.”
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