Seven years ago this week my family and I had packed up our home in London and made the move to Doha, Qatar. We came expecting a new work / life adventure of 3-4 years as we came on a job transfer with an international oil company.
The Qatar we arrived in had a population around 800,000; it now approaches 2.2 million. The capital, Doha, in 2007 had a few high rises in the West Bay area and was just coming down from the excitement of hosting the Asian Games in December 2006. There were new roads and sporting facilities, new shopping malls and a plethora of deep excavations preparing for new high rises.
We soon took up residence in one of the downtown apartment buildings and enjoyed a 24th floor view of this city under construction. From our apartment we could see north to the Ritz Carlton hotel, at one time the only tall building north of the city. The landmark Zig Zag towers with large shopping mall, Lagoona, the Grand Hyatt, and Qatar’s “off shore” community development, The Pearl, now joins it.
When The Pearl first opened its doors to public traffic, you had to apply for a VIP pass for your car to allow you out onto the islands. No actual shops were open along the boardwalks as yet, but they set up temporary outdoor coffee shops and brought in strolling minstrels and entertainers to entice you to come and check out this new quarter of town. Many of the high rise residential towers are now occupied with many more still under construction. There are now restaurants, banks, travel agents, grocery stores, high end clothing shops and exclusive car dealerships. But it hasn’t been without a few hiccups. Many new restaurants were enticed to open on The Pearl as they were granted liquor licenses previously reserved only for establishments in Qatar’s 5 star hotels. These new restaurants, some of which offered al fresco dining in the cooler months, were extremely popular. However, an official decision was made to withdraw the liquor licenses from all establishments on The Pearl and many of the original restaurants have closed their doors. Rumours abounded as to why the licenses were revoked, and rumours continued that they would be reissued but it has been a couple of years and those that remain open have had to adapt.
When we arrived within the expat community there were still strong memories of the 2005 suicide car bombing that destroyed the Doha Players theatre killing the director of the play that was underway that evening. The first Doha Players production we attended at one of the many temporary venues they have had to use in the ensuing years involved a slow queue to enter the fenced in parking area while security ran mirrors under each car before allowing entry. At the second Doha Players production my family attended I was part of the cast and there were armed guards with machine guns up in the lighting booth and outside the change rooms.
Our children attended a British primary school that was next to the bombed Doha Players theatre building, a constant reminder of what can happen when one person takes their hatred to extreme levels. Like most expat schools in Qatar, there are very high walls around the school, boom gates and road blockers restricting cars entry on campus, along with constant private security guards and a police presence. While inside, the campus is peaceful with large grass areas, trees, a covered swimming pool and play areas you would expect for 3-11 year old children.
Seven years later and the old Doha Players theatre has been demolished, and they have a temporary location for storing their costumes, props, etc.. They still haven’t been able to build a replacement theatre and stage productions at various locations. The extreme security checks are gone and the theater and music scene has expanded with new local organisations as well as many international acts including Qatar on their tours, such as Cirque du Soleil, STOMP and Kevin Spacey in Richard III.
In the last seven years a whole cultural city, Katara has been built which hosted for three years the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and is home to the Doha Film Institute, founded in 2010. It is also home to the Qatar Music Academy, opened in 2011 teaching both Western and Arab music and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. The jazz scene has grown dramatically as well, from a few expats joining together to play at local events, to a couple of clubs in the city, most famously an outpost of the NY Jazz Club at Lincoln Center housed at the St. Regis.
Sporting events we quickly discovered can be a highlight of the year in Doha. The first event we attended was the Emir’s Cup football (soccer) tournament. Our family of four walked into a stadium that was filled with men in white thobes, with the competing teams cheer section drumming and chanting. Meanwhile the spectators ate bags of sunflower seeds still in their shells and at the end of the match the floor was covered with sunflower shells that had been skillfully spit out over the course of the game. If you wanted something other than bags of sunflower seeds, the catering on site consisted of McDonald’s burgers that had been brought in and were a couple of hours old. Since 2007 the games have moved to bigger venues with better catering, and football continues to grow in status with Qatar picked to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
The next event we discovered was the men’s tennis ATP tour event. January 2008 we had been away on holidays and flew back the morning of the men’s final; Andy Murray vs Stanislas Wawrinka. Friends secured baseline tickets for us that morning for 10 Qatar Rials each (less than US$3). The next year tickets were a bit more expensive and were on sale at the ground a few weeks before. You went into an office where your tickets were marked off on an excel spreadsheet and cash handed over and put in a safe. In recent years demand has grown and prices and process accordingly. You can now purchase tickets on-line with a credit card and baseline tickets are now over US$50. Over the years we have regularly seen Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. Qatar also hosts an annual women’s WTA tennis event and in 2010 hosted the WTA final. So we’ve seen the Williams sisters, Kim Clijsters, and Australian Samantha Stosur amongst others. After living in London where it was next to impossible to get tickets to Wimbledon and New York where we managed to only get nosebleed seats at Flushing Meadows, being able to regularly attend top class tennis matches has been a privilege.
We’ve also seen the evolution of the Qatar Masters, a men’s European golf tour event. While we haven’t had Tiger Woods play in Qatar, we have regularly had Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Ernie Els. The first several years entry to the tournament was free, and it is easy to volunteer and help with the scoreboard, crowd control etc.. though there isn’t often much of a crowd to control. They have now started charging for entry for around US$40 and there are more corporate hospitality booths and grand stands to watch around the 18th hole.
In our seven years here we have experienced first hand the restrictions of exit permits and NOC’s (no objection certificates). Current laws have all immigrant expatriate employees under the kafala system where the sponsored employee is tied to the company that sponsors them. Your sponsor / your employer has to give you permission and issue an exit permit for you to travel outside Qatar. If you wish to change employers you can ask for an NOC, but your employer is under no obligation to give it to you. If you don’t receive an NOC you must leave Qatar for two years before returning to work for someone else. We have been both on the receiving and giving end of both of these.
Exit Permits and withheld passports
Twice my husband has had clearance from his company to leave but there was a glitch on the clerical side and he has been turned around at the airport. The first time he was lucky and the administrator was a phone call away, tapped a few buttons on the computer (thank goodness so many of Qatar’s systems are computerized) and his exit permit was restored and he made the flight. The second time he wasn’t so lucky, the administrator at his company could not be contacted and he and our son were grounded and had to purchase a new flight for later in the day.
We have a live in housekeeper, a fairly common occurrence in Qatar that is our sponsored employee. When we purchase her flight home for the holidays we also have to apply for and pay for an exit permit on her behalf. While we have never held her passport other than the time required to renew her work permit, many families / companies do retain their employees passports even though this is technically illegal. In fact, I was criticized by police offers for not holding onto a previous housekeeper’s passport when we ran into some difficulties with her and she eventually had to be sedated and later deported.
Yet employers don’t always issue exit permits when requested. A gentlemen we know who is in his 40’s asked for permission to fly to Oman over the weekend to participate in a sports tournament. He was here working on a project for an upcoming event that was still six weeks away. Apparently his employers were concerned that he may not return and therefore deadlines would not be met, so he was not allowed to even go away for the weekend. And when another of our former housekeepers had to go home suddenly as her daughter passed on in a tragic accident and there were two grandchildren to be cared for, her daughter’s husband, who also worked here in Qatar could not go home as he had debts owing to his construction company and would not be released.
No Objection Certificates / Job Transfer
We transferred to Qatar with my husband’s employer, an international oil company. When his work assignment was coming to an end and he was looking to transfer elsewhere within the company in other parts of the world, he also looked at opportunities within Qatar’s LNG sector. Our kids were settled in good schools, I had an interesting job as well so when the right opportunity presented itself to join a Qatari company that had a good reputation we decided to take it. An NOC was granted, yet the transfer process was slow and tedious with benefit and payment glitches on both sides. But at least it was successful.
Another housekeeper we had and enjoyed wanted to make more money working in the retail sector and after two years of working for us requested an NOC. We happily provided her with one and we still see her occasionally, though she didn’t find the retail work she was looking for and ended up as a housekeeper for another family. We couldn’t take her back as we had already hired / sponsored another woman whose sponsor was leaving Qatar and needed a new job.
Yet we have many friends who have not been granted NOC’s and have had to leave, often at times that were disruptive to them and their families, while their skills could have been well utilized at other companies here in Qatar. And then of course there are stories abounding of lower paid employees whose employers are not paying them on time or are working in conditions worse than what they were promised, who often owe lots of money to job finding agencies in their home countries and want to transfer to more reputable companies here in Qatar and just can’t. Various migrant labour organisations over the years and most recently the United Nations have called for Qatar’s abolition of this kafala system.
There seems to be fear of losing control by most employers here and there is a major reluctance to alter the system. Less than 15% of the population here is Qatari so there is an extremely heavy reliance on imported labour. There is no path to permanent residency or citizenship, other than marrying a Qatari and that has all sorts of other hurdles and only applies to women marrying Qatari men. While you can buy an expensive property in one of the few zones open to foreign investment to get a residency permit, it comes with no right to work.
So for the time being, all the power lies with the kindness and goodwill of your employer. It is illegal for non-Qataris to unionise so international pressure seems necessary to drive change in this area that is ripe for reform.
Government and investment
In 2007 when we moved here the Emir, who is the absolute monarch was Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. He came to power in 1995 when he deposed his father and began a period of growth and investment. Under his leadership Qatar underwent transformational change from a small gulf state, to a wealthy nation with the top GDP per capita in the world. He funded the start of tv channel Al Jazeera, became more active in regional politics being an agent for change and helping with negotiations in Lebanon and Darfur and engaged the Qatar Air Force in Libya to help depose Gaddafi.
The now Father Emir abdicated in June last year in favour of his son, the named heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. With the change of emir came many senior ministerial changes including the posts of Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Interior and Finance Ministers. While we didn’t see any immediate impact on our day to day lives, there continues to be speculation about potential changes in policy / strategy and the impact on workers and foreign companies located here.
Laws are made by Emiri decree so we watch with interest.
During our time here the Qatar Investment Authority acquired or increased stakes in major corporations including Barclays, Volkswagen, Sainsbury’s and became the owner of famous UK department store, Harrods. Through their real estate development arm, they even bought the US embassy building in central London.
Through Qatar Foundation a new Education City continues to grow and expand hosting satellite campuses of Georgetown, Texas A&M, Weill Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth, HEC Paris, UCL. The few programmes that were single sex are now co-ed, others that shared buildings due to their small size have grown and built their own landmark buildings. And many of them have lecture series and other programmes that reach out into the local community to serve more than their student base.
Before we arrived, Qatar developed a new constitution that included the right for the free practice of religion. While proselytizing by non-Muslims and blaspheming is illegal and can get you deported, you are allowed to worship in your own faith. A Church City zone was designated and during our time here both the Catholic Church and Church of England built edifices. While we heard rumours of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) writing down license plate numbers of those attending services, there is an active non-Muslim worship community here.
Probably the biggest changes I’ve seen over the last seven years has been the infrastructure. Buildings seem to be popping up on a daily basis ranging from residential and commercial towers to more five star hotels. There has been huge investment in signature sky scrapers making for an eclectic mix of high rises in the West Bay area that I nickname the mini Manhattan skyline. At the same time there has necessarily been a major increase in housing, medical and educational facilities to cater for a population boom from 800,000 to 2.2 million people. And new shopping malls and eating establishments are popping up all over the place as well.
Roads have changed from having almost exclusively roundabouts to roundabouts with traffic signals to regulate the flow to the abolition of most major roundabouts altogether in favour of traffic signals. New freeways and overpasses have been opened with many others under construction. 2007, now removed 2007
The new airport that was originally slated to open in 2009, then was delayed to 12/12/12 to then delay to 1 April 2013 opened finally to ten airlines just this week on 30 April 2014 with plans to migrate most other airlines by the end of this month. But in the interim the arrivals and departure areas were separated at the old airport with new buildings for arriving passengers as well as a new premium passenger departures area as the old airport was straining beyond capacity.
A new port is under construction much further south than the existing port. Qatar is often hampered by its ability to clear goods into the country quickly. Almost everything in Qatar must be imported and either comes in by road via Saudi, some perishables are air freighted, but with the vast majority coming via sea. I’ve written previously about its impact here.
Just months before our arrival in 2007 Qatar introduced public buses. The routes and number of buses has steadily increased. However, most lower wage employees are bussed by their employers to and from work from their residential compounds. Higher paid expats travel almost exclusively by private car. But there are grand plans for the country with an extensive rail network, both passenger and heavy rail. For the last several years the ground work has been underway for the Doha Metro, a passenger rail network running under the West Bay district. Just last week the first of the tunnelling machines arrived.
While in general I feel safer on a day to day basis here than I do on the streets of New York or London (Qatar has ranked in the top 20 of the Global Peace Index for the last several years), our time here has not been without some tragic events.
In May 2012 there was a fire in a large shopping mall, Villagio. I was on my way there that day and saw the smoke and lots of people evacuated down one end of the mall. Sadly through a variety of horrible errors 13 children and their 4 carers in a childcare facility inside were not evacuated and perished along with two firefighters who had to break in from the roof to try to rescue them. Safety standards, management, lack of proper blueprints, security coordination have all been questioned and while there were convictions in the case, the appeal process continues.
We’ve also watched with horror as two high profile murder cases of single female western teachers have unfolded. One was investigated, prosecuted and sentenced quickly, though it is now in the appeal stage, while the other is dragging on and I hope that the current line of questioning isn’t leading to victim blaming.
And many of us are puzzled and concerned by the ongoing case of the Huangs, an American couple with adopted children, one of whom died suddenly here in Qatar. They have been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and while the case is under appeal, there may be new charges being leveled against them.
While I do not personally know any of the people involved in any of these cases, the law of six degrees of separation seems to be reduced to two degrees of separation here in Qatar and I know people who know people in each of these cases, which makes them much more than just abstract but tragic news headlines.
Reminders and hopes for the future
Yet here I am at seven years and counting. I have had the privilege to live on four continents so far and have worked and travelled in many countries all over the world. Each country, each city has its positives and negatives.
When I see injustices and business practices here that are different from what I am used to, I look at two things – is it because I come from a different cultural paradigm, or is it because Qatar is a newly developing country that is still developing a social, political, business infrastructure. Every country in the world has its tragic histories and makes mistakes during its development process. Today this is amplified by the speed of development, the ability to communicate electronically and travel easily.
Qatar is undergoing phenomenal change and there are teething problems in any time of rapid growth. That is not to excuse those that sacrifice human safety and welfare to achieve growth. Continued pressure from within and without will drive change and improve process here.
There are good people here of all nationalities, many just wanting to make enough to send home and support their families. There are Qataris that are afraid of change and the impact on their traditional culture, some of it rightly so. There are others that are embracing change and pushing to adopt best practices from investing in research in science and technology parks, to reducing their carbon footprint, to learning how to debate topics via debate forums, to beginning to stand for local administrative councils.
We’ve had a lot of personal change over the past seven years as well. Within Doha, both of us have changed employers, our kids have changed schools and we’ve moved home 3 times. Friends we made when we first arrived have left, and more have come and gone in the intervening years. We have traveled in the region but some of this was curtailed with the arrival of the Arab Spring.
I continue to hope that during my time here I am part of the solution, part of the positive growth and evolution of Qatar. And wherever I end up living later in life, I will continue to watch with interest the development of Qatar as it works towards its 2030 vision and beyond.