After living in Qatar for 2 years I thought it would be a good time to note some of my observations of the country and living here. I’ve somewhat lazily separated them into the Good, Bad and Ugly. In order of how much I notice them:
1. Vision 2030: Growing up in Britain things didn’t really seem to change very much, or if they did it was gradual enough to barely notice. In Qatar I feel very lucky to see the country being almost literally built in front of you. In the short time I’ve been here many of the major roads have been built and the Metro system is coming online. Whole new cities are being built and the CBD skyline has been developed to be one of the most impressive in the region. Whilst much of the construction is for the 2022 World Cup, they do have the longer term plan of making the country and economy self-sufficient by 2030 as they slowly move away from being reliant on oil and natural gas. The fast pace of change gives the country an air of vibrancy and excitement which reminds me of China and means I always look around myself with interest at what’s happening.
2. Luxury Living: One of the things that attracted me to moving here was the fact that it was the richest country in the world and I basically wanted to see how the other 0.1% lived, and it hasn’t disappointed. People watching is outstanding and interacting with Qataris is fascinating as they never want for anything and can choose to do virtually anything money can buy. When you go out it’s to 5* hotels (there’s nothing else) and the quality of service and design of things are outstanding. I’ve never taken any interest in cars but car watching has become one of my favourite pastimes as from my balcony a stream of Maseratis, Bentley, Aston Martins and Ferraris stream past. In short the quality of life is amazing and it’s easy to see why many people stay around for a few years.
3. Holidays: Qatar, along with many Islamic countries is very generous with holidays. Whilst I’m paid for 12 months a year, I actually feel like I only work for 8 months of it. A long Summer break as well as Christmas and Easter holidays go down very well but Ramadan is maybe my favourite time of year. For a month, everybody is on reduced hours and not all that much work is expected of you. It costs the economy a huge amount but it’s something to really look forward to with special events on in the evenings. Afterwards the Emir will grant generous holidays during Eid, for example I’m writing this in an Eid break which was originally going to be 5 days but the Emir benevolently decided to give everyone 11 days instead.
4. Multiculturalism: Qataris make up just 12% of the population ranking only behind UAE as having the highest proportion of immigrants. This means that there are people from almost literally all over the world contributing to the country. Whilst that does have it’s own issues (see Bad section) it means that the different languages, flavours and culture of the world meet in an Arabian setting which I really enjoy living amongst.
5. Weather: It’s never cold and a high percentage of the time it’s sunny. It really does make a difference in terms of the quality of life and how you feel on a day to day basis.
6. National pride post embargo: Whilst I’m absolutely not a fan of nationalism I have really enjoyed seeing how Qataris and other residents have rallied post embargo (see in Bad). The Saudis and friends were hoping for the Qatari state to implode and residents demand regime change but the absolute opposite has happened. Huge murals of the Emir’s face appeared on both public and private buildings everywhere and people even put up banners, posters and car stickers stating their support for the country.
The expat community has similarly got behind the Emir and supported the country through the blockade. The most memorable example of this was at the tennis tournament where the Emir (who was an excellent player in his youth) appeared on court, he then received a standing ovation from the entire stadium which was composed almost entirely of expats.
In many ways the embargo has been good for Qatar as it’s forced the country to become more self reliant with the farming industry in particular growing impressively quickly. The authorities invested quickly and thanks to imported cows, chickens and use of A/C and smart water use, we now get all dairy and meat locally with a decent percentage of our vegetables too.
7. Al Jazeera: I always thought it was a great broadcaster and living here has just reinforced that view. Their documentaries on how Israel is trying to capture the Labour Party in the UK and match fixing in cricket were particular highlights but it consistently tells good stories from ignored people and places.
8. Sporting events: It’s not London but I have seen Djokovic and Murray at the tennis, MSN when Barcelona played a friendly here and all the best squash players in the world. Maybe the highlight though was the World Cycling Championship finishing line being visible from my balcony.
1. Social Segregation: Whilst Qatar is very multicultural, mixing of people happens much less than it should and I’d go so far as to say that Qatar has one of the most extreme social hierarchies in the world. Different nationalities only tend to get employed (and in some cases are only allowed) to do certain jobs and this helps the authorities to manage the country but also stop potential problems like trade unions forming or unrest against the government. Therefore at ‘the bottom’, Indians/Nepalis work in construction, Ethiopians drive taxis, Kenyans are security guards and Filipinos do service sector jobs working as cleaners, maids and in shops. Much better off are Arabs from Egypt, Jordan and other countries who tend to do slightly better admin and services jobs, they might also work in the police or health services. Much better off again are European and American expats who tend to work in things like engineering and finance. At the top though are Qataris who live way up in the clouds. For a long time they didn’t tend to actually ‘work’ and would be parachuted into a ‘supervisory role’ in public ministries (where underlings would cover) or would buy businesses and count the profits as employees would do all the work. The government is trying to change this but when you grow as a multimillionaire and can do whatever you want, it’s difficult to develop a work ethic.
Therefore as an ‘expat’, I’d consider myself an isolated ‘middle class’, miles better off than the ‘workers’ but miles away from the Qataris.
You have very limited opportunities to mix with people outside of your ‘class’ beyond chatting to taxi drivers or cleaners and when you also throw in the most extreme gender split in the world (there are 5 working age men to every woman) there can’t be many less integrated societies in the world.
2. Bullshit jobs: Another thing to add about the nature of work is how much productivity varies across work sectors. Construction workers have it hard, working in the heat, they earn little money and their quality of life is low as they live in dorm accommodation maybe 6-10 guys a room and have little social freedom. They’re given limited holiday or even free time and they’re as single males are not even allowed in public areas like malls. The idea is that they earn for 7 or 10 years and can support their families and eventually start their own businesses or get married and buy a home etc. Nonetheless it’s undoubtedly a hard life.
In contrast, a lot of the service sector jobs and particularly security jobs don’t really produce anything and just seem a waste of manpower. Labour is very, very cheap so restaurants and shops will employ too many waiters or shop assistants and they end up just standing around a lot. In the ‘richer’ parts of the city there are security guards everywhere who do pretty much nothing all day apart from stand around. For example, to enter the car park in my building you need to be buzzed in by a security guard who sits in a booth all day. Quite why we can’t just let ourselves in doesn’t make sense to me but the Qatari population are used to a very high level of service and demand people to do these sorts of jobs. The sheer waste of manpower and knowledge of all the better things they can be doing with their time is very frustrating to see.
3. Embargo: Whilst I stand firmly with Qatar on the issue and they have taken steps to not let it impact the country too much, there’s no doubt it makes life a bit harder. Certain foods are more expensive/difficult to get hold of but the big thing has been travel. Etihad and Emirates stopped running flights and to get anywhere now is either very expensive as only Qatar Airways is still running or awkward and time consuming via Turkey or Kuwait. Therefore only a few destinations are still an option in the region which is a major frustration.
4. Early mornings: When I leave Qatar one thing I will be delighted to leave are the early mornings. Whilst I finish work at 2.30pm I have to get up at 5.30am and I’ve simply never got used to it. Whilst I enjoyed drinking coffee in the UK, here I simply have to have a cup to jumpstart me in the day or I simply can’t do the job. I’m not a morning person.
5. Driving: When I first arrived in Doha the roads were a real shock. As such a high percentage of the population hail from the sub-continent, they've unfortunately brought their driving habits with them. Drivers regularly text (or just surf the internet) whilst they're driving, constantly speed and take crazy risks whilst overtaking. The difference between here and India though is that most of the cars here are high powered and can go very fast. Perhaps worse still are the local drivers who don't even have to take a test and are largely immune from police action against their conduct. This all gets worse during Ramadan as no one eats all day and lose concentration easily. As new roads are being built and education programmes launched the situation is improving but the net result is a high death rate on the roads as well as the feeling that potential disaster is never too far away.
6. Nights out: Whilst you probably haven’t gone to the Middle East for nightlife, it is still nice to go out and socialise. Problem is that all bars are attached to 5*hotels and aren’t cheap (a tenner a pint is not unusual). If you go to a club, nights out can easily end up costing 3 figures and aren’t necessarily value for money. You can sort of get round it by going to the happy hours but they run at inconvenient times or be female (many places do free drinks for ladies due to the gender imbalance). Alternatively you can go to brunches which cost about 100 quid for unlimited food and drink. They are fun but you know they represent everything wrong in terms of treating your body and the world responsibly. There’s not a great range of music played in clubs either and ultimately have had only a limited number of memorable nights out.
7. Weather: Whilst it’s never cold, during the Summer it’s simply too hot to do very much and trying to play sport or even go for a walk just doesn’t work. It can get up to 50 degrees with very high humidity and a bizarre side effect is that a lot of people actually get a vitamin D deficiency. During the Winter it’s not cold but it can be overcast and just very dusty, which also isn’t fun. The best of time is Spring and Autumn where the temperature is perfect.
8. Roadworks: The flipside to seeing a country built is the delays and dust that go with it. To be fair this factor has improved dramatically in the time I’ve been here but Qatar is a long way from being ‘finished’.
9. Lack of local news: Whilst Al Jazeera does great international work, they broadcast virtually no news at all about Qatar, as in not even a weather forecast. There are a couple of local papers but they’re produced by the government and don’t really tell the ‘news’. As it’s not a democracy there’s no accountability for government decisions and ministers never talk about what they’re doing and why. There was an independent news source but they got shut down after publishing something the government didn’t like. Therefore there is a sense of unreality here as even though I live here I have got literally no idea what is happening with the embargo for example. You hear rumours about things but not actual news. This can be frustrating but people put up with it a) because the country is 88% immigrants and don’t care that much and b) the quality of life is so good so we can live in blissful ignorance.
10. Greed of expats: Finally, all immigrants in Qatar are here at least in part to make money (there’s no income tax) and improve their situation in their home country as and when they return. That’s as true for Bengali cleaners as it is for me. However, I’ve gradually noticed that a lot of expats have had the green eyed monster take over a little bit and (particularly after a few beers) smugly boast about how much money they’ve made. In a British context at least, everybody seems to want to buy up as many buy to let properties as they can and act as landlords. Many times I’ve had to sit through tedious and self-satisfied conversations about rent yields and profitability of their investments. Whilst Dubai is famous for it, lots of expats here are unattractively money oriented.
1. Natural Landscape: Qatar would be in the running for the least interesting country to look at in the world. It’s the second flattest country in the world after the Maldives and pretty much the entire surface area is just flat yellow desert with no vegetation. There is a small area in the South near the Saudi border with some smallish sand dunes and there are some mangroves on the East coast but I’m clutching at straws to describe almost anything of note. Even the coastline is surprisingly uninteresting as the Persian gulf is very calm but is also so saline that you can’t really swim in it and there’s virtually no wildlife. Whilst you can go desert camping, there are no national parks and there are no hikes you can do or anything really different to see on a weekend.
2. Human attractions: These are better but there’s still not much to see. There is a Unesco World Heritage site called Al Zubair fort but it can be politely described as being in ‘the intake which aimed to give as many countries as possible at least one’. There’s also a couple of museums which are quite good and a ‘cultural quarter’ though not much really happens there. My favourite place is the Souq which is a traditional Arabian bazaar and is always fun to wander round. There are also lots of malls and restaurants but these got very samey pretty quickly.
Overall, I do love living here and love the quality of life but ultimately I’m not sure that’s enough to keep us here long term. There is a degree of frustration that the athletics world champs and of course World Cup are coming in a few years but I just don’t know if I want to stick around in the country that long. We will see.