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Awash with cash: daily life in Doha

Even after two and a half years of living in Qatar, the neon and glitz of Doha’s skyscrapers could still make us gawp in amazement. A whirlwind, a pyramid, a golden sphere and even a sleek torpedo were just some of the shapes that Angela and I stared at whenever we drove along the corniche. That is if we could ignore the mental motorists snapping at our bumper.

When we’d first arrived in the country, I was nervous about driving. Qatar was notorious for its aggressive drivers and numerous car smashes. Indeed within a few days of being in the country we had seen umpteen car wrecks by the side of the road, some looking so bad that the occupants must surely have died. A few months later we witnessed the aftermath of a recent smash, blood pooling underneath the vehicle and the driver slumped inside. But despite this, I eventually I grew to enjoy the high-octane journeys we took down to Doha every weekend to do our shopping, especially since petrol only cost 1 riyal (17p) a litre. Even the sight of a Land Cruiser flashing its lights behind me couldn’t quell my enjoyment and I soon grew accustomed to people stopping on roundabouts for no reason at all. In fact, after about six months, I became as bad as the rest of them.

Aside from the roads, Qatar was one of the safest countries in the world for a westerner to go about their business. Day or night, a person could walk down any street or alleyway and not fall foul of a foul deed. That’s not to say the Qatari criminal justice system wasn’t kept busy though, quite the opposite: the prisons were full, mainly populated by inmates from India, Nepal, Philippines and Pakistan, and usually for petty crimes that wouldn’t even warrant an arrest in most other countries. One particularly memorable headline in the Gulf Times read: Nepali Man Gets 1-Year Jail for Stealing Onions. According to the article, the onions were safely recovered.

Another story, which was fairly typical of the type, involved a Filipino maid and a Bangladeshi driver who’d been caught having ‘illicit’ relations by their Arab employer. When I say caught, what happened was this: the man of the house came home and became suspicious because of the strange shoes in the maid’s bedroom. After a quick look around he found clue number two – the quivering Bangladeshi man hiding under the bed. Though both of his servants were fully-clothed, the Arab man still called the police and the pair was arrested. Both were jailed for a year and subsequently deported – the standard punishment for virtually everything in Qatar.

The weather in Qatar was really something else. Between April and October it was unbearable, an oven-like heat that sapped your strength and made standing outside for more than a few minutes a cause for concern. But in the winter it was just about perfect, even if there was the odd spatter of rain which brought giddy children running outside. But whatever the month, the one thing which could be virtually guaranteed was waking up every day to sunshine streaming through the curtains.

Our curtains belonged to our apartment in Al Khor, a coastal town 50km to the north of Doha. Originally a fishing village, Al Khor was now mainly a service settlement for the nearby Ras Laffan Gas plant, where gas flares could easily be seen on the horizon at night. As for Al Khor itself, despite being Qatar’s second city, it was more of a small town. It had a long line of shops, a KFC and a McDonalds, and a few Mosques. It had a fish market and some banks and it had one plush hotel where hardly any one stayed. It did have a football stadium, and at one point, mainly to relieve the monotony of life in Al Khor, Angela and I decided to pay a visit, especially when we found out it was only 10 riyals (£1.80) to get in.

The huge stadium (complete with floodlights, digital screen, film crew etc) had maybe only two hundred people in attendance from a capacity of 45,000 and most seemed to be the supporters of the local team, all under the direction of a man with a drum. Angela and I sat down in an empty area and waited for the game to begin. When it did, the supporters began a barrage of chanting, drumming and singing, which lasted for the entire match. But what got us most was that they didn’t seem to be watching the game at all, even when Al Khor lost the match.

As resident workers of a government-owned gas company, we enjoyed free accommodation, free water, free gas and electricity and no tax to pay. All of this meant we had a fair bit of disposable income, which we mostly sent back to the UK, but also for travel. Sri Lanka and Nepal were only four hours away, Zanzibar and the Seychelles slightly longer. Lebanon, Oman and Syria were even closer, and Bahrain and Dubai were less than an hour away. We did them all and many more besides. We were paid well.

But as much as we were looked after by our Qatari employers, it was nothing to how the Qataris’ were looked after by the Emir. Free health care, free education, a plot of land when they got married, no tax, he certainly knew how to make his subjects were happy, and in September 2011, he made them even happier. Every Qatari working for the government was given a mind-bending 60% pay rise. But the police did even better, receiving a whopping 120% pay rise if they were at officer level. But a lot us ex-pats living in the country could not begrudge this; fair play to the Emir for looking after his own.

Angela and I were driving in Doha when Qatar won the World Cup bid, an event which finally brought Qatar onto the world stage. We knew they had won because of the mass beeping and flashing lights from the Land Cruisers. This quickly turned into a mass celebration of gridlock and jubilant honking. Within thirty minutes, the traffic in the city centre was at a standstill, the Qatari motorists waving flags (and in some cases, swords) or dancing along in the streets beside their vehicles. It was a street party of mass celebration. Later we heard that someone had brought their cheetah along for the fun too.

“You won’t believe this,” said a friend of ours a few weeks later. He worked as a construction site manager in Doha. “I’ve just finished a winter palace for a rich Qatari man. It cost millions, an obscene amount. But you should see it: state of the art, plasma TV, pool – the works. But here’s the exciting part – it’s got a running track for his pet leopards! Can you believe that! A racing track for leopards!”

The thing is, I could believe it. Qatar was literally dripping with money, most of it from gas and oil. And Qataris did like their exotic pets. When we’d first arrived in the country in 2009 we met an Arab and his falcon. A friend of ours was driving us into Doha when a white Land Cruiser came rushing up, flashing its lights, making it known he wanted to pass. As we moved lanes he lightly clipped us, but still with enough momentum to send us careering onto the rough ground that served as a hard shoulder.

Thankfully we were all okay and soon came to a standstill. The Land Cruiser stopped too and the Arab driver got out, his pristine white dishdash flowing majestically in the hot breeze. After coolly inspecting the damage (there was none), he finally apologised and turned back towards his Toyota. It was then that I noticed the hooded falcon sitting on his passenger seat, indifferent to all the fuss.

After climbing back into our car we soon discovered it wouldn’t start. Luckily, the Land Cruiser hadn’t moved off and so I got out and explained things to the Arab Gentleman, who nodded in understanding. Two minutes later we were being propelled, bumper to bumper along the hard shoulder by a man with a falcon. Not something you hear about in England very often. Our car jumpstarted back to life and we were off, and so was he, giving us a wave as he overtook us. We couldn’t help but smile.

That was the thing about Qataris; by and large they were likable characters, most of the men charming and full of life, the women sophisticated and educated. So what if they sometimes flashed their lights at you – it was their country and they could do as the liked.

When we weren’t working, or off on our foreign trips, we spent a fair bit of time sight seeing in Qatar itself. The problem was that there was not actually that much to see. Apart from a few forts in the north, much of the tiny nation was stubbly beige desert, with an odd camel thrown in for good measure. That said, Doha did have a few things to visit.

As well as its sweeping corniche (popular with power walkers and joggers in the early mornings or late evenings) Doha had a nice area where the local traditional fishing boats (dhows) could be seen. It was also possible to hire one for a sail along West Bay and perhaps around the Pearl, a brand new development comprising of apartments, restaurants, exclusive shops and a marina to park your yacht. At the southern end of the corniche was the Museum of Islamic Arts and Souq Wafiq, possibly the most tourist-friendly bazaar in the Middle East.

Souq Waqif, a renovated old Arabic market place, was so popular because, as well as its restaurants and shisha pipe establishments, it sold all sorts of souvenirs and handicrafts, and even featured a small art gallery, and all without the usual sort of hassle that accompanies places such as this. Inside the alleyways, merchants sold spices and nuts, and further past them were the rabbits, birds, kittens and puppies for sale.

“Why do they do this?” asked Angela the first time we came across the cages full of tiny chirping birds, all of them bright pink and blue. It wasn’t their natural colour of course, but it did make them look pretty to passing children. They’d done the same thing with the baby rabbits and whenever we brought friends and relatives from the UK to Souq Waqif, we always made sure we brought them to see the special dyed animals. It had the same effect on everybody: initial surprise and amusement, closely followed by the insanity of this cruel behaviour.

Corniche, Doha

Across the street from Souq Waqif was the rather magnificent Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre, a spirally minaret-type thing which featured on most postcards of Qatar. It was nearly as famous as the Clock Tower, one of the oldest structures in the city. And just further down the corniche was the huge Presidential Palace with a gigantic Qatari flag atop its great roof.

As well as Doha, we had visited other places in the country. On another memorable occasion, we drove to a secluded beach and watched over a hundred tiny turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean. “Out of all these turtles,” said the scientist in charge. “Maybe one or two will survive. And if it is a female, it will return here in a quarter of a century to lay its own eggs. That is, if no one has built a hotel here in the meantime.”

The rate of construction going on in Qatar was phenomenal. At times, parts of the capital have resembled gigantic building sites, with cranes and construction workers scurrying over the shells of tomorrow’s skyscrapers. Even Al Khor seemed to be in the middle of a boom, with shops springing up hither and thither, all of them selling exactly the same thing. And what got us was that in every shop a platoon of low-paid (predominantly male) workers waited for the few customers to enter their ‘Logic Hyper Mart’ or ‘Grand Mart’. A few would be sat at the tills, another troop would be doing the packing, scores more would be loitering in the aisles, and most of them would be eyeing Angela.

These low-paid workers mainly came from Bangladesh and Nepal, often earning around 900 riyals (£150) per month, most of which they sent home to their families. They did all the menial jobs that no one else wanted to do. Cleaners, gardeners, construction minions, supermarket bag packers, lorry drivers, tea boys, general lackeys, they did all this and more. Bus loads of men would be transported from their work camps to their places of work, six days a week. On their day off, Friday, they would sometimes collect themselves into cricket teams, or more likely, wander to the shops.

A cheetah in the car, an ultimate Dohar pet

Around sunset, hundreds would gather outside the shops, shaking hands, buying small trinkets, or else simply hanging with each other. Despite the high concentration of men, not once did we feel threatened them. Yes, Angela got stared at a lot, as did every western woman, but they were all deferential to us. In fact it saddened me the way the crowds would part to let us through, as if they believed we were somehow more important or better than them.

One time, Angela spotted about six or seven men crowding around something. They were at one end of a shop, all intently staring at something they had found. Some were grinning, others wide eyed and transfixed. When they eventually left, Angela wandered over to find out what it was. It turned out to be a box of women’s underwear and the men had been staring at the scantily-clad model on the front.

It was not surprising though. These men had left their families behind and had absolutely no access to woman at all. They could not even look at semi-clad women on the internet because Qatar had blocked all such sites, and besides, none of them could afford a computer anyway. So they stared at women whenever they got the chance. One funny story involved a female colleague of ours who had ventured into Al Khor one Friday evening. As she wandered the aisles, she felt the usual stares and the ogling, but tried to ignore it. Eventually, when she rounded a corner, she caught sight of a whole gang of men openly gawping at her chest. She finally cracked.

“Do you want to take a photo?” she shouted, hoping to shame them, but it had the opposite effect because the men nodded and started frantically pointing their mobile phones at her chest, angling for the best shot. Before they could do so she turned tail and scarpered.

Shopping in Doha was a different experience altogether. The malls there were big and plush and full of every western brand name you could think of. Wandering into Villaggio Mall for the first time was something special. It was probably because of the canal running through the centre, complete with electric-powered gondolas and a man in a striped shirt. The Venetian theme didn’t end there because along one section of the vast shopping centre, a blue sky overlooked paintings of Venetian buildings.

Angela and I decided that when we’d finished our third year in Qatar, we would leave. Qatar had been good to us – more money, waking up to sunshine ever day, travel opportunities, and the chance to experience living in a culture away from the normality of Europe, but one thing we wouldn’t miss was the boredom. There was only so much we could do in a country as small as Qatar.

-Stunning skyline of night time Doha
-Cheap petrol
-Good base for travel
-Free electricity, gas and water!
-No tax
-Always sunny

-No real pubs
-Overbearing heat
-Mental driving
-The slow mechanical gears of Qatari bureaucracy

Jason Smart has now published The Red Quest, an excellent book about his travels through the ‘Stans, now out on Kindle – where it appears to be free.

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