Qatar’s expat experience

The daylight is blinding and the moist air somewhat suffocating. Frequent 110-degree Fahrenheit temperatures clash with heavy humidity. Hot, sandy breezes feel like standing in front of a filthy spinning turbine. For respite, residents rely on concrete air-conditioned homes, restaurants and shops. Those are typical and timeless summer conditions found in Qatar, a peninsula country protruding into the Persian Gulf.

I arrived in Qatar via Germany and Bahrain in July 2003, more than seven years ago. I had signed an employment offer with a defense contractor in Fort Worth, Texas, while living in Henderson, Nevada. The company staffed force protection positions at Camp Sayliyah, the forward-located headquarters for Central Command. The CENTCOM commander routinely met with reporters there to discuss war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a former Marine Corps photojournalist, I had acquired an appreciation for traveling overseas, or “outside the box.” The endless contrasts found in communities around the globe teaches travelers a lot about themselves and their way of life. Experiences are often humbling. For three months, I once witnessed hundreds of Vietnamese laborers gladly accept $3 per day to perform excavation work in a hot, humid jungle. For another six, I saw merciless devastation in Kosovo and Macedonia, where bullets and ordnance thrashed neighborhoods.

Aside from hardships, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe had fascinating cultures and people — surely Arabia had its own intrigues. Either way, I’d be a short flight away from exploring historic locations in Central Asia, Europe and Africa. My biggest concern: other than a high school world cultures text book, my knowledge of the Middle East came from televised documentaries and news reports. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Not to mention, an ongoing war against Islamic extremist was young and volatile and nearby.

While landing in Qatar on a Gulf Air flight, I gazed through the plane’s windows and noticed the country’s relative stature. The dull, beige landscape spans a mere 4,416 square miles — almost the size of Connecticut. The nation extends into the saturated and salty Gulf waters, like a tiny thumb off the palm of Saudi Arabia, which is approximately twice the size of Alaska. Resilient palm trees sip from a few inches of rainfall each year. Qatar’s northern area is mostly dust blowing over compact bedrock, where ground excavations require huge hydraulic jack hammers.

Driving south on Salwa Road, the only authorized expressway into Saudi Arabia, is an expedition through enormous sand dunes. Novices to the region are advised to stay on paved streets, since off-road color consistencies camouflage steep cliffs. Desert safaris (Arabian-style camping) are the main attractions in the south. Participants either enlist the assistance of a tour guide and visit organized camp grounds, otherwise they leave the experience to the whim of a group of impromptu friends.

Doha, the capital and most populated city, is midway up Qatar’s eastern shore. The skyline is constantly under construction: skyscraper assemblies, building renovations, street expansions and cosmetic renovations. The nation’s previously desolate desert lands are gradually giving birth to a modern metropolis, where multinational communities coexist amid beautiful stone architecture. Roundabout intersections connect circling roads surrounding the city’s center — it’s a dizzying driving experience, where roadway etiquette is a common complaint. Doha is a concentrated collection of world cultures and modern developments that consistently challenge the city’s infrastructure.

Qatar's Expat Experience

Qatar’s Expat Experience

Qatar is small, but exercises enormous potential. The Islamic state’s leaders are orchestrating the second fastest growing country in the world, behind Macau, according to CIA reports. Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani told an investment forum in March that he expects an astonishing 16-percent gross domestic product increase in 2010-2011, after recording 11 percent in fiscal 2009. Other than vast oil reserves, Qatar controls the largest single natural gas field under the earth’s crust — measuring 900 trillion cubic feet.

Expatriates, or “expats,” are a necessary catalyst for Qatar’s amazing growth. The foreign workforce is fueled by recruitment efforts in various countries. An October 2009 Qatar Statistics Authority survey estimated that 90 percent of the nation’s population was foreign. A few months later, QSA conducted a door-to-door census and found more than 1.6 million people. Based on the earlier survey, nearly 1.3 million foreign nationals live in Qatar. To put that into context, nine out of 10 people are expats.

Expatriates, or “expats,” are a necessary catalyst for Qatar’s amazing growth.

Projects and businesses are owned by Qataris, but administered by foreign nationals. Wealthy Qataris and well-connected foreigners signal their presence on the roadways using three or four-digit license plates, labeled with consecutive or identical numbers. The most desired license plates cost up toward $1 million. Mobile phone numbers with consecutive digits rings in millions too. The money is spent to signify prestige, as well as a commitment to the nation. Most of the raised proceeds are reportedly donated to charities, such as Reach Out to Asia.

Qatar roadways are somewhat of a proving ground, where drivers constantly dominate others. Local and foreign nationals shove through traffic with impressive sports utility vehicles and luxury sedans. Fuel efficiency is the least of anyone’s worries, since gas sells for less than 70 cents per gallon. New vehicle purchases are hardly based on fuel economy numbers posted on window stickers — dealers have to dig for such gratuitous information. Many drivers floor their gas pedal and act reckless in powerful vehicles. Police rarely intervene, but mounted roadside cameras have deterred high speed violations. The Traffic Department uses the photographs to issue offenders fines ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Running a red light results in a $1,500 tab, which is tracked all the way to the airport.

But the cameras cannot cite inconsiderate maneuvers and accidents remain quite common. Furthermore, surrounding traffic is often affected by motorists slowing down to stare into a wreckage. Sometimes the unexpected slowdowns cause further collisions. In the event of a major accident, police are called by dialing 9-9-9. Otherwise, everyone involved must immediately drive to the nearest police station and explain the incident. Service stations require the state-endorsed paperwork to proceed with repairs. If a driver’s insurance premiums increase from too many at-fault reports resulting in substantial payments, he walks to another insurance company and starts over again. Gulf Insurance refused to provide me a full insurance policy after a semi truck side-swiped my car while exiting a roundabout. A few blocks away, Doha Insurance issued full coverage at a standard price. The salesman never asked about my driving record or prior accidents.

Dustin and Mohammad Saleh Nishwar at Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar, March 8, 2010. Nishwar has sold merchandise at Souq Waqif for more than 60 years. The shop, packed with fabrics, clothes and prayer rugs, hasn’t budged in almost 100 years.

Qatar’s Expat Experience

I met Mohammad Saleh Nishwar, 79, in Doha’s oldest shopping area. The third-generation Qatari recalls the life before fossil fuel exports advanced the nation. Like a palm tree deeply rooted in the parched sands, Nishwar has survived conditions that caused many others to wither and run. About the size of a parking space, his family shop hasn’t budged since 1914, when his grandfather first opened the doors to distribute oils, spices, rice, beans, wheat, dates and other foodstuff. His father later used the shelves to sell goods to pearl divers.

“It was a beautiful, simple life,” says Nishwar, who started stocking textiles in the 1960s, after his father’s death. The Muslim man has never been a religious, tribal or military leader. Most of Qatar’s early merchants, he says, only cared about selling their goods and feeding their families. “Everything was close to home and everyone knew each other. There were no telephones, no televisions, no cars – everything came after the oil.”

“The innate honesty at the time was the most incredible,” said Bernie Lyons of Ireland, referring to his arrival in the 1970s. “If you didn’t have money, shop owners would let you leave with items and come back later with money. I had borrowed items from gold shops worth thousands of dollars to show my wife – they just expected you to return with it, or the money, and you always did.”

Lyons moved to Doha more than thirty years ago to work as a disc jockey for the Qatar Broadcasting Service. To this day, he hosts “The Breakfast Show” on FM 95.7. His early-morning silliness, laced with an Irish accent, is hard to ignore. Lyons generates smiles without becoming offensive, a mandatory trait while broadcasting in an Islamic nation. I met him in 2007, inside his villa in Doha. The broadcaster said he felt safer in Qatar than Britain or India, where he also had homes.

“I am not Muslim,” said Lyons. “I come from Ireland, a very Catholic area where everyone knows everyone. But you don’t spend 30 years in an Islamic state without learning something, and I don’t see anything wrong with Islamic laws. Expatriates have never had a problem here – unless they do something bad. You can’t drink and drive in America; you can’t do it here either. You can’t go to the beach wearing a G-string bikini, but some people shouldn’t be wearing them anyway!”

Upon my arrival in 2003, I started guarding the gates of Camp As Sayliyah. The U.S. military force protection duties sometimes felt like a torture sentence, given the harsh environment. Blinding sand storms tossed dust into every crevice of my body — hair, nose, eyes, ears and lungs. Tiny, relentless bugs tormented me during overnight shifts on top of armored personnel carries or in the back of five-ton trucks. Sweat frothed over my tan paramilitary uniform during scorching summer days. The air-conditioned guard towers or indoor control points provided the best possible posts, in my opinion.

I clocked regular six-day work weeks, as defined by Qatar labor laws. At times, widespread resignations resulted in mandatory seven-day schedules. Sometimes we worked 12-hour shifts. For many, the petty hourly pay rates hardly justified the uncomfortable conditions, not to mention ongoing family separation and the persistent threat of attack. Qualifying for a hefty foreign-earned income tax exclusion helped boost our net earnings. I whittled away at my debts while seeking employment inline with my career objectives: photography, journalism and public affairs.

My free time mostly involved literature about photography, digital arts, Web design, desktop publishing and writing. A noticeable increase in computer skills resulted in an offer to assist with the implementation of a biometric identification system at Camp As Sayliyah. I helped set up and troubleshoot equipment, register thousands of profiles, as well as conduct training for the guards. Mostly due to the extreme environmental conditions, the installation was selected as a test bed for other locations.

I also began studying falconry with the purchase of a Lanner for $150. A local market had exotic birds, monkeys, ungulates — the supply of species seemed regulated only by a patron’s cash. Peacocks apparently targeted rich sheikhs interested in a living lawn ornament. My lightweight prairie falcon, known locally as a “Wakiri,” was the type most often purchased or trapped for young falconers. Qatari friends explained manning and lure training, which I consider my first significant exposure to Arab culture. Luckily, a man from Nebraska had become a popular falcon veterinarian. He helped me identify possible errors in Arabic falconry traditions. For one, the Qataris said to never feed a falcon frozen pigeon; let the meat sit outside and thaw. The Nebraskan said that practice resulted in a lot of bacterial infections. He said a falcon eating cold meat is akin to a human drinking ice water — if anything, it’s refreshing.

I first started hearing the word “expat” at night clubs in hotels, the only public places allowed to serve alcoholic drinks in Qatar. The reference sort of sounded filthy. The word carried images of ex-convicts causing a ruckus, ex-spouses struggling with ex-lovers, or ex-presidents tackling political conspiracies. An expatriate, on the contrary, isn’t about conflict — it’s resolution. I found people drift from their nations of upbringing for numerous reasons, such as financial gains, career advancement, cultural submersion, or reprieve from overlapping hardships at home.

André Paul Guillaume Gide (1869-1951), a French writer and critic, once said: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Stepping outside comfort zones is a way for many adventurers to discover success. United Nations estimates suggest that 214 million migrants will live away from their country of upbringing in 2010. The nations containing the most concentrated numbers of expatriates are in the Middle East.

I found people drift from their nations of upbringing for numerous reasons, such as financial gains, career advancement, cultural submersion, or reprieve from overlapping hardships at home.

I truly felt like an expat after meeting Laila at the military base in 2004. She had moved to Qatar from Morocco three years earlier, after completing a one-year flight attendant certificate in Rabat. Troubled by the thought of ongoing water survival tests — despite six months of swimming lessons — she accepted an employment offer from Ritz-Carlton in Qatar. Laila enjoyed upholding lavish five-star hotel hospitality. She grew up under Islamic fundamentals in Morocco, so the Gulf countries presented a similar lifestyle.

Qatar's Expat Experience

Qatar’s Expat Experience

Laila submerged me into Qatar’s cluster of cultures – mostly Arab, Indian, Persian and African. I found her explanations of Muslim traditions contradicted much of the media propaganda repeated by Western tabloids. The actions of a few Islamic extremists often dominate headlines with violent tyranny and twisted family values. Muslims represent one quarter of the world’s population, or more than 1.5 billion people, according to a comprehensive demographic study by the Pew Research Center in 2009. It’s a shame the horrifying and heartless actions of a few readily damage the reputation of so many.

While living in Qatar, I met Muslim expats from societies often defined by violent occupiers and crazed leaders. For example, people from Lebanon and Iran are not only hospitable, but immensely eager to share their cultures and accept modern perspectives. A Persian artist once introduced himself with “I am Iranian but I am not my president.” He urgently requested a reprieve from stereotypes that may have otherwise poisoned our upcoming conversation. His disclosure led into an interesting discussion about his amazing paintings on polished camel bone.

Laila’s increasing literacy in Arabic dialects had led to her job offer at Camp As Sayliyah. The U.S. military needed assistance with Arabic document exploitation. Military-trained linguists needed help deciphering the numerous dialects found in correspondence seized by troops in Iraq. She demonstrated a knowledge of Arabic languages across North Africa and the Middle East and passed an FBI polygraph and background investigation. Laila was offered a contract to work with the Iraqi Survey Group in March 2004. We met a few months later.

“I am glad I took that first big step and accepted the job with Ritz-Carlton,” says Laila, “I never backed down and got scared about being alone in a foreign country. I wanted to make my own money and decisions.

“Since I was a little girl, I said I would never marry an Arab man. I always told my father that I’d marry a foreigner.”

In March 2005, she did. An American. Me.

After eloping to Cyprus, known as the “Island of Love,” we continued traveling surrounding tourist attractions. We walked through ancient castles in Beirut, Lebanon. From our third-story hotel room, we peeked into a crater forged by a huge explosion that killed a former prime minister — scattered pamphlets petitioned to “give Lebanon back to the Lebanese.” While celebrating my 30th birthday in Sri Lanka, we wandered a country recovering from the devastation of a tsunami that killed more than 30,000 people. We watched textile laborers strive to keep up in a technology-driven world. A year later, we basked in the unadulterated beauty of the Maldives islands, where speed boats act as taxi cabs.

“I am married to the man of my dreams,” she says. That sounds cliché, but she conceived the model image from a Mexican television series called “Marielena.” The daytime drama was translated to formal Arabic in Morocco. A character named “Luis Felipe” had a wide jaw, black hair and muscular stature. I had developed those tough-guy characteristics while constantly studying fitness and weight training.

Laila and I added to our overseas household in August 2005, after entering a local animal shelter. A friend asked us to visit a juvenile German Shepherd he had found, exhausted and heartbroken, in the desert. The dog had been abandoned by his owners. Dogs don’t receive much admiration in Islamic states, where they’re mostly considered impure and unclean. Coming in contact with a canines saliva prior to prayer requires further ablutions. On the other hand, cat populations are allowed to flourish, which nearly eliminated an enormous rat problem in the 1970s, according to Lyons.

A pet shop manager holds up a Pomeranian-Japanese Spitz puppy in Doha, Qatar, Aug. 21, 2005. The puppy was reportedly bred by a Qatari sheikha who kept both breeds, Pomeranian and Japanese Spitz. We named him "Loup."

A pet shop manager holds up a Pomeranian-Japanese Spitz puppy in Doha, Qatar, Aug. 21, 2005. The puppy was reportedly bred by a Qatari sheikha who kept both breeds, Pomeranian and Japanese Spitz. We named him “Loup.”

Unfortunately, like my friend, we simply didn’t have the room for a German Shepherd in our shared accommodations. Laila became highly concerned about the dog’s potential size. She was a bit nervous about dog’s in general, let alone one that could weigh more than 70 pounds. We toured the facility, bitten by the idea of a dog, and found an animated Pomeranian-Japanese Spitz. The clerk said a a wealthy Qatari woman had bred both species, but inadvertently ended up with a mixed litter. The puppy’s size and eagerness resembled a stuffed animal energized by a couple oversized batteries. We took him home and named him “Loup,” a French word for “wolf.” Loup matured to a whopping eight pounds and developed an incredibly docile and well-mannered demeanor. I felt compelled to give up falconry after my raptor made couple strikes at Loup. We eventually left the bird at the falcon center, where a Qatari man once offered $1,000 for him.

In June 2006, I received a phone call from the program manager overseeing base operations services at Camp As Sayliyah. A photojournalist position had opened in public affairs. He knew I’d submit my resume, as I had numerous times over the previous three years. I sent my portfolio, and then scheduled an interview, which resulted in a job offer — finally, only a surgeon could have removed the smile from my face.

Qatar's Expat Experience

Qatar’s Expat Experience

My new employment contract allowed a housing allowance in lieu of shared accommodations. While most people elected for company-provided quarters, Laila and I gladly accepted the cash. Before long, we found an apartment, and then purchased furniture and appliances. We painted the primer-white walls using warm beige and Arabian blue colors. Mahmoud, the building’s caretaker, shrugged off our choices in color. The Egyptian man explained that Europeans and Americans always insisted in painting with dark colors. He couldn’t understand why. Since our apartment was fairly large, we wanted to close in the rooms using rich colors.

After living in the apartment for a few days, we hired some handymen to replace the floors in the two bathrooms and kitchen, where we also replaced the cabinets and counter tops. The upgrades finally made the apartment comfortable. Laila started cooking a lot, which she says is a sign of her happiness. She specializes in numerous Moroccan dishes, such as Couscous and Tagine, but she’s always ready to attempt something new. She cooked her first turkey for Thanksgiving in 2005, with the assistance of a neighboring chef. Her only caveats in cooking are the judicious use of fresh vegetables and spices, as well as the minimized smell of meats.

Middle Eastern foods often filled our plates. Laila enjoys fresh wine leaves rolled around rice and finely chopped vegetables. The wraps are soaked in lemon juice while they are slowly cooked. The taste is a bitter bite that I cannot also appreciate. Our shared favorites are cheese and thyme manakish, flat bread that drips with olive oil; kibeh, ground steak covered in bulgur and then fried; hummus, a blend of chickpeas, sesame seed paste, olive oil, garlic and lemon; and mixed grills of chicken and beef kebabs.

Shopkeepers from neighboring stores gladly delivered groceries. They rode bicycles fixed with baskets between buildings. The act of tipping for services isn’t commonly accepted in Arabia, but the delivery men thankfully accept them. Ten-minute walks outside our building led to bakeries with fresh Arabic and Persian flatbreads, roughly 30 cents each.

Our neighbors were mostly Arab families, representing the nations of Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania. We made friends in each home, except one. The Mauritanian family remained reserved at all times. Whenever the husband entered the elevator and noticed Laila, he would turn toward the nearest corner and hide. The Muslim may have resorted to this behavior whenever confronted by women dressed in threads that accentuated their figures.

Preanta of Sri Lanka knocked on our door looking for work during a summer morning. The scrawny five-foot man wanted to supplement his wages as an “office boy,” a phrase widely used to describe men performing odd jobs for local businesses. Mostly from India and Nepal, they often receive around $200-300 dollars per month while tending to expats earning $15,000, or more. Office boys send most of their salaries home while living in tightly-billeted accommodations and accepting rickety transportation. Similar situations exist for construction workers, carpenters, mechanics and electricians.

Laila hired Preanta to clean our apartment once a week for $50 per month. He attacked house cleaning like a wannabe handyman. Sometimes an erroneous choice in tools caused trouble. The Sri Lankan hardly spoke English — he read even less. He once wiped fabric cleaner all over our wood furniture, which resulted in a horrible smell. But we continued to employ his genuine interest in earning an honest dollar. Preanta would rather wobble his head in agreement than cause much fuss.

For the most part, expats are hardworking, honest, law-abiding residents of Qatar. I have left my car running outside a gas station … my wallet stuffed with $300 in cash on the passenger seat … next to $3,000 worth of camera equipment – without worry. Despite wide variations in wealth, people in Qatar rarely steal.

For the most part, expats are hardworking, honest, law-abiding residents of Qatar.

Most expats act extremely grateful for the vast money-making opportunities in Qatar, where the national unemployment rate is less than one percent, according to CIA reports. Many are economic heroes in their homelands, where they fill huge national deficits with foreign-earned income. They don’t want to mess that up. It’s understood that one person’s actions could paralyze an entire country from obtaining future work visas. In March 2005, an Egyptian rammed his vehicle into the Doha Players theatre. More than five years have elapsed, yet Egyptians continue to experience troubles obtaining and renewing residency permits.

Laila revisited employment opportunities in March 2007, after the Arabic translation project at the military base downsized. She quickly received offers in executive assistance. Following employment with a top U.S. financial firm, she signed a contract with the first corporation to compete against a government-owned telecommunications giant. Her understandings of Arab cultures and dialects proved, once again, valuable. She worked for a British boss, assisted an Australian CEO and enjoyed coworkers from Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and numerous others places.

While I managed public affairs activities for the U.S. Army in Qatar, we coordinated the attendance of countless troops to numerous attractions. Laila guided tours through Doha’s tangled roadways, while explaining the collage of cultures found in Arabia. I’d write about the troops’ adventures and send culturally significant stories to hometown, national and international publications. We introduced them to a prosperous and peaceful Islamic society. Many servicemembers said Qatar helped them feel hopeful for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Qatar hosts excellent options for prompt, inexpensive and flavorful restaurants. Grills bundle slowly broiled shavings of chicken and beef wrapped in flatbread with vegetables and garlic paste for two dollars — they’re known as “shawarmas,” which are similar to Greek Gyros. On the other side, lavish dining is easily found in Doha’s five-star hotels, such as the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Intercontinental.

Barbar satisfies hundreds of customers daily, under the tagline “The Lebanese Fast Food,” at the C-Ring and Salwa Road intersection in Doha, known by U.S. expats as “cholesterol corner.” Meanwhile, neighboring American fast food chains suffer on cholesterol corner, where there’s little interest in processed value meals based on canned and frozen ingredients packed with preservatives. A fading Taco Bell buckled a couple years ago, replaced by a bustling Coffee Beanery. The Arby’s restaurant welcomes “maybe 60 patrons” each day, according to an evening manager.

The City Centre Mall in Doha, Qatar, June 19, 2009.

The City Centre Mall in Doha, Qatar, June 19, 2009.

In Qatar, Arab-Muslims dressed in conservative clothes share venues with expats wearing comparatively revealing attire, such as T-shirts and shorts. Gulf women dress in baggy black Abayas to conceal their feminine characteristics. The garments cover their hair and extend to their wrists and ankles. Local men often wear similar loose white garments. The nation tolerates a far less reserved presence by foreigners, which has escalated over recent years; however, public displays of affection remain punishable under Sharia Law, the law of Islam.

There are a lot of incentives to convert to Islam in Qatar, according to Romy from the Philippines. He moved to Qatar in 2006, after accepting employment as a taxi driver with Mowasalat. The government-owned transport system had been established two years earlier to support the expanding population, as well as curb illegal taxi services. Romy said he earns around $400 per month, depending on tips. He works two years, and then receives a three-month paid vacation in the Philippines.

“If you lose your job, you can convert to Islam and find work,” said Romy, suggesting Filipinos find work easier as Muslims. A recently converted colleague was promoted to dispatcher, a position that pays more than twice that of a cab driver. What’s more, he says an Islamic council rewards them with almost $2,000 – cab drivers like Romy instantly receive six month’s worth of salary.

Growing up in Minnesota, I hadn’t thought much about anything outside the comfort and security surrounding Midwest suburbia. Today, I cannot imagine having spent my adult life sheltered in those familiar waters. Writer T.S. Elliot commented on his expatriate experience in England by suggesting: “[My poetry] wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”

In September, Laila and I quit our jobs in Qatar and moved to the United States. While my expatriate experience has ended, for now, Laila’s has begun a new chapter in Colorado.

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