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Despite recent reforms to Qatar’s sponsorship law, employers still enjoy a great deal of control over their staff, paving the way for many abuses.

For low-income expats especially, it is hard to challenge the status quo even if their bosses are doing something illegal.

But there are ways for more privileged residents to help, according to former Qatar expat Andrew Leber, a PhD Candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. In this opinion piece, he explains how.

During the years that I worked in Doha and since I’ve left, I’ve read a steady patter of expat reflections on life in Qatar.

Almost all of them mention the kafala system – which in my opinion, still exists – and how it sows deep divides between nationalities and professions.

Navin Sam

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It also creates an informal hierarchy between those who can walk in the city’s parks on “family days” while remaining eminently single, and those who remain “bachelors” even as they work to support wives and children back home.

Most white-collar expats are well aware of these dynamics. But when discussing kafala (in print or around the dinner table), most people usually throw up their hands, declaring “it is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

That’s not quite true.

Individual actions

Yes, deep power imbalances are baked into the structure of the sponsorship system, and anybody willing to work in Qatar should understand that they are unlikely to effect systemic change.

Abdulla Almesleh/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Yet on an individual level, there is much that the more privileged among us can do to try to address the symptoms of this system.

Those of us from Western countries and some Arab nations especially enjoy a privileged place in Doha, due to the advantages of education, nationality, income and even ethnicity.

This will likely only increase with recent changes to the law – most expats will have little hope of attaining permanent residency, even under the rosiest of scenarios.

While not immune to the troubles of the kafala system, most of us have access to cars, competent (and influential) embassies and lawyers, and tend to work for companies with reputations to consider back home or abroad.

A bewildering place

For blue-collar expats, on the other hand,  Qatar can often be a bewildering place.

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Photo for illustrative purposes only.

With a poor grasp of English, little formal education, or salaries so low that independent transportation is a major challenge, they can find themselves unable to challenge the way they are treated.

Imagine your most difficult interaction with a government agency or private company, then imagine it being ten times as stressful, with stakes ten times as high.

With that in mind, here are some easy steps you can take to try to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Many of you no doubt do some of the following already. For the rest, please take them as suggestions.

And feel free to chime in with more ideas.

1. Check in

The most basic thing you can do is check in with the expats around you who aren’t part of your work team or immediate social circle.

These might be the receptionists and security guards in your building, the office assistants on contract to a general services company, or the guys running the car repair shop behind your neighborhood.

Chantelle D'mello

Landmark mall security

Ask how they’re doing, ask about family, ask about how they got to Doha. Above all, make sure you get names.

At a minimum, this helps ensure that we keep treating people like people, and helps build the trust needed for people in vulnerable positions in Qatar to tell you if something’s not right.

2. Help connect

Phone calls to family, social media and TV shows from home are obviously major lifelines for expats of all walks of life in Doha. And internet connections are essential to keep people from running up huge phone bills from data usage.

Apple

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This is why you see some expats hanging out near banks even when they’re closed – the free wifi keeps running on weekends and is vastly cheaper than any data plan.

For any service workers contracted to or directly employed by your building, see if you can get your company to top up salaries with phone cards, and at a minimum try to make sure everybody can get wifi access.

Likewise, if you have any older-generation Galaxies or iPhones gathering dust in the back of a drawer, see if you can find a better home for them.

3. Bolster transport options

Getting around Doha can be costly. There is something of an affordable bus system, but based on my limited experience, coverage is spotty and it can take a long time to get anywhere.

Satheesh/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Be careful about offering rides, but do consider asking people you know if they need a lift, especially if it’s to a hard-to-reach embassy or to government offices to fill out paperwork and/or file a complaint.

In particular, check whether you can offer a ride to any fellow worshippers aiming to attend services out in the desert or elsewhere.

Most Qatar churches offer some kind of transportation services, but it can be hard to sign up without visiting the complex at least once.

4. Report violations

If you do hear of any violations, try to help expats bring labor violation issues to the authorities – and keep an eye out at your own workplace to ensure no abuse is taking place.

Plenty of expats don’t even know that they can flag concerns to the government, and it can be logistically difficult for them to do so.

Reem Saad / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

For example, any trip to an embassy or official building to remedy a problem would cost a blue-collar worker a sizable chunk of a month’s salary.

Make sure they know that they can visit the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs (here they are on Twitter) in person to report potential wrongdoing by a company.

Also consider helping them to do so.

They can also download a complaint form here, or call the labor ministry’s hotline at 44241101 to begin the complaints process.

Additionally, somebody in your office – perhaps a government relations specialist – might even be able to provide names of trusted government employees to reach out to as well.

Mopaw Foundation/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

These four actions I’ve outlined here are just a start. I hope, however, that they’ve given you ideas.

I hope I’ve helped you to see that there is something that Qatar’s wealthier residents can do to help those less fortunate then themselves.

With a bit of effort, we can all, as individuals, make a difference.

What advice would you add?


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Doha News’ editorial policy.

Abdulla Almesleh / Flickr

Doha’s West Bay at dusk

Some expats complain a lot about Qatar while living in the country (for better or worse). But when all’s said and done, there’s a lot to appreciate about the country.

That’s what former Doha resident Mikolai Napieralski came to realize after leaving a few years ago. Here, he compiles a top 10 list of things he and other pampered expats find themselves missing about Qatar. 

Western expats love to complain about Qatar.

Whether it’s the bureaucracy, the traffic, the exorbitant rent or the heat, there’s always someone in the Doha News comments with a sob story to share.

The response from locals is just as predictable, and is usually some variation on “If you don’t like it, you can go home.”

Well, an increasing number of these expats have done just that.

In recent years, budgets and ambitions have been scaled back, resulting in pink slips and one-way tickets for western staff, and a steady exodus out of the country.

Takahiro Hayashi / Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

I left in 2015 when the global price of oil plummeted, my government project was cancelled, and I found myself clocking in at work to watch YouTube for several hours.

Two years later, I’m enjoying life back in “the real world. But whenever I catch up with other expats from Qatar, we find ourselves reminiscing about the place.

Because for all its dramas, there are some things you’re going to miss when you leave.

Here are ten of mine:

1. Ridiculous brunches

The first time I was invited to a brunch in Qatar, I drove to the hotel expecting a stack of pancakes, a cup of coffee and some decent conversation.

Keoni Cabral/Flickr

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When I emerged from the endless champagne top-ups several hours later, I was in no state to drive anywhere, so it’s just as well that we all reconvened at the hotel pool and ordered more rounds.

As I quickly learned, brunches in Qatar are an ode to excess.

To borrow a quote, they’re “a physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country. But only for those with true grit.”

2. Overseas travel allowances

Attending an overseas conference while working for a Qatari government department in my experience means flying Business Class while clutching a wad of cash large enough to choke a horse.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

For western expats used to boring things like “accountability” and “budgets,” the generosity of the Qatari per diem is a beautiful thing.

Anywhere else in the world, the money would be considered an annual bonus.

But in Qatar, it was spending a week in London to attend a two-day conference and coming back home with several thousand dollars in your back pocket.

3. World-class infrastructure projects

Speaking of money – between 2010 and 2014, Qatar was flush with cash and happy to spend it on forward-thinking, nation-building projects.

Qatar Rail

Doha Metro rendering

We’ll have to wait and see if the outdoor air conditioning system that helped sell FIFA on holding the 2022 World Cup in the desert actually works, but the plan shows the drive and ambition you’ll find in Qatar.

Whether it’s Education City, greenhouse farms in the desert, or the aforementioned FIFA initiatives, Qatar is willing to invest in the future.

And that’s a welcome change from the political gridlock and short-sightedness you often see in older, established nations.

4. Dhow boat parties

A dhow boat party is a right of passage for almost every expat.

Taking to the waters with a bunch of strangers, several coolers worth of booze and a third-rate sound system playing terrible music is the quintessential Doha weekend activity.

Visit Qatar / You Tube

Screenshot of the ‘Essence of Qatar’ film

The associated photos of the West Bay skyline are just made for Instagram, and jumping into the water can help sober you up after one Vodka and Red Bull too many.

5. Sneaking into ‘Nikki Beach’

Technically, you’re supposed to be a resident of the Pearl to gain admission to ‘Nikki Beach’ (so-called, even though the Nikki Beach chain pulled the plug on plans to open there several years ago).

Doha bringing the heat 👌

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But as countless expats have discovered, it doesn’t take a lot of persuasion to get past the security and enjoy a relaxing Saturday afternoon on the sand.

As much a social scene as a destination, Nikki Beach lets you work on your tan and go for a swim without paying the exorbitant day-rates the hotel beaches charge. And as a bonus, it’s only a short drive from the city center.

6. Overt displays of wealth

Sometimes it’s nice to celebrate the finer things in life, and Qatar has the resources and the outlook to do just that.

One of my favorite memories from Qatar is the Damien Hirst art exhibition launch in 2013.

Doha News

The Damien Hirst exhibition in Doha

Looking around the room at Al Riwaq, I saw a woman who looked a lot like Naomi Campbell, quickly realized that it was Naomi, then watched her board a helicopter with Damien Hirst and Jeff Koon.

Turns out they were heading to a pop-up Prada shop in the desert for the official after-party.

You don’t often see those ostentatious displays of wealth where I’m from, and certainly not in the art and museums sector, where everyone is wretchedly poor and scraping by like they’re in a Charles Dickens novel.

7. The surreal lifestyle

The thing about well-heeled expat life in Qatar is that it often feels surreal.

The money, the hotel lifestyle, the heat and the uneasy mix of modern and traditional influences can make your brain swim, so that nothing seems entirely real.

Gopal Photographer/Flickr

Sealine Beach

Expat life in Qatar can feel like an extended holiday at times, and as we all know, normal rules don’t apply when you’re traveling.

In comparison, being back home can feel boring, mundane and scripted.

So, the opposite of a holiday, basically.

8. The West Bay skyline from MIA Park

The West Bay skyline is always impressive, but the very best place to view it is the crescent-shaped harbor that juts out of MIA Park.

Victoria Scott

The Doha skyline from the MIA park cafe

On balmy autumn afternoons, I used to grab a book and wander down to the café near Richard Serra’s 7 sculpture for some peace and quiet (with a side order of Belgian waffles, black coffee and Instagram photo opps).

Because, you know, it’s the simple things that often mean the most.

9. Cheap cigarettes

Okay this one isn’t necessarily a positive, but when a pack of Marlboro lights only cost you US$2.50 and you can still smoke in most places, it’s very tempting to join in.

Morgan/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

For comparisons sake, those same Marlboro Lights will cost you $25 in Australia, and you can’t smoke anywhere, ever.

10. The friends you make

Qatar draws people together.

Since everyone is a new arrival, it’s really ease to meet people and make friends.

Ritz Carlton Doha / Facebook

Photo for illustrative purposes only

Attend a couple of house parties and you’ll soon find yourself swapping numbers with an extended social circle.

Sure, a lot of them will be out the door and on a plane in six months, but if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a handful of friends that will stick with you for life.

And when you do find yourself meeting up again several years later, you’ll have endless anecdotes about Qatar to fill those late-night conversations.

Thoughts?

Mikolai’s new book “God Willing,” about his time in Qatar, is out now via Amazon and on Kindle. 


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Doha News’ editorial policy.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

As the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors plays out in headlines across the region, the importance of free and fair media has been talked about a lot.

For Qatar to truly claim the moral ground in this regard, it should repeal its cybercrime law and unblock Doha News, among other things, argues Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. 

Here’s the full text of his speech, which he delivered at this week’s Freedom of Expression conference in Qatar.

Political freedom and especially free expression are at the heart of the current Gulf crisis. That is why so many human rights and journalistic freedom organizations have rallied to Qatar’s defense.

But that also highlights the importance of Qatar maintaining the moral high ground by using this crisis as an opportunity to reform itself.

We are all aware of the terrorism allegations that are said to be the foremost concern.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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I can’t speak to the claims of secret financing. But I am aware that long-term, open Saudi financing of Wahhabi and Salafist preachers and schools has promoted an extreme form of Islam that lies behind many terrorist groups today.

And while we tend to limit the terrorist label to non-governmental groups, the Saudi-led coalition has been causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Indiscriminate bombing has repeatedly killed many civilians.

An embargo has led to widespread malnutrition and even starvation. A weakened population now faces the world’s largest cholera outbreak, surpassing Haiti’s by a wide margin.

Al Jazeera a ‘dictator’s nightmare’

We’re here to discuss free expression and broader political freedoms. It’s telling that the leading demands against Qatar by its neighbors seem to involve these rights.

Most obvious was the demand to close or control Al Jazeera. In a region known for stultifying official media, AJ was a breath of fresh air.

It wasn’t always perfect. Certain issues, particularly in the Gulf, including Qatar, were taboo.

QNA

Father Emir speaks at 20th anniversary celebrations for Al Jazeera in November.

And in giving a forum to neglected voices, it sometimes crossed the line from featuring legitimate dissenters to giving a podium to those who advocated violence.

But AJ was a key forum for those who wanted to challenge the autocratic rule that remains the norm in the Middle East and North Africa.

It reached its heyday during the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. It gave people throughout the region a means to be heard when challenging autocratic, unresponsive, often corrupt rulers.

It was, and continues to be, a dictator’s nightmare.

Muslim brotherhood boogeyman

The second key demand was that Qatar stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood means different things in its different manifestations. Some involve violent attacks on civilians and intolerance of dissent—such as Hamas in Gaza.

European External Action Service

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood party.

But the essence of what the Gulf monarchs found dangerous about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it represents a vision of Islamic governance based on the ballot box rather than hereditary (or, in the case of Egypt, military) rule.

Like Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood saw a role for the general public in political discourse and governance. That is a scary proposition for the Gulf royal families and Egypt’s military rulers.

It is noteworthy that Qatar was willing to support the Muslim Brotherhood since this country is no more a democracy than the other Gulf monarchies.

I hope that signals an opening.

WAM

Flags of the boycotting nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt).

But for those other monarchies, the Muslim Brotherhood was anathema.

Indeed, beyond pressuring Qatar to stop supporting Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian governments have rounded up their own Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Bahrain and UAE have even threatened to punish anyone “expressing sympathy” for Qatar.

What Qatar should do

So at its heart, the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbors is about free expression and political freedom.

Yet I would be remiss, speaking here in Qatar, if I left the impression that Qatar were beyond reproach with respect to free expression.

In 2014, Qatar adopted a cybercrime decree, which criminalizes the spreading of “false news” on the internet and provides for a maximum of three years in prison for anyone who posts online content that “violates social values or principles” or “insults or slanders others”—very broad and vague standards.

magicatwork/Flickr

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In 2016, Qatar authorities used that law to detain a journalist from the country’s only independent news website, Doha News, after he wrote an article naming a man convicted of a serious criminal offense.

In November last year, Qatari authorities ordered internet service providers to block the Doha News site, which has been running since 2011, making it inaccessible to internet users in Qatar.

Needless to say, these are not the acts of a government that should be trying to maintain the moral higher ground in a dispute about free expression.

Doha News

DN

Qatar should repeal the provisions of the 2014 Cybercrime Law that limit free expression. And unblock the Doha News website.

Turkey’s media crackdown

There are things that Qatar could do to uphold freedom of expression in its foreign relations as well.

This week, the Qatari Emir will meet with Turkey’s President Erdogan. I realize Turkey is a close ally, but it is also in the midst of one of the world’s most severe crackdowns on journalists.

Popicinio/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The same principles the uphold the freedom of Al Jazeera to speak the truth, even when inconvenient, should apply to Turkish journalists as well. I hope the Emir will remind President Erdogan of those principles.

There are also important things that Qatar could do to ease the burden of the dispute with its neighbors on the AJ journalists who are here as well as other long-term residents.

Human Rights Watch released a report last week on the plight of families who are facing separation because they are of different nationalities.

Qatari women’s rights

The problem is compounded because Qatar, like its neighbors, allows nationality to be passed only by men, not women, in violation of article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Qatar is a state party.

If a Qatari woman is married to a non-Qatari, her children have no citizenship rights in this country, leaving them vulnerable to pressure from Qatar’s Gulf neighbors.

Igor Alexandrov/Wikicommons

Photo for illustrative purposes only

Those neighbors have already ordered their nationals to leave Qatar, which could include children of Qatari women married to a man from one of those states, even though they have spent their entire lives living in Qatar.

Now would be a good time for Qatar to end gender discrimination in the right to confer nationality to one’s children.

Al Jazeera ‘refugees’

Here I want to make special mention of the plight of Al Jazeera workers.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 Al Jazeera employees, including seven Egyptians, six Saudis, and one Bahraini who said that they cannot renew their passports and thus are worried about losing their Qatari residency permits.

Many of the Egyptian employees moved to Qatar after authorities in Egypt threatened, intimidated, beat, or arrested them.

Ministry of Interior/Facebook

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One journalist said he applied to renew his Egyptian passport in January 2017, but that Egyptian embassy officials told him in April that they would not renew it. His passport will expire in August.

These AJ employees are classic refugees who need protection.

Qatar’s constitution bans the “extradition of political refugees” and specifies that the granting of asylum shall be regulated by law.

Asylum laws

But Qatar has never promulgated a law on asylum or signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, despite having ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights which requires Qatar to respect the right of everyone to seek asylum.

Nor does the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have an office in Qatar where it could review refugee claims.

And Qatar has no other procedures in place that would allow those who fear persecution in their home countries to seek protection in Qatar or challenge their deportation.

Qatar could become a leader in the Gulf, and reaffirm its commitment to protect people like the Al Jazeera employees, by ratifying the Refugee Convention and Protocol, establishing refugee and asylum laws consistent with those standards, and inviting UNHCR to open an office here.

Josh Hughes/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

So to conclude, there are important things that Qatar can do to maintain the moral high ground from which it has so greatly benefited in its dispute with its neighbors.

As the old adage goes, every crisis is also an opportunity.

Yes, Qatar today faces a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to become a regional leader on human rights.

I hope Qatar will seize that opportunity. Thoughts?