On my way to Bangladesh, I stopped a few days in Doha, Qatar.
I have many thoughts about my short stay here that I'll try to share in this condensed blog post, covering my three days here. You'll find a list of places to visit (and places not to visit) at the bottom of the post.
Day 1 - Strolling along the sea and good first impressions
Qatar is very intriguing. While it does have a similar GDP per capita to Switzerland, it is very different. This got me thinking a lot about what makes a rich country, what makes for a good quality of life, and so on.
In full transparency, I did come to Qatar with some pre-conceptions. I had heard about very poor labor conditions, slavery-ish. I had also heard about alcohol being banned during the World Cup as well as homosexuality not being allowed, and of course, I knew that this was a muslim country, and was expecting women to have a very different role and situation than in European countries.
On my first evening, I just strolled around the city and was surprised by how safe I felt. There were kids running around, families going for an evening walk, a few shops selling coffees and so on.
I was expecting a much more hostile vibe somehow... But not at all.
As expected, all women were wearing the hidjab, and all Qatari men were wearing a similar outfit, but white.
On a fun note, due to the hidjab, the whole showing-off culture we have in Europe is extremely reduced in Qatar. Since most of the body is covered, you can't show off your shirt, dress and so on. As a woman, the only thing left are your shoes and your handbag, and you can see that those clothing items play a large role from the number of handbag and shoe shops in Qatar.
Men on the other side do not seem to care at all, wearing just simple sandals. (Or maybe I don't know what to look for).
Day 2 - Venice in Qatar and worker conditions
On my second day, I went to visit the Venice themed shopping mall and gosh this was something.
They went really far, to the point of having a fake blue sky as well as little rivers, really impressive.
In general, it feels like Qatar went out to create their dream world and in some way they succeeded, but it is fake.
When you walk through the streets, you can feel, sense, how everything was built based on the desire of the royal family, and not to satisfy some market demand.
A driver told me that the king wants trees on both sides of all streets, and this is why trees are being planted everywhere.
As a deliberate liberal and free market advocate, I don't think central planning the likes of which Qatar is engaging in can work. They are following the "fake it until you make it" formula and while they're creating a lot of jobs for millions of foreign workers, I do not see how they will build a long lasting economy if gas or oil ever run out.
Two days in, and I still had not glimpsed any signs of extreme wealth inequalities. I was expecting to find some guettos once I'd leave the city center but nada. The whole city, from the very luxurious city center to the outskirts of the city and desert are nice middle class buildings and houses.
Finally, I had dinner in a very local restaurant that was full with foreign workers and two people sitting next to me engaged the conversation and I took the opportunity to ask them all my questions.
They were two construction workers from India, living in Qatar 10 months a year, and flying home for the last two months of the year to spend time with their family. They work seven days a week to make up for the full months they're at home.
They were making around 1'000 dollars a month and spending 300 on rent and 200 more on food. Putting 500 per month aside. There is no income tax.
They both sleep with 4 other people in a large room and they have a cook that makes them breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Both told me about the rumours around poor working conditions, before I even mentioned it and denied it. They said that they were treated and paid much better than what they had previously experienced in India and were glad to be here.
Finally, both told me there is no aggressivety towards the richer locals. The situation seems fair to them.
This is by no means a complete analysis of the situation and I am sure there must be some abuses, but I do believe that the majority of workers here are satisfied with the deal they have.
They will of course switch to another employer if better conditions are offered, but overall Qatar offers foreign workers a much more attractive deal than what they could hope for at home.
Day 3 - Desert & Pakistani driver conversation
On my last day in Qatar, I went to see the Desert and got to spend a few hours with a Pakistani driver who told me about his story and religion. Like most migrant workers, he spends between 9 and 10 months in Qatar per year, working seven days a week and returns to his wife and children for the 3 months that are left.
His wife wears the full hidjab, gloves and socks so that no skin can be seen. She never leaves the house and if she has to, will be accompanied by her dad or her husband's dad.
If a cousin comes home, he won't approach the wife by less than 6 meters.
The driver I spoke with has four children and his fourteen year old daughter wears the hidjab so that he's never seen her hair.
Finally, he's totally allowed to have up to four wives, but chose to have only one for now because he can't afford more.
To most europeans, all of this sounds pretty chocking, but I'm sharing it to remind all of us that there are different ways of living, and no right or wrong.
Culture and tradition are complex matters and there is good and bad everywhere. For example, one thing that I find really impressive is the strong family bonds found in the muslim culture.
Sons will live with their parents their whole life, inviting their wives to come live with their family, thereby caring for their parents until their death.
In comparison, we europeans leave our houses around the age of twenty and just send our old parents to retirement homes and visit once a month. Not exactly something we can be proud of.
I have no doubt that some of my words can be misinterpreted and seen as outrageous to some, specifically around worker conditions in Qatar.
Let me try to summarise the situation regarding foreign workers:
- Qatar is an experiment and by no means the right way to do things. They basically have unlimited funding and can do whatever they want.
- Given that all citizen can basically live as they want (free health care, free social security, free welfare, ...) they have to find cheap labor outside of their country for all low skilled work.
- They chose to import those skills from other countries by offering better salaries and temporary work visas. 2 million foreign workers live in Qatar, and only 300 thousand qataris.
- The huge power imbalance between workers and employers must have lead to abuse in many cases. I'm fine with trade, as long as both parties agree to the trade. Passport confiscation is not ok for example.
- As demand for foreign workers increases across the globe, we can expect those conditions to improve. This process seems already to be happening.
Overall, I think Qatar is an interesting experiment. It is not a free market and strongly favours locals (for example, a foreigner can only own 49% of any business he/she creates) but I'm curious to see it evolve.
So if you have the chance, I recommend stopping there for a few days. You'll get bored if you stay too long for sure, but a few days are fine!
Places I recommend visiting
Places I don't recommend visiting
Thanks for reading!