Why You Don’t Have Qatari Friends: Part Two

Photo by Omar Chatriwala
Photo by Omar Chatriwala

In Part One, we talked about the transient nature of expat life as one of the barriers to establishing ties between communities.

The revolving door makes not only relationships difficult but institutional knowledge or momentum to develop.

Marjorie wrote her own response to Part One which explains that making friends with locals in any country can be challenging. All of this let’s me know that is in fact a topic a lot of people have thought about themselves (and are interested in discussing).

Most of my childhood, adolescence and twenties, I lived in the no-man’s land as an island buffeted by two cultures – American and South Asian. Those years developed the bi-cultural traits shared by all third culture kids: I hear both sides, I understand both sides, I feel the emotion of both sides. I defended dating, a non-medical career path, prom, all things American, to my parents.

Meanwhile I tearfully declined invitations to the movies, football games, or sleepovers via my Indian father’s rules. Us, Indians. Them, Americans at home. Us, kids (Americans). Them, parents (Indians) at school.  I was never fully in one group or the other. Turns out this was perfect training for living in Qatar where I’ve seen and heard the “us” and “them” labels function unchallenged in most cases. That is, except for when I’m present.

Never the Two Shall Meet

Qataries and Expats: Two groups of people living in the same country and yet finding few places to meet, literally or figuratively.  In the vast, intervening space rolls harmful myths with grains of truth, that grows unchecked in each community without the response from the other side. Occurring for years between the two groups, this mistrust is now the inheritance of anyone living in Doha in either community.

I posed the questions from the teleclass via Twitter because I wanted to test the temperature and see if things had changed.

  • What do expats think of Qataries?
  • What’s it like to be a professional woman in Qatar?

28 DM (direct messages) later with someone I don’t know in real life (only virtually) and who was passionate about the answers to question one, I heard echoes of conversations I’ve had over the years with many close friends, expat and Qatari.

The irony of the prevailing us/them struck me as we tapped out 140 character responses back and forth. A Friday morning and if her Twitter handle hadn’t had “Qatari” in it, I could have been listening to an expat complaining from the sticking points we were exchanging.




The Sticking Point

Let’s be clear: this is not a post about the pros or cons of Qatarization. Rather, it is a discussion about myths on both sides. And you can’t talk about misunderstanding between us without talking about the elephant in the room. Money.

BOTH expats and Qataries think the other is overcompensated. There are two sides to this coin but they share the same theme: a perceived sense of injustice at what the other receives.

  • The expat is semi-qualified and overpaid.
  • The Qatari is under qualified and overpaid.

“What we think about expats, well they get paid more than us, triple, even though we studied abroad and we are in the same level.”

Many expats regard Qatar or other overseas posts as a kind of second chance pasture before retirement, or a place to send problem employees. This is the minority, others of us came for the adventure; but if the few are in prominent positions (as is often the case) then the damage they do is enormous.

I also countered with the truth from my experience at 3 different institutions in Qatar: “Most of the Qataries I know get paid much more than expats or equal.”

My correspondent seemed surprised by this, since her sister wasn’t in this category and had difficulty getting a job after graduating from an overseas university.

In addition to high pay, expat packages are much more than what they’d have at home.

“I have lived in the UK for 20 years they don’t get the luxury they are getting here be real right.”

She had a point: How many times have visitors come, exclaiming you’d never get that much space London, DC, elsewhere?

On the flip side, the tea-drinking, newspaper reading, Bluetooth talking local seems to be whom expats think is the representative of Qatarization. And if you haven’t worked with someone who doesn’t put in a full day, this idea of the “lazy native” goes unchallenged. What many don’t know is that this specter annoys, embarrasses, angers the hard working, high achieving nationals. This generation, their compatriots staging the Arab spring around the Middle East, are launching their own counter culture for their society.

BOTH Qataries and Expats think the other is well off. Depending on the person this may or may not be the case. What many people may not know, and many in the local community don’t discuss, is that not all Qataries are spendthrifts who adore luxury brands.

“You don’t know the Qataries what they go through, people think we are rich, but we are not. We live in two rooms in our mother-in-law’s house and that’s torture by itself.”

In a status conscious culture, to not have the latest and greatest is not an option. In the expat community, the next exotic travel experience is the equivalent of a Porche.

There are so many other things to talk about in this vein. But we will reserve those for Part Three. In the meantime, I welcome thoughts that will take this discussion in a new vein rather than more of the same. What surprising things have you learned about “the other”?


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Reader Comments

  1. Qatari

    I think that it is true, I mean there are so many normal Qatari’s but they just don’t go to malls and places that expats go to, that is why the expats only see the much richer Qatari’s.

  2. Abdualrahman

    I am just a bit curious if anyone here had for just a moment considered the other side to this issue. No, I don’t mean Qataris living outside; rather, I am referring to Qataris in Qatar who have tried to befriend expats, especially westerns, only to be turned down by them!

    I went to a school whose staff was mostly from North America, and so, I know many expats. I finished school a few years back but I stayed in touch with many of the people I know via e-mail and Facebook, and every once in a while I would visit the school too.

    Starting from sometime last year, I have extended invites to the people I knew from the school to come visit my family’s beach house during the weekend. Do you know how many of them accepted? 0! I extended a similar invite to come meet my mother, and only 2 ladies showed interest in doing so. One of them did visit, she said she enjoyed it, she said she’d come visit again soon. It’s now been over 3-4 months since she did!

    Here is the simple truth: friendship is built on a common ground between 2 or more people. This is why it’s easier for people of the same gender/ culture/ ethnic/ interest to become friends. I suspect that my friend who came to visit found it to be difficult to be in an environment where she didn’t speak the same language as everyone else’s and needing someone to translate for her couldn’t have been any fun.

    The truth of the matter is that while we Qataris are friendly, we are also very careful to not to intrude on the privacy of others. Moreover, when dealing with expats, especially westerners, we often find ourselves being asked too many probing questions about ourselves & our culture that we ourselves don’t know the answer to or just don’t know how to explain to you properly. It’s like situation where someone befriends a gay man, and asks questions like “So, are you the man or woman?” “How do you guys do it?”

    I hope that made sense.


  3. Mohanalakshmi

    AbdulRahman: I’m so glad you took the time to answer and provide the other perspective. Especially the the last part where questions that we ask may not be intentionally be offensive but perhaps come too soon or are not well worded.

    Your analogy is a great one: care to share some examples of expat questions?

  4. Abdualrahman

    So terribly sorry for taking this long to reply to you; I’ve been busy with this & that. However, I do have the perfect example of what I’ve talked about, and I hope that somewhat makes up for the delay.

    Recall the friend who visited once? It’s about her. Let’s call her Jane. When we 1st met about 4-5 years ago, we soon went out for coffee with a mutual friend, will call her Carol, who was also student in the same class and a lady of her nationality. While we were talking & having a good time, I started to open up about myself and Qatar, and at some point I casually said, “We used to have slaves here as recently as the 50s!”

    Immediately, Jane pointed her head toward me; firmly & quickly said, “I am sorry dear but you still have slaves in this country!” She was referring to the domestic workers, especially the maids. From there on it was a barrage of questions & comments like this: “Why do they walk behind the women?” “Why are they not allowed to sit on the same table in Starbucks?” “I am a slave too: I can’t leave the country unless the school signs my exit permit. I am not free.” “How come no one has invited me to their house or to a wedding yet?”

    You could tell that Jane has been sitting on these questions for a while, and my comment about slavery in Qatar just opened the flood gates. I managed to keep my cool & calm and tried my best to answer her questions. Interestingly enough, it was Carol, who has lived for years in Southeast Asia, who pointed out that Indonesians, for example, whom she noticed were the ones who treated their domestic help (their own nationals) the worst. Carol wasn’t defending the mistreatment of the maids here, but she was pointing out that it’s not, as many people seem to think, a problem that is unique to our part of the world.

    What do you think of the way Jane acted? Would it be wrong to guess that, put in the same position, many expats would do the same? As you can imagine, I am extra careful now when talking to expats, especially westerners, and I don’t open up as much as I used to, if at all. Being judgmental of others is one of the fastest ways to alienate yourself with them.

    Again I wish to point out that while it’s normal to have many questions to ask when you meet people from a different culture, country, religion, etc. , it’s also important to remember that while “all blue people look the same to me,” they are, in fact, different individuals with their own distinct personalities. If you wish to become their friend, then you need to know the person they are, and find a common ground that you have with them.

    Thank you for the chance to share my opinion & experience with you & others.

  5. Mohana Rajakumar

    Hi AbdelRahman: Once again you’ve provided some great good for thought.

    When is it appropriate to discuss tricky subjects with a friend? The underlying implication in what you’ve shared is that Jane wanted you as an individual to be responsible for the choices of others, government policies, etc. happening in the entire country.

    That is never okay nor is it the action of a friend.

    What I’ve discovered in my discussions with Qataries and indeed people of any background is that sensitive issues need to be approached with ears open. Listening on both sides, instead of accusing is critical to communication.

    Humor never hurts and often shows people how you feel without causing them to feel evil or stupid. For example I recently started stand up with Stand Up Comedy Qatar (SUCQ) and a major part of my first routine was around race reactions to my husband and I (different ethnicities but same nationality). People laughed because they recognized themselves — like thinking my husband is Chinese when he’s Thai – and also seeing things from the other person’s perspective.

    Hopefully we can figure out ways to discuss topics so they bring us together instead of keep us apart.

  6. Maimoona Rahman

    The article and the comments seem to focus on relationships between Qataris and European and Western expats. But, have you wondered for a moment about the other expats? The Asians? Aren’t they a larger part of the expat population, who also find it difficult to interact and befriend Qataris?

    The assumption of Qataris about expats being overpaid, I am assuming, exclusively refers to European/Western expats. And it’s true all expats think the native population is lazy and filthy rich. But, the majority of the expat population are missing from the picture here–and you are ignoring the elephant in the room–the East Asians, The South Asians, The South East Asians. They are definitely not overpaid. You’d probably say that they wouldn’t be paid as much back home, but that’s because you haven’t given a thought to how salaries are and should be relative depending of the cost of living. Qatar has a much higher cost of living, resulting in many of these expats not exactly living a life of luxury. Back home, they’d probably live in a three-bedroom flat. Here they rent a bedroom where they live with their spouses and children and share a bathroom and kitchen with several other similar families. Some of them are accountants, engineers and nurses (never doctors, though), and I am sure they are not underqualified or unskilled, because if they were, then it would be worth pondering whose building this country. Not that they are the only ones building this country.

    It’s interesting that hordes of these people still stay despite their tiny homes, and let’s admit it, lack of respect. Some of them save up bit by bit and build luxury nests back home.

    This reminds me of an interesting argument I had at a seminar with a few Qatari and Bahraini girls in Qatar University. I claimed, with supporting evidence, that majority of the migrant workers were not being paid enough. Construction workers toiled in the noon sun, which supposedly shouldn’t be working hours. They pull overtime but are not paid for that.And plenty of them suffer heat strokes. The girls said that I was being way too communist and that my supporting evidence was just media propaganda of the West to cast Qatar in a bad light. A migrant worker cannot be paid like an doctor or a Qatari because citizenship should have a value in the nation of the citizens. And they said that the worker was being paid more than enough considering that they earn more than they do back home, which should be fair enough. What about cost of living? They can’t even save enough to repay the loans they had to take to obtain work permit and come to Qatar.

    What about migrant workers who are not paid for months on end? Back home they wouldn’t be paid because they didn’t have a job. Here they toil without payment.

    Another matter worth considering is that equal work is not equal to equal pay. And it’s legal! My Turkish friend, who is an engineer, gets paid 13,000. An Indian colleague of his earns 4,500. Can you imagine engineers earning less than 8,000? And living in a bedsitting room in a villa and share a kitchen with other engineers and their families? I mean, if they were bad engineers, then they shouldn’t be hired in the first place. And if they are really bad, then why haven’t the buildings in Qatar collapsed, roads cracked and electricity plants blown up?

    It’s true that not all Qataris are the same, but of all the Qataris I have met so far, only one seems to sympathise with the Asian expat community. But, I believe the good are out there; I am just yet to meet them.

  7. Mohanalakshmi

    Hi Maimoona; You’ve brought up an important angle in the classic debate about compensation in Qatar — the nationality or race issue. The short answer, of course, is that companies and organizations get away with what the law allows especially where they can cut corners and save money. This answer, however, is not satisfying in a fish bowl context like Doha when we see vividly before us the gaps in equity.

    As a South Asian living here (married to someone who looks East Asian), this is something I can’t ignore as often when people see me out with our very fair skinned baby, they sometimes think I’m the nanny at first glance, rather than his mother. In fact when said baby was born and my Qatari friends came to visit, the nurses in the hospital said, “Oh no, not that room. That’s an Indian lady in there.” We laughed about the fact that people assumed they were in the wrong place because our friendship was considered unusual.

    When I’ve talked with nationals about the vast difference in pay scale, often they comment that the governments of Sri Lanka, India, or whatever relevant country, should be “stronger” and advocate more for their citizens in terms of base pay, etc.

    Most people seem to feel that the pay and working conditions are issues on the government level and not that of companies or individuals. Not satisfying, I know, but without the public awareness campaigns against sex slavery, child labour, and other poor practices in other parts of the world, would anything have changed?

    The other aspect that escapes most people are the “middle men” or agencies in Asia that broker these deals between the hopeful migrant and the GCC based conglomerate. Most people have to take out loans (which they find difficult to repay as you’ve alluded to) to get these jobs and are confronted with the conditions only after arriving – this goes for the construction worker as well as the house maid.

    One thing I’ve reflected on while traveling the world is that the world of the wonders of the world have been made by hands that were conscripted (Great Wall of China), enslaved (Pyramids), or indebted (Taj Mahal). Then there are the sites of the first skyscrapers in the west which were constructed by migrants from Ireland, Italy, and other parts of Europe.

    The power, the ambitious use the needy in order to accomplish their tasks. We see this repeated in human history from the earliest days of the Romans, as they conquered people and made slaves. Modern times ended institutional slavery, but clearly the world over there are still people with very few choices.

    Is it right to exploit others? No. And perhaps this is the biggest leap we’ve made as a global society. Applying it in different contexts and places, however, now that is going to take all of us asking the kinds of questions we’re engaging in right here.

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