Ever since I moved to this kidney shaped country on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, almost 20 years ago, there have been questions. At first, friends wanted to know what it was like in Dubai.
“I’m sure Dubai is great,” I would reply. “But I live in Doha.”
The distance between these two Gulf Cooperation Council countries isn’t much. (About 400 miles). But having found oil in the late ’60s, the United Arab Emirates had their boom decades before Qatar. And their flagship state, Dubai, was the centerpiece of their self branding and modernization project. A tourist haven, with the world’s tallest building, and indoor ski slope, and, and, and ad infinitum on the superlatives. Dubai quickly become synonymous as a playground for western snowbirds and wealthy Asians.
So when I moved to Doha, the smaller, quieter city state nearby, I was happy to live somewhere the nationals hadn’t surrendered their public spaces but were rather trying to share malls, cinemas, and roadways with people from all over the world who were powering their economy.
“No I don’t have to cover my hair. At 105F, hot is hot, even if it’s dry heat. Yes, we have McDonald’s. And women have had the right to drive since the ’90s.”
This sequence became my litany on visits home or during encounters with strangers while on travels elsewhere. (If they were particularly good listeners I would get into the humidity, which adds, no kidding, upwards of 50-100% to the overall temp).
While it was a conservative country, compared to most of her neighbors, Qatar was the liberal sister; there was alcohol on sale (with a hefty import tax), pork (at one state authorized seller), nightclubs, plus university classrooms bursting with twice the number of young women versus men.
People didn’t seem to be able to reconcile these facts with what they had been shown on the nightly news.
Sadly I had no photos of pet tigers, oil wells, or my personal doctor living in the backyard. Between the media stereotype and my everyday life is where I lived, minding my own business.
When the questions changed.
How, how could I live there when there were so many human rights abuses?
Now this new threat in the conversation really puzzled me because the people who were asking, my friends, relatives, strangers at the beach, were themselves living through some of the most complex social challenges of the 21st century. There were migrants seeking asylum in their country, or people being sent ‘back’ to places they had never lived, because their grandparents had migrated during an era and Empire that no longer existed.
But I came to accept it as my role, as someone with a PhD in postcolonial literature, who studied identity, power, and culture, to have these conversations during the summers, at conferences, on cruise ships. Whenever I could, I would gently nudge the questioner towards reckoning with the contradiction in looking outward with blanket statements, and yet, assuming that the human rights gaps under their noses were the exception – not the rule – for their own societies.
“I’ll never come visit Qatar because of the rights violations,” someone said to me one summer.
Okay. That’s your prerogative. Okay. But, as we’re talking about rights…
“On my way here, I passed a cop. I made sure to come to a full stop at the sign and let him go first. Because if you and I run a stop sign, either of us, just up the road here, who do you think is driving away? And who has a chance of being shot?”
Oh, but the cops could see you’re not black, this same bastion of human rights declared. “You would be fine.”
Sort of missing the point entirely – (And this conversation was years before the Black Lives Matter movement). Because if some of your citizens are not treated equally, then — …
That’s not to say that there aren’t labor issues and social stratification in Qatar; there are – and they are so many and so complex, that I unexpectedly found myself right in the middle of them as a South Asian American woman. I had to write a book to help me sort through a myriad of experiences in the early years. But the contradictory undercurrent of the rhetoric seemed to rely on giving one’s own country a pass on whatever issues its residents were facing and turning a critical eye outward.
In 2010, when Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, I was sitting on the couch with my husband. We were debating how much longer we live here, since the initial one year assignment had already morphed into 5. If they get it, we agreed, we would stay. We had been at the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Asian Games and seen the development – road expansion, new stadia, more jobs – that an international sporting event could create.
So when that envelope was opened, and they said Qatar, we jumped up and down with all the excitement of the Qatari delegation.
The immediate vitriol, from the general public, and people I knew up close, was a surprise.
Why in the desert? Why them? What makes them worthy? Why not some place more established?
(Why not us? was the implication)
This would crop up, off and on, over the next 12 years.
And alongside came reforms; to labor practices, the establishment of an International Labor Office in Doha. Standardization of payment practices, the release of a “No Objection” letter requirement to transfer sponsors.
Baby steps maybe, but considerable ones for a place that was very sensitive to the influx of outsiders, and ones that definitely wouldn’t have happened without being a host nation. We didn’t see any social change in China despite having been an Olympic host nation. Let’s celebrate the wins, however much work there remains.
We can definitely talk about the lack of safety protocols on construction sites, how walls can fall over and kill men (for they are all exclusively male) building universities (and have) or malls or houses, as much as stadia. That a system that relies on the unpaid to come forward and register their cases can get quickly backlogged. Or while there has been some progress, there is still much to be done in terms of integrating blue collar laborers across the socio-economic divide into public life.
Headlines continue to heat up in what will be weeks until the opening ceremonies, preying on these stereotypes about Qatar that are a toxic intersection between Islamaphobia (BUT THEIR WOMEN!), xenophobia and misinformation.
For example, the number of deaths related to stadia creation – each one is a tragedy – is not 6,500.
I hope the global championing of the plight of the largely male, South Asian labor force isn’t only interesting because it is a reason Qatar should not be hosting the World Cup. Because they, and a wide range of blue collar workers, will be here long after the winning nation takes the FIFA trophy home.
And the voices who will speak out against Islamophobia will also continue to rise.
If there are things to criticize about FIFA 2022, let them be because a tiny nation climbed on the global stage to hold her own and had growing pains along the way. For how else do nations or people learn how to do new things?