Lifting the veil on Qatar

BBC:  Secret Society?

*  Qatar, as you may know, is the home of Al Jizz, also known as the Al Qaeda propaganda channel:


This week Qatar hosted the annual Arab Summit in its capital Doha. It was dubbed the reconciliation summit after months of serious rifts in the Arab World. The tiny country had put the noses of some of the big players out of joint by trying to adopt the role of regional mediator, traditionally played by heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Emir of Qatar

Our Middle East correspondent Katya Adler reported on the summit and set out to find out more about Qatar, one of the region’s richest nations.

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This was my first visit to Qatar and I admit I failed in one of my main missions, to get under the skin of the country.

On Qatar Airways, I met Filipino cabin crew.

The airport ground staff were Pakistani, the hotel receptionist, Sri Lankan, the barista who made my cappuccino on the way to the Arab Summit, Nepali.

My hunt to meet Qataris in Qatar had begun.

Statistically, foreigners in Qatar outnumber Qataris by four to one.

Hidden society

“They get us to do all their hard work for them,” a Palestinian called Mazan Barakat told me. I met him in a lift.

“Asians do the menial jobs,” he went on, “other Arabs, Americans and Europeans work in the gas and oil industry. We don’t care. We earn a lot more working here than we ever would in our own countries.”

Mazan has worked in the gas business in Doha for 20 years. How many Qatari friends does he have, I wonder. “Erm, none, came the slightly reluctant reply.

“Of course I know Qataris at work,” Mazan hastened to add. “We drink tea, they invite me to their wedding parties.”

But had he ever been invited in to a Qatari home?

“Never,” Mazan told me. “In two decades here I have never met the wives or children of my Qatari colleagues. Foreigners don’t, can’t rent properties in Qatari compounds. However long I live here, I can’t get Qatari citizenship.”

Qatar is very much a veiled society, physically and socially.

Qatari women dress head to toe in black. Most cover their faces, some even their eyes and hands.

Men also keep their heads covered. Public signs of Qatari life are limited to seemingly endless shopping malls and wide-laned dusty roads, lined with skyscrapers and packed with shiny tank-like cars.

This Bedouin nation has changed dramatically since discovering oil and huge natural gas reserves. GDP per capita here is the second highest in the world.

“ There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques – but in public the emirate has to appear perfect ” –  Naima, schoolteacher

“It’s wrong to say Qataris are born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” schoolteacher Naima told me. “It’s a gold spoon, encrusted with diamonds.”

Naima and her husband Jamil are Lebanese and have lived in Doha for 16 years.

They laughed at my determined efforts to get to know Qatar.

“Not even Qataris really know what’s happening here,” they said.

“They’re not allowed to. Unless they’re a member of the ruling family. Just look at the press here.

“There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques. But in public the emirate has to appear perfect.”

No opinions

The Qatar-based satellite news channel al-Jazeera boasts it tells things like they are.

But not when it comes to Qatar. It is so close to the emir who rules the country that al-Jazeera staff were employed by the Qatari Foreign Ministry to look after the press centre at this Arab Summit.

Jovial, pot-bellied Faris joked with international journalists throughout, chain-smoking so hard that ash was permanently falling down his once-pristine galabia .

But he looked nervous when I asked him about Qatar, its character, its role in the world.

“Hey, I just work for TV,” he told me. “I have no opinions. Qatari, all Arabs. We just talk and talk, you know. But we never do anything. Give me football any day.”

I tried foreign ministry officials. Saud bin Ahmad Il Thani is a thin, moustached member of the ruling family.

He put me in mind of the Spanish saying used to describe enigmatic types, “If you met him on the stairs, you wouldn’t be quite sure if he were going up or coming down.”

“Qataris are the realists of the Arab world,” Saud told me with conviction.

“We accept everybody. We’ve worked with Israel in the past. Unlike a number of other Arab states we don’t fear Iran, we understand it,” he said.

“It’s our neighbour. Ours is a transparent society. We’re straightforward. Straight-talking.”

The straight talking did not last long at the Arab Summit. The meeting closed suddenly after only a day.

The official reason – everyone agreed with everything. The real reason, a Qatari official told me off the record, was that the longer the Arab states stayed in one room, the more they would bicker.

Qatar preferred things to go smoothly.

Mystery unresolved

My last-ditch attempt to get under Qatar’s surface was to book a Doha City tour.

The guide was Indian. I told him I was keen to understand Qatari culture. He suggested we go to the equestrian centre, Olympic sports complex, the main golf club, the biggest mall in the world oh, and the best bit, the Waqif market.

Two hundred years old but knocked down and recently rebuilt. Here you can buy so-called Qatari antiques from South Asian shopkeepers.

I hope to return to Qatar and renew my efforts to get to know the country.

As my Philippine-staffed Qatar Airways flight took off, Doha and the rest of the tiny country were soon shrouded. Swallowed up and hidden in the sandy dust.

3 thoughts on “Lifting the veil on Qatar”

  1. And don’t forget the lovely Qaradawi lives there.

    See “Qaradawi calls for Jihad against Israel”

    CAIRO – Prominent Islamist preacher Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi has called for a holy war against Israel, an Egyptian newspaper reported Wednesday.

    “Muslims must carry out jihad to liberate all the land of Islam. Palestine does not belong only to the Palestinians but to all Muslims,” Qaradawi was quoted as saying by the Al-Masri Al-Yom independent daily.

    The Egyptian-born cleric, best known for his regular appearances on the Qatari satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, said that the Islamic world “needs men like those of Hezbollah: in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and everywhere”.

    “There isn’t even an Arab willingness to fight Israel,” he complained at a seminar at the University of Cairo, adding: “The peace that the Arab leaders are calling for is in fact a capitulation.”

    Qaradawi, who now lives in Qatar and has close links to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, said that Islamic law, or sharia, dictated “if a land of Islam is occupied, the entire population must resist and start jihad.”

    The 78-year-old achieved star status with his appearances on Al-Jazeera’s weekly religious affairs programme “Al-Shariaa wa Al-Haya” (Islamic Law and Life) and has consistently defended Palestinian suicide attacks against Israel.

  2. My son lives in Qatar and rents a house. He has Qatari friends who come over to his house and loves to be able to drink alcohol in his house. Also possible in the ig hotels.
    According to him women are dressed in different kind of ways.
    My daughter in law goes their and wears her western clothing.
    Like in other countries in the Middle East the foreign workers from 3d world countries are being used for very cheap labor.
    The rich spoiled Qatari kids go to school in the most expensive sportcars.
    But even under the Qatari people you have a lower class too.
    I have lived for 2 years in an Muslim country, the same thing over there.
    Bunch of hypocrites.
    Look how they behave when they come to the States or England.

  3. Whatever the Author has observed and written is not enough, i was born there 1966. lived there grew there and worked there before i was in prision for pastoring a church and praying for healing of the moslems. Yes it is a secret society, they come to dance and drink in your homes but every next person works for the CIA. All of them want to kill you if you talk about Mohamed or Quran. God Bless You All.

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