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The drive-by Qatar article 29, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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I can almost hear the editor haranguing the journalist:

Yes, Qatar is interesting, but it’s all been done before…we need a new angle…find me something new.

And so the journalist comes to Qatar. Another in a long series of drive-by articles. Even the late, great Anthony Shahid wrote a stinker of an article back in 2011 for the NYT (an ephemeral skyline, Al Jazeera, World Cup, Moza, etc., etc.) on a 36-hour trip to Doha. Perhaps it’s Qatar’s fault that it somehow elicits such articles?

So the premise of this new BBC article is that Qataris are unhappy because they’re the richest people on earth. Quite the counterfactual, alternative way of thinking: bonus points from the editor.

It starts as ever with the contractual skyline note: seemingly it’s rising like an ‘artificial forest’ at the moment. Then – kudos! – a Qatari is interviewed. She notes that Qatar’s economic life has changed. Certainly it has. And that families have become separated. Well, absolutely speaking, I suppose this is the case: more Qataris have their own houses now so don’t all live together, so they are more separated. What else could be complained about with this logic? That kids going to school means less ‘quality time’ at home with the family eking out an existence? That modern medicine deprives families of spending weeks mopping each others’ brows when they are sick thanks to its ‘advances’ quickening recovery times?

The article continues.

You can feel the pressure in Doha. The city is a building site, with whole districts either under construction or being demolished for redevelopment. Constantly snarled traffic adds hours to the working week, fuelling stress and impatience.

No you can’t. Qatar is like any other growing city in the world: there is traffic and there is construction. And is working in Doha any more stressful than in London or New York? I suspect not; working hours are, on the whole, not comparable to such places.

The article then stumbles on a genuine and concerning change: divorce rates rising and the obesity problems. But this gets 23 words only noting that there is a problem. That’s it.

We then learn that Qataris get lots of stuff for being Qatari and Qatari students – unlike all students all over the world?? – feel pressure when leaving education looking for work. Indeed, what a nightmare it must be for graduating Qataris to “be faced with 20 job offers.” Really, with this sentence, the article jumps the shark in a naked attempt to magic up controversy where plainly none exists.

More moaning ensues about the Qatari-ex-pat divide. Sure, this is worth discussing, but I suspect that not much more than a couple of conversations went into the article so when we get deep, meaningful quotes like:

The sense is deepening that, in the rush for development, something important has been lost.

I become suspicious that in the yearning for profundity all we’re getting is more trite clichés.

The problem of Qataris being raised by maids is a genuinely interesting topic and one that needs extensive study.

As for a  sexagenarian Qatari woman complaining that life used to be “beautifully simply”, I don’t know where to start. Suffice to say that I imagine that today’s air-conditioning, education for her children, exponentially wider opportunities for all, trips to London for holidays, and trips to Frankfurt for medical treatment might begin to help her reconcile her awful modern existence.

The article then jumps the Orientalist shark (again). We’re off into the desert to drink camel milk “fresh from the udder”. The noble Qatari “chewing thoughtfully” reminiscing about back in the day when things were “much better”. Naturally.

There is something to be said about Qatar’s sense of siege, but perhaps with less sense of drama. But it is deeply wrong to suggest that Qataris want to keep the kefala system in place in order to avoid undermining their “cultural values” or some such guff. Qataris want to keep it because it offers them control over foreigners so they can be evicted and because it is cheap. There are no noble reasons behind it.

After half a sentence on regional politics we are told that cleanliness is an obsession in Doha: I must have missed that. And the article is finished off with the most stupid quote yet, noting that Qataris have “lost almost everything that matters.”

Suffice it to say that Edward Said is gyrating in his grave.



1. Eleanor - 29, April 2014

Good one David. But did the article mention the all-time classic, ‘once a dusty backwater’?…

thegulfblog.com - 29, April 2014

Aaah, Eleanor, don’t make me read it again…No, it doesn’t but the ‘artificial forest’ simile is a gud’un.

2. Frances Gillespie - 29, April 2014

As a British national resident in Qatar for 30 years, I think the BBC article is the biggest load of codswallop I have ever read about this country. Let a little Qatari boy who saw an exhibition of photos of the old bedouin way of life have the last word, ‘Thank God the oil came.’

3. Matthew Teller - 29, April 2014

Very entertaining response – thanks, David. A few points.

– no editorial haranguing involved! All my own work.

– there is no ‘premise’ to the piece (which, important to note, is a transcript of a radio item – it was written under a tight word-count to be listened to in a 5-minute slot, rather than read as a news article). I agree with Beth Dickinson’s tweet this morning: Doha does often feel like an optimistic city, but Qataris and non-Qataris alike were telling me about stress, anxiety, loss of “something important” in society… I compiled a few ideas, from what I was hearing.

– as always, I didn’t write the headline, and I didn’t choose the pictures. I’m taking responsibility for the text from “It’s still cool enough” onwards.

– Dr Kaltham Al Ghanim is a woman. Interesting that you feel her words are a complaint. I would say it’s very common worldwide to be grateful for social advances (‘modern medicine’ is your interpolation) while also observing elements of social breakdown, but that seems to have annoyed you.

– Traffic doesn’t fuel stress? Well, OK. Personally, I felt the pressure in Doha, which is why I wrote that.

– Again, with the student line, you take issue with what someone in Qatar told me. I honestly didn’t ‘magic up’ anything. I sat there and this stuff just flowed into my ears.

– I’m sorry you feel that I’m moaning, I’m trite and I’m yearning for profundity. No really, I am.

– Yet again you tear into me, when it’s a Qatari speaking. Old folk always reminisce about the good old days, don’t they? I rather liked that Umm Khalaf both regretted the loss of simplicity and was also able to identify lack of self-resourcefulness as a marker of difference. You didn’t, clearly.

– I was extremely surprised to be offered camel milk in the desert by a bedouin family. Extremely. It’s just about the last thing I was expecting in Qatar. But it happened. Your impressions of nobility are entirely your own; there’s nothing in my words hinting at that. And, as above, I would have thought an old man reminiscing about the past and expressing discomfort at the pace of change was pretty universal.

– Your point about the desire to retain kafala is well made. Thank you.

– After quoting four Qataris by name and others anonymously (by their choice), men and women, old and young, in city and countryside, I’m intrigued to be charged with Orientalism. The saving grace is that you put me in the same camp as Anthony Shadid. Now there’s a silver lining, if ever there was one.

thegulfblog.com - 29, April 2014

Hi Matthew. Thanks for your response. You make some fair points and I’m more than happy to apologise for my overly grumpy tone. But I still don’t think the article’s useful.

– Dr Al Ghanim’s comments as a complaint? Well…yes. Given the quote you use and the tenor of the article; of course.
– Traffic fuels stress everywhere: a truism, surely, that could be said about practically all developed, busy cities?
– The notion of ‘in the rush for development, something important has been lost’ simply strikes me as a cliché.
– Never meant to insinuate you were making up stuff.
– Yes, the Qataris speak but you write an article based on their quotes. I understand that this is your raison d’etre as a journalist, but they’re just such a bunch of hackneyed laments that scarcely stand up to a moment’s consideration. As you note, ‘old folks’ are want to romanticize about the past, but why their clichéd moans deserve airing on the BBC is beyond me. To know that sexagenarians in Bognor Regis and Doha yearn for a sepia colored past that scarcely existed is, to me at least, neither surprising nor interesting but up there with ‘man bites dog’.
– It’s been some time since my Said-reading days, but yes, the camel milk and the yearning for a ‘simple’ past trope unerringly reminds me of the Orientalist clichés. As you note, it’s not ‘you’ authoring such Orientalist ideas, but the Qataris that you spoke to, but they are, if in a pastiche way, Orientalist ideas nonetheless.
– That last quote is a shocker.

4. Matthew Teller - 29, April 2014

Apology accepted.

5. Wealth vs. happiness: True cost of change in Qatar up for debate | Qatar Daily Star - 29, April 2014

[…] a post on his blog this morning, David Roberts, a techer during King’s College London and author of a soon-to-be […]

6. Evelyn - 1, May 2014

Reporters that come in for a day or a week cannot make a correct judgment. I have lived in Qatar over 20 years and still learn things about the culture. You have to get it from those that have lived their long enough to understand all thats at play in a country. No one visiting will be able to interpret the changes. Guess I agree with Fran.

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