The Cost of Things in Qatar
by Dane Wisher
My first meal in Qatar was at an Applebee’s. We just landed that evening and, after dropping my luggage on the tiles of my new foyer, I had just enough time to get a sense of the apartment layout and wash fourteen hours of jet cabin grime off my face. I reconvened with my new colleagues — we were there to teach English — in the lobby of my new highrise and we piled into cars belonging to some of the veteran teachers who’d formed the unofficial welcome committee. “We thought you’d like a taste of home,” they said. “Let’s go to Applebee’s.” I was too tired and too disoriented and too polite to object.
I tried my best to hide my disappointment with the fact I’d traveled eight thousand miles only to wind up at a glorified fast food chain. I had left the U.S. specifically to get away from home, tastes of and otherwise. I wanted something local. I had no real clue what that entailed, but, as I was soon to find out, places like Applebee’s are as much a part of the Gulf culinary landscape as makbous, hammour, and flatbread.
The first thing you notice in Qatar when you step off the plane is the thick heat. The country is a desert, but it’s also incredibly humid, owing to geography: a tiny peninsula — a skin tag, really — surrounded by the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Gulf, as they call it here.
The second thing you notice is the ubiquity of American fast food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa Johns, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Johnny Rockets, Hardees — God, so much Hardees. I’ve quite possibly seen more Hardees in Doha alone than I’ve seen everywhere else combined. But fast food doesn’t cater to or represent the lowest common denominator the way it seems to in the States. While we bemoan, quite rightly, the underhanded evil of the dollar menu, the poorest in Qatar, mostly the laborers and service people, can’t really afford to eat fast food all that often. When you make anywhere from QR500 to QR1000 a month ($135 to $270), a five-dollar Big Mac meal suddenly isn’t the most economical use of calories. Instead, if you are going to eat out, a one-dollar falafel wrap is a better bet. American fast food is more popular with the nationals. After lunch at the school where I teach, the garbage cans are packed with empty KFC boxes and Burger King wrappers. A night out at Chili’s or TGI Friday’s isn’t slumming it; instead, it is a kind of marker of modernity and luxury for the people.
What’s more, many restaurants deliver. Here, McDonald’s delivery isn’t a piece of 1990s ephemeral trivia; it is a very real fact of life in the Gulf. Make a phone call and in an hour your afternoon is booked: an appointment with your couch and your gastronomic shame.
Combine this fast food culture with the carb-heavy, traditional Gulf diet, and it’s no surprise here that so many new expats quickly succumb to the infamous Doha Dozen.
Luckily, most living spaces have gyms. Whether it’s a highrise in the glass-and-steel Diplomatic Area or in one of the many villa compounds, there’s going to be a gym nearby. It’s a necessity of living here as an expat. The city is spread out and so very little walking actually happens, and the recklessness of the drivers makes jogging anywhere but on the Corniche fairly inadvisable. Add to that the oppressive heat between April and November that keeps everyone indoors and air-conditioned and you start to realize that if you don’t make use of those gyms, your body is going to start to atrophy and sag.
That first night, belly full of Asian chicken salad and Diet Pepsi, I arrived back at my apartment, in no mood or condition for sleep despite my fatigue. I took stock of the living space, which was larger than anywhere I’d lived in my post-adolescence. My apartment in Houston, where I’d lived during grad school, was a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom — all of it dilapidated and poorly insulated, with doors that didn’t quite close and ceilings that sagged and floorboards that groaned. Basically, it was typical grad student fare, the sort of thing you could find for $500 a month in a major city.
My Doha flat — the fast food may be American in Doha, but the lingo is decidedly British — is not so much a step up as it is a high jump. For starters, it’s on the seventh floor (the eighth, if you count in American), which tops my previous record of a fourth-floor Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan, where I lived before striking out for Brooklyn, as one inevitably does. The flat has a foyer, a larger living room/dining room, a sizable kitchen with lots of cabinet space, two bedrooms (one of which became my writing office) off a hallway perpendicular to the foyer, four bathrooms (two with bidets), a maid’s quarters, and a balcony overlooking the front of the building and the pool belonging to the flats across the street. The amenities in my building include an impractically shaped pool with an island, a gym (one for each of the sexes), underground parking, and a cafe that serves up Indian, Arabic, and, for some reason, Italian fare. It’s all rather nice and I was pretty shocked and pleased that first night. After all, I was twenty-seven and had never yet felt the caress of a bidet, and once you do, well, that’s best left only for the anointed to discuss.
And my building isn’t even nice by Western expat standards in Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi. The equipment in our gym is sparse and the machines are poorly maintained, as are the general facilities and appliances in the whole of the highrise. The carpeting is disintegrating and no one really bothers to wash the windows outside. Many buildings have convenience stores and luxury gyms with functional saunas and steam rooms and hot tubs and cafes with more conservative fare, food that doesn’t send the reek of onions and curry up the ventilator shafts at random hours of the day. Some of this inconvenience is owed to the fact that I’m a seconded employee of the government here, and public sector jobs for expats often mean you get put up in the same buildings as your colleagues. Working for a private company comes with a bit more freedom. You receive, typically, a sizable monthly living stipend, something in the ballpark of $2,000, often more, and you find a place yourself. Most expats I know find roommates and get a cheaper room ($1,500 a month is cheap here) in a highrise or in a villa with a private pool or lagoon access and pocket the difference.
But my occasional annoyance with these facts of life in my building shows how pampered people can become here. In New York and Houston, I took it as a mark of pride that I never once had a cockroach problem. Two years later I find myself complaining that the washer/dryer doesn’t get fixed quickly enough or that one of my four toilets is on the fritz. It gives me pause and I have to remind myself that things aren’t so bad. Still, it’s common to find Westerners in the Gulf griping about problems they’d never have considered griping about before the move.
A lot of Westerners here can be downright nasty to the service and laborer class, a fact I find galling, considering the man bringing you your bill at the bar is often making less in a month than you may have just spent on a burger and a round of beers. This kind of classism is commonplace in Doha with expats and nationals alike.
Part of it, I suppose, at least from my perspective as an American, is that Western expat egos can become as puffed up as the rental rates. Many people come here because things weren’t going so hot back home. It’s no secret that it’s difficult to find work back in the States. People come here because they couldn’t find jobs or because they could make more money than they otherwise would to pay down their underwater mortgages and soul-crushing student loans.
Professionally and perhaps otherwise, a lot of us had nary a pot in which to piss, and Qatar took us in and allowed us to be the things we wanted to be: teachers, journalists, salesmen, advertisers, whatever. Al Jazeera is one example. For many young English-speaking journalists, this is their first job in the industry. Take an out-of-work politics major with a solid command of English, just add sand, and you’ve got a foreign correspondent. I doubt you will find so many people with so few credentials getting hired by a similarly esteemed news organization. Al Jazeera, like Qatar in general, offers many expats a place to gain hard-to-find professional experience.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that expats tend to forget their humble situations. Between the jobs offering people unprecedented amounts of money and responsibility, the expensive cocktail hours, the fancy brunches, the beachfront apartments, and the brigades of deferential staff everywhere, expats often prove true the adage that there is no snob like the newly rich.
And maybe some of the arrogance comes from the fear of what will happen to us when we go back home.
Some of the economic realities of expat life in Qatar is due to the standard practice of subsidized housing. For professionals, this means that large bill due on the first of every month is taken care of in some form or another, whether it’s a bump in your paycheck or the company or ministry paying the landlord directly. While this is certainly nice and few would complain about it, it also helps to create the inflated prices of many goods and services, since the wealthy foreigners have more money to throw around — not to mention the locals, who are guaranteed high salaries, thanks to the abundance of natural gas that gives the nation most of its famous supply of cash, a reality that affords things like across-the-board sixty-percent raises for citizens. Some of the overall high prices of goods are also due to the difficulty of shipping perishables and electronics and automobiles and clothing and books and libations, but the ability and, more importantly, the willingness of people to pay certainly plays a large part. The subsidization feeds into this willingness to pay into the inflated rent structure where a standard two-bedroom apartment in a Dafna or the West Bay Lagoon will run anywhere from QR11,000 to QR16,000 (roughly $3000 to $4400) and you don’t have the benefit of a New York or London-esque walkable neighborhood surrounding you.
On the other end of the spectrum — and there really isn’t much middle ground — is the laborer and service class, who make a startlingly low salary, considering the cost of goods here. Two common justifications exist. One is that they are still making more than they would back in Mumbai or Manilla or Katmandu. Maybe this is true; maybe it isn’t. In the end it’s beside the point. The other justification is that these workers receive free housing. Hotel workers, for instance, receive room and board, true, but often as little as QR500 (about $135) a month.
Many of the people here aren’t in for the long haul, and this makes for a reverse bell curve of haves and have-nots.
The pampering of expat professionals, the foreign knowledge economy of Qatar, is not entirely an accident.
Living here, it’s easy to forget that you’re very far from home sometimes. You forget that to friends and family and half-forgotten Facebook followers your life is pretty exotic. You live in the Middle East, after all. But for a lot of Westerners especially, life is designed to forget that fact.
I do not count myself among my peers in that regard because I teach and work with Qataris every day, or rather Sunday through Thursday, the Islamic work week here. I lecture to them and am in meetings with them and some of them are my superiors and that for me became normal fairly quickly, as familiarity tends to make happen. I’ve learned a lot and have had a unique experience in that regard. I’ve eaten goat with my hands off a communal tray on the floor of a majlis and sipped karak with bedouins and have met and hung out with locals from a lot of walks of life here. I count it as a personal victory that I’ve taught some how to throw an American football and how to spike that ball after you’ve scored a touchdown.
I often forget that because I’m an educator, I have a particular cultural position; most of my friends here rarely meet the locals. Part of this is because roughly ninety percent of the citizen workforce is in the public sector. Private sector jobs, from labor to management, tend to be expats. Foreign companies and institutions come in to drill, consult, educate, design, sell, trade, report, engage in diplomacy, and basically help to form the modern civic and capitalist infrastructure. Western expats can wake up, eat, go to work, go to the gym, do some shopping, grab dinner, have a drink, go home, watch television, Skype, and go to bed without ever really interacting with people who aren’t more or less like them.
The neighborhood where I live is dubbed the Diplomatic Area by Westerners but is technically called Al Dafna. Al Dafna translates to “reclaimed land” or “landfill.” If you do an image search on Google of Doha, Dafna is where all those skyscrapers are. Dafna and the nearby West Bay area are where most of the young Western professionals call home, removed from the older areas of the city and the walled villas where Qataris generally prefer to lay their heads at night.
Qatar is home to just under two million people, by recent estimates. Only about a quarter of a million of these residents are Qatari. They are a slim minority in their own country, a fact that leads to an odd cultural dynamic. While the isolation of Westerners stems much from the fact that the country tries to accommodate these foreign professionals where it can — housing, entertainment, alcohol, even the occasional pork — , a lot of it also has much to do with Qataris trying to hold onto what they see as their identity dissipating in a sea of Westerners, Levantines, North Africans, Persians, and Central and East Asians.
The dual instincts of modernization and traditionalism come into conflict, often resulting in cultural compromises for the sake of both the expat workforce and globalization, the latter of which is perhaps best symbolized by the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, an event that is a flashpoint for the general anxieties facing Qatar. How do they accommodate and attract hordes of foreigners without compromising everything? From a practical standpoint, they need buildings and stadiums and hospitals and a larger airport and more attractions. From a cultural standpoint, what to do about alcohol and legions of drunk soccer fanatics? On one hand, the locals have a point when they say that this is their country and the visitors should abide by their rules, even if it is the World Cup. On the other there are the material circumstances of becoming a global city. It is a two-way street.
Qataris are predominantly a Sunni Islamic people, and more specifically Wahhabi, though less conservative in many ways than their Wahhabi neighbors, Saudi Arabia. Still, there are Shiites and Christians and Hindus here and they are free to practice their religion, so long as there is no proselytizing or open public displays. Many of the laws of the country are directly influenced by Sharia, but there are still allowances made, for instance, for alcohol, which you buy for your home at the country’s only liquor store, the Qatar Distribution Center (which is also the only place you can buy pork products), or in bars inside or at least on the grounds of hotels.
This last point makes for a strange social scene in Doha. Instead of heading over to the local dive bar and listening to Johnny Cash on the jukebox or catching the game at the neighborhood sports bar, your local drinkery is more likely going to be a glitzy lounge or a club or a very mannered hotel restaurant/bar with overly obsequious staff. You make due and these places become your haunts. To friends you suggest going out to the W or the Intercon or the Four Seasons in the same manner you’d suggest going to Union Hall or Rio Rita or Linda’s Tavern, and while there are bars in Doha that try to replicate the experience of a Western pub, like the Belgian Bar or the Irish Harp or the Old Manor, you can never quite escape the sterility that is seemingly innate to hotel establishments — that and the fact that, for instance, the Irish Harp predominantly serves sugary vodka drinks and Fosters tends to undermine the authenticity of the experience. You also are going to spend typically $8 to $12 on a single pint of beer and up to $20 on a shot. Life, as I said, is expensive in Doha and the bar owners know that homesick expats are going to pay what they’re saving on rent on a double shot of Scotch. Accommodating foreigners and their habits from home isn’t just about globalization; it’s also a reliable business.
There are two big grocery chains in Qatar: Carrefour and Lulu. The former is a French company and the latter is based out of the U.A.E. They are both versions of a model that is foreign to Americans: the hypermarket. It’s like a supermarket, but also kind of like a Walmart. The brands they sell are typically unfamiliar, either Arab or European products somewhat resembling what you might find in the states. (There is even a well known Saudi food brand called Americana.) You can get produce and yoghurt and digestives (a delicious kind of English biscuit not unlike a graham cracker), toothpaste, condoms (yes, even in the Middle East), jumper cables, and two-week-old Us Weeklies with the camel-toes blacked out with permanent marker by a censor. You can pick up a new laptop or flatscreen, if you’re feeling like a splurging while on a run for Diet Coke and skim milk. They sell American brands sometimes too. They have Heinz ketchup and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but it never tastes the same. Some companies change the chemistry of their processed food for foreign tastes, and even if some don’t, there’s at least a placebo effect.
Sometimes it’s just necessary to drive the extra distance to Megamart, a small grocery store catering to homesick American and British expats. You can find Amy’s or Tombstone frozen pizza, but it’s going to cost you $12 for a pie. There are black beans and that’ll run you $5 for a small can. Maybe 0% Fage? $10. Here your choices are confined to whatever overstock they happen to be able to get their hands on, and when you see something you really like, you buy a lot of it because you never really know when it’s going to come back or if it ever will. And of course you frequently admit to yourself at Megamart what a privileged, entitled piece of shit you are. Why would you expect Qatar, a country on the other side of the globe, to have your favorite brands? But then again, you’re used to it, because this place, for a whole host of reasons, seems to go a long way to make it feel like you never really left home, yet at the same time constantly reminds you that you aren’t a part of this place, that you’re a Jerseyan who’s a long, long way from the boardwalk.
There’s a story I like to tell, and truth be told, a friend back home tells it more than I do. I think she likes the symbolism and the incongruity. The gym where I work out — or not so much work out as grimace and flail around — is, like so many things in Doha, in the shopping mall. Late one night, after a particularly painful 5K on the treadmill, with only soccer and a Turkish soap opera to watch on the flatscreens, I walked down the escalator to the Carrefour to grab a few groceries. In twenty minutes I had a basket full of lentils and tofu and bottled water and various other things I hate but eat in order to live past fifty. Of course, I also had to venture over to the frozen food section, specifically to where they keep the weird Saudi pizza and chicken nuggets and ice cream. I had a hankering for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. The problem is that when you see a familiar brand, they may only have one flavor of it. Sometimes I get lucky and they have Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or Oatmeal Cookie Dough. That day, as I wiped away the condensation on the glass, it was a flavor I’d never seen before. I reached in and grabbed a pint to inspect it. Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler. No offense to Mr. Nelson, but it looked suspect, and I’m almost always willing to suspend disgust and roll with the Ben and Jerry’s mad scientist shit. I shrugged and threw it in the basket.
Back home I showered and changed and settled onto the couch for an evening of Hulu and self-loathing. I took my first spoonful of the ice cream and it was awful. Still, I forced down half the container, distracted by Jon Stewart’s familiar, humorous vacillation between smiling good will and rage-filled incredulity, and left the rest in the freezer. It sat there for six months, only being nibbled at when I was rifling through the fridge and freezer, searching for anything that’d kill the hunger pangs at two a.m. It sat there, this image of home, this American product with its packaging and chemically enhanced taste designed to be reminiscent of an Americana that doesn’t even exist back home, much less here on a small peninsula attached to the Arabian Peninsula. It sat there in the freezer as some kind of fitting symbol for the American expat in the Gulf.
Because the other thing that being here reminds you is that as much as you miss home, the home you miss doesn’t exist. If it did, you’d still be there, probably. Though, much like with the image of the West they try to recreate here in the hotels, much like the image of yourself that you create as a professional and a heavyweight in your field, much like with the package of Ben and Jerry’s Willie Nelson Country Peach Cobbler, the most painful thing is you suspect that what you miss is either gone or will be gone when you get back or maybe never existed at all.