The Moral Conflict of Living and Working in Qatar

by Dane Wisher

I recently returned to the U.S. after teaching writing and rhetoric in Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate in the news lately as much for the 2022 FIFA World Cup as the country’s related human rights abuses and corruption accusations. When I talk to people about my time in Doha, the capital city, I can go on about it — the local customs (the ones Qataris are proud of and the ones they don’t advertise), the food, the eclectic mix of expatriates, the traffic, the desert, the heat and humidity, the job market, how to pronounce “Qatar” in the first place. And often I get some iteration of the same question: “If I had the chance, should I go work there?”

It’s a pertinent question. Despite all the bad press, Qatar does have a lot to offer jobseekers, especially when you consider the American job market. In Doha, the living’s comfortable, the pay’s good, and the air-conditioning is cold. Still, the answer to the question is complicated. After all, the bad press has a lot of truth behind it. While the FIFA allegations have yet to stick to Qatar, the labor exploitation is ubiquitous, out in the open, and well documented. It’s an ongoing problem, even without the World Cup, as labor in the GCC in general — from Saudi Arabia to the UAE — has an abysmal track record.

My answer then is tied to the fact that, for me, living and working in Qatar was an enlightening experience, but not necessarily for all the reasons I thought it would be as a twenty-something with more education than ideas about what to do with that education. In the three-plus years I called Doha home, I learned a lot about moral compromise.

It seems as if everyone knows someone who’s worked in Qatar. It’s a modern-day boomtown with a lot of money to burn and only a small native population — a population that is both disinclined to labor and generally lacking in the number of skilled, white-collar workers necessary for growing a diversified economy. As a result, there are a lot of opportunities for educated foreigners, and in particular Westerners, to contribute and gain from the growing economy of the country. Some people just stop in for business trips and some actually put down roots (or as much as one can in the sand). Some are smart, well intentioned, and hard-working, while some are carpetbagging empty suits with posh accents and a mouthful of empty jargon.

It’s hardly surprising that Qatar is full of people looking to make as many rivals as they can, from the English wealth managers and German drilling engineers to the Nepalese construction workers and Filipino maids. Thanks to proximity to liquid natural gas, Qatar has a seemingly inexhaustible amount of money and is willing to spend it. Everything else about why people go there is subordinate to that, no matter what personal PR some people there like to spit about The Exciting Work or The Knowledge Economy. There is interesting work all over the world. For better or worse, Qatar stands out because of the money. Even those working in education, the arts, and journalism, fields accustomed to low wages and job uncertainty, will find higher salaries and more project funding than they would elsewhere.

For most Americans, Doha is a major lifestyle upgrade. You have money for things you couldn’t regularly afford in New York or Wichita. You’ll need it though, because life in Qatar is commensurately expensive. The rent is high and goods are costly. Clothes, electronics, books (when you can find them) — all of it is marked up because of the hassle of getting things out there. Similarly, a good time is also going to come with a hefty price tag, especially if drinks are involved. Food is no exception, whether it’s groceries from Carrefour, or a night out at Nobu or Hakkasan. All of that said, with some common sense and some restraint, you can still save up money to set up in a new city, go to grad school, or do whatever it is you’re keen on doing when you leave.

I didn’t have that much of a plan when I went out there. In fact, if you’d told me in July 2011 that I’d be in Qatar by August 20, I’d probably have said, “Yeah, okay, go have another drink.” The thing I didn’t know yet was that after three years in a writing program, three years of workshops and readings and AWP conferences and the Mutual Admiration Society of Up-and-Coming Writers, it was healthy to get out of that soup for a little while.

Doha is generally considered boring by most of the expats you meet. While there are some bars and clubs in the hotels, it isn’t particularly known for its nightlife in the way Dubai is, and for more months of the year than not, daytime activities are mostly confined to indoor spaces like shopping malls because of the intense heat. There isn’t a huge arts scene, the local sports teams are pretty sad, and the movies are censored to meet the moral code. Still, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a good time and that it wasn’t a semi-welcome change of pace from life in grad school.

Because Doha is a boomtown, it attracts, aside from the financially desperate, a whole host of smart weirdos looking either to make a start in their industries or, like me, to figure out their next move — and they all flew to a tiny desert country in between Saudi Arabia and Iran to do it. In short, I met the gang of misfit personalities I thought I would meet in a writing program, where it turned out that a lot of people were quiet, overly serious, and possessed of delicate sensibilities — not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but I had some romantic notions of my own about the Lost Generation and the Algonquin Round Table and whatever other cliché you want to use about writers who behave badly. Instead, I found these eccentric lushes in Doha.

There are over two million people in Qatar, but you won’t meet or interact with most of them. The local Qataris tend to keep expats at arm’s length, though the Qataris only make up about one-eighth of the country. Most of the country’s residents are poorly paid Asian and African laborers and workers, but you probably won’t be hanging out with them either, at least not often, as either employers tightly control these workers’ lives or the workers’ leisure time is hampered by an absence of disposable income. The number of people actually accessible to you as an American is quite small for a big city. Because of this, there aren’t really subset communities in the sense of, for example, a writing community or a music scene.

Instead, Qatar forces you out of your professional and cultural comfort zones. On a given night, you may be throwing back Lebanese doudou shots with a UN-worthy assemblage from every direction on the globe. You hang out with foreign policy wonks and international lawyers and drilling engineers and foreign correspondents and documentarians and curators and DJs and diplomats. You might even make friends with liberal-minded Qataris who don’t mind sharing a meal or a shisha or, sometimes, even a drink.

Yet, the niceties of life in Doha come at a psychic price.

You may come from somewhere like Brooklyn or Portland or Madison and you say you won’t be one of those people stumbling from the W brunch, piling into a hired car headed for the St. Regis beach party. You might not blow money on bespoke blazers or pay extra for Western groceries. You might not book expensive weekends in Dubai. You might not rent a villa in a gated compound or a flat in a high rise with views of the colorful skyscrapers and highways metastasizing outward. You might really try to live modestly. But Doha changes your sense of normality. Even if you don’t go all-in on the expat lifestyle, some creeps in as sure as the sand does under the windows and doors.

The upside is that Doha is a great place to go when you’re just starting out or opportunity is lacking at home. Adjuncts go from academia’s sub-caste untouchables to Professors of Such and Such at Education City. Green journalists can become pivotal players on the news desk at Al Jazeera. Unemployed Masters of Art History can find lucrative curatorial work for the Museums Authority. People become local turntable legends and sought-after think tank scholars when no one back home would have given them even one ear. But the thing is, a lot of these organizations do some exceptional work and, depending where you land, you may have an opportunity to help build something worthwhile.

But while you’re at the very least padding your LinkedIn profile, there is no escaping the bald system of exploitation from which you inherently benefit. I told myself that, as a college instructor, I was a slight counterbalance in the lives of my uniformly privileged Qatari students. Because that’s what you do in Qatar — you drink the national karak and buy into the rhetoric of the national Vision 2030 and the 2022 World Cup preparations (for now), or you accept the negative aspects of life there and do your best to be effective at what you do, or you just kind of shrug, say, “Fuck it,” and cash your checks.

For me, the most rewarding part of my job was teaching the women — yes, there were segregated campuses — because more of them got it than the men did; the “it” being that they saw education as the means to something more than just a better pay grade at their protected government job, that they saw education as a form of empowerment. For a few of the women, they had hopes of getting out of the Gulf and studying in the U.K. or U.S., no small thing in a country where local women are generally prevented from traveling alone, even as adults. The ones who tried hard in the classroom and resisted the pressure to marry young often faced derision from their peers in the form of rolled eyes, snickering, insults whispered in Khaleeji so the teachers couldn’t understand, notes passed in class, shunning in the canteen, etc. — basically the behavior of children carried out by adults in their mid-twenties. In a school where some female students were quite literally prevented from attending lectures some days by their domineering husbands, seeing students who wanted to learn despite everything else was what kept me and other colleagues working hard.

But that’s not the only reason I stayed.

The place has a way of sucking you in with its material comforts and opportunities for travel. It has a way of making you forget the bad stuff or, worse, becoming inured to it. As a teacher, you get used to the rampant cheating and academic dishonesty. Expat employees generally get used to the dissonance between the rhetorical fanfare of the higher-ups and the actual administrative fickleness that plagues local management structures and cripples the abilities of employees to do their jobs. But more than than, as a human being you get used to passing emaciated workers on construction sites on the walk to the Kempinsky or the Four Seasons. You get used to seeing Qatari men browbeat — and sometimes actually beat — South Asian drivers on the side of the road. You grow accustomed to watching workers on break line up in the shade of a single palm tree as the dirt sizzles around them in August. You stop registering the busses with no air-conditioning carrying the laborers to and from their cramped quarters. You stop noting the way the men press their dusty faces out the open windows for air.

Qatar has an immigration law known as kafala. To live in the country, you need an employer’s sponsorship. This is normal enough until you realize that you can’t leave the country without your employer’s permission, whether it’s a weekend jaunt or a permanent move. As an American, you are rarely going to be denied permission, but it does sometimes happen. You might walk into a bar and see a friend you thought was going to be in Amman for the weekend angrily staring into a half-drunk pint of Heineken because his manager didn’t sign the approval form. Westerners just accept this remote risk.

The law has more dire consequences for the labor and service classes in Qatar. These workers often have their passports confiscated by employers and are denied exit until they fulfill their contractual obligations. These obligations are often not what the workers thought they were signing up for when they paid money to headhunters and took a one-way flight to Hamad International Airport.

And while Qataris collect the country’s most inflated incomes by official policy and Western expats follow a rung or two behind, this balances out on the bottom end of the economic scale. For all the rhetoric about turning Qatar into an exemplar of modernity for the 2022 games, it hasn’t materially benefited the laborers who actually make all of the country’s rapid infrastructure advances possible. Well over half the country are South Asian (Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans) with Filipinos and Egyptians making up other significant portions. Yet these groups are among the poorest and most abused.

Migrant laborers and service industry workers that draw from these populations make a couple hundred dollars a month and often take on debt just to get to the country for the privilege of working outside in up to 120-degree heat. Poorly trained and with woefully inadequate safety measures and oversight, these workers routinely suffer injuries and death on the job sites. Meanwhile, the staff in hotels, private homes, and businesses often deal with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. (The examples are too numerous to list here, but Human Rights Watch and others have documented them thoroughly.)

This is the hierarchy in which you participate by working in Qatar. To answer the question I raised at the start, you yourself need to think about whether or not you can accept living in the closest thing to a slave state you’re likely to find in 2015. You may come in like a lot of professionals and be optimistic about the good you can do. The country is making strides in the medical industry, education, the arts, media — all positive things. And the country is liberalizing, albeit at a constipated pace. But all of this is still propped up by a labor system the country knows isn’t on the up-and-up, given how journalists trying to document it have been jailed. After all, this is still a country where insulting those in power can land you a life sentence in prison.

Realistically, you have to decide if the money and opportunity are worth the abuses that your presence in Qatar helps to legitimize through your taking part in it. You are working in a place built on labor practices that would be outlawed in your home country. It really isn’t an easy choice, especially when you want the work and a great professional opportunity presents itself, but it’s one you do tacitly make when you go there. You may not realize it at first, but you have to be willfully obtuse not to see it once you’re there.

From a personal standpoint, I’m better for my time there. The change of scenery helped me become a better teacher and a better writer. I learned how to travel well. I became more intimately acquainted with the delicate sociopolitics of the Middle East. I met brilliant and unique people I would never otherwise have met. I saw the reddest sunsets I think I’ll ever see. I discovered that Persians and Pakistanis will never agree on who makes better rice. I realized that Sabra doesn’t taste like real hummus. I’ve got enough stories to tell for a lifetime. You can go. You can live well, advance your career, and make a little money. But just know that while you’re hacking away at student loans or saving up for a place back home, a lot of people aren’t so lucky and really the only reason for that is the name of the country printed on the front of their passports.

And maybe in a lot of ways it’s not much different from any other prosperous country once you follow the chain of goods and services back to their sources. We are all parties to myriad injustices every time we buy produce or clothes or cheap manicures. The thing about Qatar, though, is that it’s everywhere, it’s out in the open, and you can’t look away.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Dane Wisher lives in New York.

Photo: Kevin Gong

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