Friday, July 13, 2012

First Impressions of Qatar

I started work on the 1st July and two days later received this memento:

It is from a party I attended along with colleagues to congratulate a senior member on their new appointment. The occasion seemed more akin to a wedding reception - complete with guest book - and illustrates, I feel, the kind of welcome that local people like to offer. :-) I think hospitality has been a long-standing custom in this area, a tradition expounded in the recent exhibition called The Gift of the Sultans . (I'm particularly interested in gift exchange as I think its importance is growing in wider economic development.)

If my copious notes are anything to go by, there's been a lot to interest, perplex and marvel in my first few days.  At the party I did not escape having a microphone shoved into my hands, and all I could really say is that it's been somewhat overwhelming experience to take everything in, but it has been actually quite wonderful - that is, there are many things to wonder at. Before I arrived I had been reading a little bit about the geography and history and had a sense of very quiet and simple existences - of Bedouin tribes and pearl fishing villages.  So when I see all the development, the contrast is striking; it seems even more marked than the modern urbanisation of Bangkok in the '80s and '90s because here in Doha 10 years seems already a long time ago.  This is especially so in terms of staffing: having just come from Oxford, where departments could have half a dozen staff with 150 or more years service between them.   In Doha, I guess this would be unheard of, so you really feel the newness of this incarnation!   In such a short timescale without really knowing what the future will bring it's inevitable that some construction plans are made somewhat hastily, but the overall direction towards a 'knowledge economy' and the investments in arts, culture and education seem laudable and I think will bear fruit.

I've seen or met quite a few people, yet I've hardly made any excursions.  When I asked about getting out and about on foot or by bus, I got a doubtful look; it does seem that most people just drive or use drivers, though I did see a few Mowasalat and other buses go by, particularly US-style yellow school buses.  It's really the multitude of people who have been passing through the hotel and whom I've met at the workplace.  For instance, some reception staff are from countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and Belorus; many Filipinos act as drivers and also room service staff; there are also Indonesians, particularly from Bali.   I met one staff member from Nepal and he had relatives in the UK (and knew about Joanna Lumley's support for the Gurkhas!)  Other drivers are from North Africa - e.g. Sudan - and South Asia, e.g. India and Pakistan; you soon realize that there are several continents and many nationalities within 3 hours flying time.   This is also reflected in the hotel laundry list, which for men includes items such as dish dash, gutra, Gahfia cap, and serwal.

At the office my colleagues (some of whom are on LinkedIn ) are from states/countries such as Qatar, US, Canada, India, Syria, Egypt, and Eritrea.  Several of my non-Qatari colleagues that they were born or brought up in Qatar, which initially surprised me, but then on reflection that is to be expected because, I think, for several decades the expat community has outnumbered the Qatari citizens.  Now the population of Qatar has exceeded 1.7 million, about 80% of whom are expats, many from other Arab countries, plus South Asia and the Philippines, whilst Westerners make up only a small minority.   However, I've not encountered so many people who are like myself of mixed ethnicity, at least not many in comparison with the UK, whose diversity has come from long-term immigration especially through Europe and Commonwealth connections.  I think that reflects the Islamic code of conduct around marriage, which is stricter than in secular society, plus the fact that many immigrants come here for relatively short contracts and ethnic communities here may be quite self-contained, though I don't know.

I work fairly standard office hours - compared with my previous jobs I start  early and finish early leaving plenty of time for the rest of the day.  However, some hours of work are evidently much longer: I was concerned to hear one driver declare that he offered a 24 hour service - "you can ring me at 2am and a driver will be there within 15 minutes."   "When do you sleep?" I asked.  "During my holidays!" came the reply.  In effect, when not driving, he's on call all the time.  Yet he was recommended to me because he has a reputation for being reliable.  I hope he doesn't get so many night time calls.

The Qatar Museums Authority is a quite large organisation with headquarters in a tower block; I use the staircase to get some exercise (10 flights of stairs to the floor where I work); so far I just walk, but one of my colleagues has been running and can race up them in 2 minutes or even less!

Here is a promotional video made in-house with QMA staff, aimed particularly at University students.

QMA has some UK links, particularly with University College London.  Here is another video, describing the partnership with the Qatar Foundation, Department of Culture and QMA:

The fields of cultural heritage and archeology seem to me a good match!

I never thought that I would become an expat - but somehow it happened.  You get a few reminders of your new offshore status, such as visiting UK news sites which display adverts offering super-charged pensions and salary schemes, trying to entice with "Free Report for BBC Readers in Qatar" or "Create your own personalised high interest offshore savings and investment design today!"  I think I'll stick to something simple, though I shall need to open a bank account soon, now that my residency permit and ID card have come through.

So far my experiences have been very positive - the Qatar I've experienced is buzzing with optimism, a 'can do' attitude.  And lest I get too busy, I can recall the words of Desiderata.

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