If I was crying
In the van, with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land
– Sufjan Stevens, Chicago

Last week began with us receiving many queries – mainly from corporates outside of Qatar and embassies based in Qatar who wanted to know our take on the hack and the three GCC nations breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

So, second week into the crisis what is my take on the issue? I am no Middle East foreign policy expert but I know the GCC region and I didn’t expect the situation to escalate like this. It isn’t the first time the GCC countries have had their differences, and it certainly won’t be the last. But it is quite obvious to the world now, the concerted efforts by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to isolate Qatar have nothing to do with the Emir’s alleged remarks.

A couple of articles that appeared immediately in the aftermath –  Director of the Centre for International & Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, Mehran Kamrava’s article ‘ What does the UAE want’ and the Atlantic Council’s ‘How will the rift with Qatar play out?’ – pretty much summed up the situation for those who were wondering what happened. There have been various other balanced articles in the media since that follow pretty much in the same vein.

An expat in Qatar

As somebody who was born in Qatar and has been a journalist and editor here, I have never shied away from voicing my criticism of issues in Qatar – those who know me, know how frank I can be about them. But to watch, as my sister-in-law very succinctly put it, Qatar’s “more inclusive approach to foreign policy get stomped on so brutally by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi” is disheartening and frustrating, to say the least.

Image courtesy of: Bosco Menezes

My sister-in-law, also a journalist, has never even lived in Qatar, just visited. Imagine how the rest of us who have lived and experienced Qatar feel. Qatar is not the radical Islamist state the two GCC nations have made it out to be. It is, in fact, very liberal for a Wahhabi state – ask the non-Muslim expats who live here, nobody really has made major lifestyle adjustments by moving to Qatar, except, well maybe those who love the outdoors (– four months can never be enough!).

Qatar isn’t just home away from home for many of us expats. It is a place of paradoxes, absurdities and contradictions we live out every day that inextricably come to define who we are or who we become.

One may have left friends and family behind, but in Qatar you will come to make some of the best friends of your life. You may live in a bubble in an upscale neighbourhood, but you come to interact with the not-at-all-privileged blue-collar expats who clean your offices or work on the construction site you pass by, and it makes (some of) you more empathetic. It makes you want to teach your children to be better people.

You will experience petty jealousies at work that make you hate your job and want to leave, but you will also hear stories of brute and unscrupulous bosses and be grateful you have a voice. You will watch helplessly as your neighbour abuses their maid, but learn to cherish the person who takes care of your house, your child when you cannot be there.

You may be having a bad day and you’re stuck in traffic when the little kid in the car in front of you, you seem to have nothing in common with, decides to wave at you, and just turn your day around. A Qatari woman, you thought looked snobbish, helps you with your wheelchair at the hospital as the nurse isn’t around, and you feel a wee bit humbled.

You will visit the souq on a Friday afternoon and perhaps see on the Corniche a few lucky ‘bachelors’ enjoying the grass, laughing at the waves and you smile, sharing in their joy, if only for that moment. You will be more introspective during Ramadan even if you don’t fast, looking at all the waste around you and maybe resolve to be less consumerist.

You will grumble about your car’s air-conditioner not cooling enough and just then see a bus filled with labourers and windows all open, and you will stop at the next pedestrian crossing instead of driving on like all the cars before you, so people waiting in the sweltering heat to cross the road can.

You will smile at the old security guard who works at the auto dealership next to your bank and the next time he will greet you first. The smile and greeting is something you will share for the next eight years without either of you feeling the need to say or do more. But maybe it’s time one of you did.

Your car will break down in the middle of the road and while 50 of your compatriots drive by in the next hour giving you the once-over, a new Lexus with a young local driving will pull up beside your jalopy.

And one day surely, you will visit the desert, and if you are lucky, experience Qatari hospitality, and you will judge them ever so less harshly, dismissing for a spell the unpleasant experience you had at a government office. You will want to learn more about your Qatari colleague and find you have quite a bit in common with them. You will try to understand what it means to be a minority in your own country when nations across the world are blaming refugees for their ills.

You will hear horror stories of labourers being exploited in the run up to 2022, and you will want to see laws in place that change this. You will experience a rule or law so alien to your land’s that makes you fear for your safety, but you will find in the place you least expected a friend to help you through it.

Chatting with your Qatari and Saudi girlfriends about the cucumbers at Qatar University elicits as much laughter as when you did with your Iranian, Egyptian and Palestinian girlfriends. Cucumbers is now a ‘happy’ word for you all.

You will be beaten down but helped back up, beaten down again, and helped back up again and this yo-yoing can be your Doha state of mind, if you let it be. You will meet and make friends with people from at least 20 other nationalities and take with you at least 10 new experiences to pay forward.

Every time the radio plays Hayamlay, you will have a lump in your throat. You will find yourself defending Qatar when expats from other GCC states joke it wants to be the next Dubai.

You will participate in the national day parade and feel a sense of belonging as you look at the waves of expat faces standing at the Corniche with you, and will realise why today, when Qatar is being attacked by KSA, the UAE and Bahrain, you feel you are being attacked too.

Qatar is a baptism by fire that leaves an indelible mark on us expats. And I see it today on social media and in the news that we are no longer mere spectators. I see it in the posts of the many expatriates standing by Qatar. They know compromises need to be made and are meeting the challenge alongside their Qatari friends and acquaintances, bosses and colleagues.

I see it in the posts of friends and acquaintances who left, taking with them memories pleasant and displeasing of their time here. They agree that Qatar, with all its strengths and flaws, is still the voice of moderation in the region.

What is expected of Qatar

Bloomberg’s Noah Feldman, in his opinion piece says, “Qatar has played the role of a modest regional counterbalance against Saudi domination of the Persian Gulf. Crucially, it hosts Al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic satellite news network.” He goes on to say how Saudi Arabia may have been emboldened to take steps against a rival whom it considers a thorn in its side and a dangerous source of critical news.

I have often disagreed with Al Jazeera’s policy of excluding Qatar from their coverage – imagine how interesting the media landscape would be, and the kinds of stories/issues that would be covered if the channel’s resources also focused on Qatar, something local- and foreign-based media can only aspire to, not really deliver. But there is no denying Al Jazeera does a decent job especially with their broadcasting of the region despite limiting their coverage of issues in the GCC. Asking that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera (as has been demanded) and all that it entails for independent media around the world, sets a dangerous precedent, especially for journalists working in the region.

Then there was talk of regime change initially from Gulf diplomats featured in some Arabic media, who, since this sordid affair began, have been offensively vocal, blaming the accession of the HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as the cause of the region’s problems, without a thought that it has no business interfering in the policies of another sovereign GCC state. KSA and UAE have since tried to downplay this call speaking instead of policy change.

Growing up in Qatar, I often heard we were the only country in the GCC that had 500 sheikhs. KSA had one, Dubai had one, but Qatar had 500. The reference was to the ‘contenders to the throne’. In Qatar, you may rarely meet an Al Thani who believes his line of the family are also the legitimate heirs of the founding father. Most don’t mean any harm by it, they are merely stating their place on the ginormous Al Thani family tree.

I was born in Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali’s time, grew up in Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad’s time, and had just started working as a journalist when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa became the Emir. This is what I know and what every forward-thinking Qatari, I’m certain, will agree with. The Father Emir was the best thing to happen to Qatar as is his family line, continuing with HH Sheikh Tamim.

Sheikh Hamad didn’t just take Qatar forward, he can be credited with creating the sense of nationalism that is holding the nation – citizens and expats – together today. Before 1995 the sentiment was not really present. Speak to any of the expats who worked prior to that in Qatar’s armed, police or special forces. They would joke about fleeing if Qatar were attacked. (Back then, we also fatalistically accepted that to destroy Qatar you just needed to drop two bombs over the country and we’d all be dead, so desertion wasn’t really going to be an issue.)

Today there is a sense of purpose and honour. And it isn’t just about Qatar’s place on the world map – the Father Emir put it there – it is about how proud this small nation is of what it aims to achieve in the fields of sport, education, health and art. That missions binds us all, expats and citizens as we contribute together to see Qatar fulfil its vision.

Expats in Qatar are standing by Qatar today irrespective of how we have been treated in this country. Speak to Qataris today. They may have their own grievances with their country, as citizens of any country tend to have, but this crisis has brought them closer together than ever before, uniting them, reiterating a sense of what it is to be Qatari over what it is to be Khaleeji.

To Qatar’s credit too is that it has chosen to rise above the pettiness of its neighbours and has made the needs of its residents and citizenry a priority.

My Qatari friend made an impassioned plea in the media, asking all of us who care for Qatar and love this nation to stand by Qatar. It is also my plea to my Qatari comrades to think of us as your own. Include us in your campaigns, in your posts, in your rallies, in your speeches, not just during the national day celebrations, but in times like this too. Let us, indeed, show the world what we are capable of united.

“God, country, prince” – a billboard appearing in Doha.
“We all represent Tamim” – A billboard appearing on the streets of Doha.

We, expats, are Qatar too, and at this moment, as our leaders work to resolve the situation, let us not forget our disenfranchised brethren. Let us also resolve to no longer accommodate, in any of our dealings, unscrupulous elements – companies that abuse their employees with all sorts of labour violations but are getting away with it because we, the expat majority, who own, work with or for these companies, are complicit with our actions and our silence.

Qatar will emerge out of the crisis, a bit scathed maybe, as will the GCC states that stood against it. And when it does, I hope it remembers it has an ally in all of its populace – its citizens, and just as importantly, its expatriates.