One month after my arrival back in the UK, the country went to the polls for one of its most unpredictable general elections in living memory. My participation in it made me realise how much I value the ability to influence the way the country I live in is run, and also brought a lot of aspects of expat life in Qatar into sharp relief.
Edited, September 2016: As the Telegraph as now removed its expat blogs section, here is the post in full:
There are many differences between Qatar and UK life that I’d anticipated; things that were so obvious they weren’t even really notable, like the safer roads, the cooler but frequently disappointing weather, readily available booze, hayfever, tutting pensioners, tax.
Then, there are the more unexpected ones.
It was a beautiful sunny spring day in Surrey; trees laden with white and pink blossoms, grass lusciously green from recent rainfall, crowned with a polished blue sky. The sort of day you pine for when you’re an expat, but then quickly deny the existence of, guffawing about how it always rains, nay, drizzles everyday in England.
We were driving past a local park on our way back from a sojourn at the supermarket, gawping at the aisles full of ready-meals, bacon and locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, as Gulf-based expats (and recently repatriated ones) are wont to do. And there, reclining in the shade of a tree in the park, was a solitary woman reading a novel. And I realised that in our six years in Qatar, I realised I’d never once seen anyone lying down in a park reading a book.
This is probably because we’d usually frequented Aspire Park in Doha, where lying down is actually banned. Unaware of the rules (which aren’t actually written down anywhere, and which are given to frequent change) we’d attempted to rest in the park in the early years, only to be instructed by the ever-present security guards that it was in fact verboten. It’s also because single men aren’t actually allowed in Aspire Park, unless they’re dressed in sports gear and running or speed walking, so that’s half of the human race also excluded from the whole reading in the park thing.
The right to vote
Thinking about Aspire Park and its plethora of opaque regulations, I realise one of the things I most appreciate about being home. I am simply grateful to live in a country with transparent rules, and for having the right to speak out about, and vote for, the way in which the country in which I live operates.
I’m writing this just after the UK’s general election, and my Twitter feed is a mix of jubilation and downright anger. The UK has spoken, and naturally for some, it’s not the voice they wanted to hear. As a former expat, my feed is populated with lots of Qatar based Brits, and I’ve spotted several tweets along the lines of “we’ve got a few rooms free if anyone wants to escape Britain.”
For aggrieved British expat voters who, we must assume, primarily voted for a socialist party which believes in a strong welfare state, an enthusiasm for Qatar’s way of doing things seems to me to be an anachronism.
Qatar is far from a democracy, and the voice of the many is not heard. The country does hold elections for its Central Municipal Council, but its role is only advisory, and only Qatari citizens are entitled to vote. And barring royal intervention, no single expat in Qatar will ever be able to vote in these, because Qatari citizenship is only passed on via the male line. There is no qualifying residential period, no citizenship test to pass. My two children were born in Qatar, but they are not Qatari. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in the country or how much you’ve contributed; you will never be a citizen, and it will never be your home.
Indeed, Qatar’s immigration policy is a UKIP dream; every expat’s life there is tied to a particular job, and they must leave when it ends. The country also stops immigrants bringing their families into the country unless they earn more than 10,000 QR (£1782) a month, a simply unobtainable amount for most of its low income workforce. And those workers – toiling for six days a week in the burning sun, many in debt to people traffickers, not seeing their families for two years at a time – have no minimum wage and earn less in a month than most Brits would spend in one trip to the supermarket. Additionally, a vast swathe of them, the country’s domestic workers, are not covered by Qatar’s Labour Law and can theoretically be forced to work seven days a week. A Labour heartland Qatar is not.
But perhaps this reaction to the election is not so surprising. After all, life in Qatar for the average British expat is very comfortable on the whole. Equipped with a well-regarded passport and qualifications that are highly prized, most live in larger homes that they could afford in the UK,employ a cleaner or a nanny, dine out regularly and travel to exotic locations for holidays without a second thought. At its best, it’s an easy, luxurious life for those lucky enough to have the right job and the right passport.
But I realise now that during my time in Qatar I was constantly anxious about the ever-changing rules, which were like shifting sands underneath my feet. I was also aware that I had very few real rights. All expats in Qatar know that they could be on a plane in a matter of hours if their sponsor decrees it should be so. Many are also so worried about the power of shadowy, apparently omnipotent, forces policing the internet that they won’t openly criticise the country on social media at all.
Expats also know that many of the issues that affect their daily lives – like the curriculum taught to their children, their access to government healthcare, visa requirements for family visits, their alcohol license, their ability to leave the country when they choose – could be altered or rescinded at a moment’s notice, often with no official announcement being made.
Simple things like private school term dates are often altered by the government at the very last minute, for example. Last year, my son’s school was forced to move its half term break with just a month’s notice. And until recently, several private heads of British schools were telling me that they feared they’d be forced to scrap their Christmas holiday entirely to bring themselves into line with Qatar’s state school semester system. There have now been promises made that this will not be enforced, but as with everything in Qatar, this could still easily change.
Of course, Qatar has every right to run its country how it sees fit, and to decide who is allowed to live and work there, and for how long. I’ve just realised that I’m not very comfortable with the way it operates, and that the UK suits me more.
I’m in the honeymoon period of my return home, of course. Sooner or later my country’’s determinedly bureaucratic “computer says no” attitude to paperwork will get me down, I’m sure. However, I’m also pretty certain that my ability to put a pencil cross in a box in a booth in my local primary school, thereby influencing the election of a candidate to represent me at parliament – such an historic act, unchanged for generations – will never get old. Similarly, my rights to protest and to speak my mind without fear are dearer to me now than ever.
We may now have less cash, a vastly smaller place to live and an eye-popping fuel bill, but we’re home, and in control of our own destiny. I might go and grab a book, take it to the park and have a snooze there to celebrate.