This week, I appeared as a guest on Premier Christian Radio’s world news panel discussion show. We covered a wide range of topics, from the Venezuelan crisis, to Trump, North Korea and the GCC Crisis. You can listen to it again here:
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It is a truly disheartening experience to spend days researching and writing a news story which you know will be branded “fake,” simply because some people don’t like what is says.
Thanks to Donald Trump, however, that’s now a depressing reality for many journalists around the world, and particularly so for the Doha News team at the moment.
Doha News is Qatar’s only independent source of national journalism, and as such it has always stuck out amid a crowd of sycophantic newspapers and online outlets.
Reading a Qatari daily paper has always been like taking a dose of happy pills.
Effusive press releases printed verbatim and an endless parade of photos of high-ranking officials signing deals and staring meaningfully at plans, new buildings and new roads reassure you that all is in hand. Oh, and by the way – a revolutionary new model of vacuum cleaner is out now in all good department stores for a very reasonable price – so that’s nice.
Now, however, a maze of damaging propaganda is being sewn on all sides in the current GCC crisis.
The daily newspapers of Qatar’s neighbours are currently full of extraordinary stories, many of which are either tenuously extrapolated half-truths or utter, baldfaced lies.
It is not surprising then that Qatar’s papers are doing their bit to push the balance back in the other direction.
Every day since the crisis began, they have all carried stories which I believe fall into the propaganda category. The majority lack statistics or facts, and simply seek to paint a reassuring picture.
Like this story, which is a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the way advertising works. London is clearly not “showing solidarity” – a London ad agency simply took a booking, and payment, for some ads.
Then there was this denial that the blockade had affected the airport in any way (Qatar Airways has still not responded to my request for comparable data for the Eid holiday period last year) and this story about how the construction industry in Qatar has apparently also been entirely unaffected by the blockade. It contains no facts, but is not presented as opinion.
While some would argue that the newspapers’ motives are benign and simply a way of reassuring the public and maintaining public morale, I respectfully disagree.
I have noticed that many Doha News readers are starting to dismiss factual stories as fiction, simply because they don’t fit the rosy view they have read elsewhere. And this is dangerous.
A major new study published by the Columbia Journalism Review recently analysed a worrying trend in the USA, where right-wing Americans abandoned traditional news sources during the recent Presidential election in favour of right-wing publications which only reinforced their own viewpoint.
The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that this had skewed coverage of the election campaigns in all media in the USA, putting an emphasis on some issues – immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails – rather than on other manifesto promises.
Essentially, fake news stories produced by the right-wing press seeped into the public consciousness and potentially affected the result of the election. It also meant that well-researched, factual stories which could have changed minds were often dismissed as fake.
I suggest that the proliferation of propaganda in Qatar’s newspapers, and the papers’ enduring reluctance to cover any news which could be vaguely regarded as “negative,” is causing a similar shift in Qatar.
Exchange issues story
Here’s an example. Late last month, I wrote a story for Doha News about the fact that a number of foreign exchange firms were refusing to exchange Qatari Riyals outside of Qatar.
Doha News had been contacted by several readers who’d experienced trouble changing their riyals on their travels in places where it had previously been a straightforward thing to do.
Tweets from the @dohanews Twitter account asking if this was a widespread issue prompted confirmation of similar problems from many more readers in several different countries.
The team then called a number of banks and exchange firms in both the UK and the USA, who confirmed that they had indeed ceased to buy Riyals, as a direct result of the GCC Crisis. Finally, I spoke to a currency expert who gave us his analysis of the situation.
The resulting story, which took a week to write and research – Foreign exchanges in many countries are refusing Qatari riyals – laid out the facts Doha News had gathered, and prompted Reuters to make their own enquiries.
And yet, here are just some of the comments underneath the story on the Doha News Facebook page:
“Don’t believe Doha News, they are paid puppets of the UAE.”
“No wonder that Doha News got a ban in Qatar…..You are increasing panic in people.”
“This is not unusual. And does not indicate something is wrong.”
I found myself answering a string of accusatory comments on all our platforms from people who were absolutely determined that our story was incorrect.
That meant asserting that Doha News was not paid by any government; that it had no interest in generating panic, and was simply interested in publishing the truth; and that the situation was incredibly unusual, and did indicate something was awry.
It will not surprise you to read that Qatar’s local papers were not reporting the same story.
They were initially silent on the subject. Then, two days later, the Qatar state news agency (QNA) released a statement, shared in all local papers, stating that “reports circulating across different media about the trading and exchange rate of the Qatari riyal were baseless.”
I absolutely, categorically, knew that to be untrue. But readers of Qatar’s dailies did not.
It’s no surprise that many readers are struggling to see the wood for the trees.
A dangerous precedent
I lived in Qatar for six years and I still find it fascinating to write about. I have always said that that’s because it has so many untold stories; and sadly, that remains true.
No other national news outlets in Qatar will investigate stories about suffering or injustice, and until Doha News is unblocked in Qatar, it’s tricky for us to do so, too.
What worries me now is that Qatar’s residents will eventually become so desensitised to propaganda that they will accept it without question.
That means that policy changes that affect the lives of many residents may go unquestioned, and injustices may be able to continue without ever being noticed.
I think back to the many important stories Doha News has covered over the years – the Villaggio trial, the imprisonment of pregnant unmarried women, the non-payment of salaries at certain organisations – and realise that today, Doha News would probably be told that these stories were fake. And that worries me tremendously.
I believe strongly in the importance of a free media in the development of a nation. The ability to question our leaders and query policies makes, in my opinion, for a stronger community and state.
Realising that not everything in your country is perfect is the first step to fixing the things that aren’t.
And I, for one, don’t think that’s fake news.
My sister and I have never spoken.
That’s not because we had a huge falling out as toddlers, or because I find her objectionable.
Clare never learned to speak. Well, she did utter a few words as a baby, I’m told, but lost the ability to form them almost as soon as they’d arrived.
I was a toddler then, so I’m unable to recall the sound of her voice. I often wonder what she’d sound like, and what she’d say if she could. Would she have chastised my teenage dress sense or told me my first boyfriend was a loser? Probably (she’d have been right on both counts.)
Clare has Rett Syndrome. It’s a genetic, non-hereditary disorder which mostly affects girls. As well as not speaking, she can’t walk, feed herself, and has no use of her hands.
Although she’s 36, we believe that her awareness is toddler-like. She is a very happy soul, laughing and smiling a great deal. She adores music and loves tasty food. Sad music makes her cry. She also thinks that Dire Straits are the height of musical genius, but let’s forgive her that.
I’m writing this because October is not only Breast Cancer awareness month – it’s Rett Syndrome awareness month too.
My Mum founded Rett Syndrome UK when we were children. It’s a charity which supports the families of those with Rett Syndrome, and funds research into the disorder.
If you or anyone you know has a child who seems to be losing skills they’ve learned, who has unusual hand movements and is lagging behind in physical development, it’s worth taking a look here and asking your doctor about Rett Syndrome.
“My name is Catherine. I am in desperate need.”
The email arrived in my inbox just before bed on December the 9th, 2012. I’d had an ordinary, well-off Qatar expat sort of day; the drive to and from school twice, a morning of writing, a coffee with a friend in the afternoon, and a trip around the supermarket.
Catherine’s email cut through my privileged, cushioned, segregated life like a serrated knife through butter.
She told me that she had been following me for some time on Twitter, and had read an article I’d written for the Telegraph about the birth of my son in a Qatari hospital. It was this that had prompted her to pose me some very pressing questions.
“I just don’t know where to ask” she wrote. “I want to know if you have any idea about the laws here in Qatar regarding giving birth without a marriage certificate and single?“
It turned out that Catherine was 37 weeks pregnant, and single. Having sex outside of wedlock and giving birth unmarried are both illegal under Qatari law; the two crimes are usually referred to colloquially as “love cases.”
I knew a few single Western women who’d got pregnant unexpectedly in Qatar. They’d either flown home on the first available flight or got married post-haste.
Neither option was open to Catherine, however. Her boyfriend had left her, and she had given her passport to a private money lender as security for a high interest loan.
She had tried to persuade this lender to give it back to her so that she could fly home to the Philippines for a few months to give birth, but he had refused. She was late with repayments and he had lodged a court case against her for “bad cheques,” another criminal matter in Qatar.
“I have made some bad choices and took risks that were beyond what I could manage. I regret all that” she wrote. “I do not plan to run away from my obligations because If that was my plan I would have done it long way back. All I want is for my baby to be safe and not be taken away from me. I’m worried and I’m scared of that.”
I could see, even with the sparse details she had provided me with, that she was in dire straits.
I typed a response frantically, telling her that my (basic) knowledge of the Qatari legal system told me that she needed to get out of the country immediately, if she possibly could.
She and I both knew, however, that she was already beyond the safe limit for flying in pregnancy, and barring a miracle, all airlines would now refuse to carry her.
I also told her to pay her embassy a visit, and she promised she would do so the following day.
The next evening, I received an email update. She told me that her embassy had advised her that she could deliver her baby in Qatar, but that she would have difficulty obtaining a birth certificate for her child afterwards, as she was unmarried. They also told her that they could offer her accommodation if her employer sacked her after the birth.
She seemed optimistic after the meeting. “I hope and pray that all will be well” she said.
I was reassured by her email, and filed it at the back of my mind to follow up on after Christmas.
The festive season came and went. In January, I duly sent an email to Catherine asking how the birth had been, and how things were with her in general.
I received no response. At this stage, I wasn’t unduly worried. Her email about her visit to her embassy had been reassuring, and in my world – the world of the well off, professional European expat – these sort of things resolved themselves without too much drama.
It took some months before I had a sense of growing dread about Catherine’s case. By the summer, I realised she was never going to respond to my emails. I tried once more to get in touch, and receiving no response, I resolved to try to find out what had happened to her.
The problem was, I wasn’t even sure of her nationality. I’d originally assumed she was Singaporean, but the Singapore Embassy told me they’d never heard of her.
Next, I called the Philippines embassy. I was put through to several different people – and I gave a rambling explanation about Catherine to each – before I finally reached the vice-consul. I explained why I was calling, and in a calm voice – a voice which told me he said this stuff every day, to many people – he replied “ah yes, Catherine. Yes, she’s in prison here.”
The vice-consul confirmed that she had been arrested in hospital after the birth of her child, a son. He reassured me that mother and baby were together, and that he had visited her in jail several times. I asked if I could visit, but I was told that only family members or embassy officials were allowed to visit Qatar’s main jail.
After we’d established the facts, he invited me to the embassy to talk about the case, and it was as a result of this conversation that Doha News ran its first piece about ‘illegal birth’ in Qatar, an interview in August 2013 with another Filipina woman, who had given birth in secret, as she was also unmarried. We included a short quote from Catherine’s email in the story.
Catherine’s year-long jail sentence was due to end in December 2013, but the date passed, and I didn’t hear from her. I hoped that this meant that she had left Qatar and put everything behind her, her contact with me included.
In February 2014, however, I got another unexpected email.
This time, it was from a friend of Catherine’s, Maya. She told me that they’d been in jail together, and that Catherine had asked her to make contact with me so that she could ask me to visit her.
Despite having finished her sentence for ‘illegal birth’, Catherine was still incarcerated. The authorities had sent her and her son to the country’s deportation center for a while, before finally realising – after Catherine repeatedly urged them to check her files – that she had outstanding debt cases to answer in court.
I agreed to go to visit Catherine at the Capital Security building in central Doha, where prisoners awaiting trial are held.
Capital Security doesn’t look like a jail. It’s a large, modern complex with attractive architecture and mirrored windows, and it’s flanked by palm trees. There is no barbed wire – just a man in a booth who checks visitor IDs as they pass by.
Beyond here is a courtyard full of parked cars, and two flights of steps leading up to separate reception areas – one for men and one for women.
I was greeted by friendly female guards, who looked me up and down quizzically. Catherine’s friend was with me, and she took the lead. I was relieved about that, as I was nervous. I was visiting as a journalist rather than as a friend, and I didn’t know if the authorities would permit that if they knew.
My name and residence permit number were listed in the register, and I was asked to leave all of my belongings, including my notebook, with the guards. We were then asked to sit down briefly on the majlis style seating in the reception area before being ushered into a side room.
Here was a single row of plastic chairs, all facing segregated booths mounted on a counter, topped with inch-thick glass. There were grills beneath each window through which prisoners and visitors strained to communicate with each other.
Catherine came to sit down on the other side of the glass, cradling Adam. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had her hair tied back neatly. Adam was more than a year old now, and walking. He was wearing a Hugo Boss t-shirt, a gift from the jail’s governor, and he was smiling broadly.
As we talked – a difficult task as the room filled up and visitors all began shouting into the grills, each struggling to be heard in the hubbub – Adam waved and made smeary hand trails across the glass.
The story I wrote after this meeting – with quotes from memory, hastily scribbled down after I’d left the jail – detailed her story thus far. Known in the piece by the alias “Mary,” I explained that she now faced a series of “cheque cases”, court cases due to unpaid debts. Some were for her loans, and others were for rent she had been unable to pay while in jail.
Somewhat incredibly, the authorities had not told her how many charges she was facing, so she had no idea how long her future jail term might be.
A friend was helping her gain access to her legal file so she could defend herself in court, but aside from that, she was on her own. Several scheduled court dates had already been cancelled, a symptom of Qatar’s incredibly congested legal system. She told me she hoped that the court might order her release so that she could work to pay off the debts, and so that Adam could grow up outside of jail.
As our meeting came to an end, Catherine signaled to security staff, asking them to bring her son to the other side of the divide.
They handed Adam to me beyond the security arch, through which we smiled and waved at his Mummy.
I took him through to the reception area, where we both looked out through the double doors at the car park outside and the road beyond.
“Dar,” he said, pointing to the cars parked outside. “Buuus” he said, delighted at the sight of a real bus.
I asked if I could take him for a walk outside, but the staff said it wasn’t allowed. Instead, Adam held his hand to the window, staring at the traffic passing by in the distance, eventually being persuaded to return to his mother inside.
Catherine asked me if I’d visit her again, and I agreed.
A return visit
I went back two months later. On the previous visit I’d asked what she needed, and she told me she was short of clothes, and that she loved to read, but had read most of the English language novels in the prison library.
I arrived loaded with shopping. A friend had bought her a selection of brand new children’s books and some novels, and I’d also bought toiletries for them both, as well as clothes and toddler snacks. The guards told me I would need to ask permission from the “Captain” – the policeman in charge of the jail – so I duly walked outside and entered through the men’s entrance on the other side.
The Captain’s office was on the left as we walked in. He was on the phone, but ushered us into his office and gesticulated at two chairs, separated by a table, upon which sat a box of tissues and some sweets.
When he ended his phone conversation, he asked us, in a pleasant but slightly exasperated way, why we were there. I garbled something about gifts for Catherine and her baby, and he nodded. He asked to see what was in my bag. I watched him take each item out and examine it. He opened the brand new box of children’s books and checked each book, presumably for drugs or some other contraband.
He initially refused the toddler snacks until I explained that they were for Adam. Then, with the same lack of ceremony with which we’d been received, he dispatched us back to the women’s section with his approval.
The female guards took the bag, and then we walked once again into the room with the plastic chairs and the glass screens. Catherine appeared, bearing the bag, and a huge smile. I watched as she removed each item from the bag, examining the books, the toiletries and the clothes in turn.
I’d given Adam some of my son’s old clothes, and she held them up to him to check the size. After a long chat about her legal situation – still no clearer than before – we prepared to say goodbye. This time, though, she had something for me – a little knitted pouch, along with a home-made envelope and note. Catherine had been learning to knit in jail.
Back to main jail
In July, I heard from her friend that she’d been sent back to the main jail to serve a sentence for debt. Neither she nor I knew what her real legal situation was. We kept in contact as Catherine tried to get her court documents translated.
Then that October, I had an email out of the blue from Catherine’s cousin, Kristina. She’d read the story Doha News had run and wanted to ask if I was writing about the same woman. She said Catherine had been calling her Mum every fortnight from Qatar, but that apart from that, the family had no idea how things were, or how to help her.
“We’re in a desperate situation, both Catherine and our family. Your article somehow gave us a glimpse of hope that we will be able to finally make progress with her case” she wrote.
She added that the family were trying to raise funds for a family member to fly to Qatar to try to help.
I confirmed that I was indeed writing about Catherine, and I told her I’d recently visited her. We exchanged further emails over the following months, trying to make sense of Catherine’s court appearances and sentences.
Time dragged on; my husband got a new job in the UK, and we left Qatar for good in April 2015. Despite my new surroundings, though, I hadn’t forgotten Catherine and Adam.
A surprise tweet
Then in late October 2015 – more than a year since I’d last seen Catherine, I received another unexpected message, this time via Twitter.
“Hello, it’s me :)” it said.
Catherine and Adam were out of jail in Doha. She’d been woken early that morning, unexpectedly, and told to pack their things.
The pair had initially been placed in the country’s deportation centre, but Catherine had complained that the overcrowded, unhealthy atmosphere was bad for Adam’s asthma, and the authorities had agreed. She was released into the care of distant family members in Doha, and aged nearly three, Adam now had his first taste of life beyond prison walls.
Catherine hoped she would be home in the Philippines by Christmas. Her father had died while she was in jail, and she hoped to be reunited with her mother as soon as possible.
It was not to be. It turned out – after a great amount of digging and multiple fruitless visits made by Catherine to various government offices – that she still had several civil debt cases hanging over her.
This meant a travel ban. She and Adam could not leave Qatar until they were resolved, and as she was supposed to have been deported, she couldn’t work either. She had no income and no way of paying back the loans.
I wrote another story for Doha News explaining her new predicament, and it was after this that I received an email from a lawyer who was interested in helping out. Kristen Johnson, then of law firm Squire Patton Boggs, successfully persuaded her colleagues to work pro bono on the case.
Travel bans lifted
Catherine and the SPB team met regularly and in April this year, she messaged me with great excitement. The Ministry of Interior had removed her travel bans – effectively forgiving the civil cases – and she and Adam were free to leave.
Thousands of miles away in London, I cracked open a bottle of wine and toasted their freedom.
Her family wasted no time in booking her flights, and on April 25th 2016, Catherine and Adam flew out of Doha’s Hamad International Airport bound for the Philippines.
When they walked out of arrivals in Manila, a whole crowd of Catherine’s family were there to meet them – cousins, aunts, her niece – and her mother, who she hadn’t seen in over four years.
Her return home is bitter-sweet, however. Her mother has kidney failure, and requires weekly dialysis.
“She looks okay though, but still it scares me,” Catherine told me after her return. “But I’m glad I am finally here with her and I want Adam to have memories with her and my family.”
Despite all this, she remains upbeat. She has plans to apply for an Australian work visa, and hopes to take Adam with her.
A life lesson
What strikes me most about Catherine is her resilience and her lack of anger.
She told me that she initially felt anger towards Adam’s father for leaving them, but that she has forgiven him, and that she is now focusing on moving on. She says she has no anger towards the Qatari authorities, as she knew she was breaking the law, and she knew that there would be consequences.
Just after she was released, she told me that her ordeal had given her a new appreciation for life’s opportunities.
“Every single thing – every little thing that you can do today – do it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said.
I learned many valuable lessons during my years as an expat, but this particular lesson from Catherine is one that will stay with me forever.
The recent arrest and detention of a BBC film crew and local fixer in Qatar gave me a bit of a jolt. As a freelance journalist in Qatar, I’d ‘fixed’ – acted as a local producer, setting up interviews and suggesting locations – for several international news organisations. Had I still been living in Qatar, that could have been me spending an uncomfortable and frightening night in a Qatari jail.
After the news broke, I was asked on Twitter whether I was surprised by the news. Of course I wasn’t. Qatar has form on this in very recent memory. Earlier this month, for example, German journalist Florian Bauer found himself staring at bars after a thwarted filming visit to Doha’s industrial area, home to many of the country’s labourers.
The Qatari authorities explained that they’d arrested Bauer because he had no filming permit. Meanwhile, they also accused BBC journalist Mark Lobel of “trespassing on private property and running afoul of Qatari laws.” Lobel said that the Public Prosecutor had told him he’d been violating the terms of the tourist visa he’d entered the country on – i.e, that he had no official permit to be carrying out journalism in Qatar. This accusation came despite the fact that he had been invited into the country by the government to report on new accommodation for labourers, and, as he pointed out, there was no other visa he could get.
There’s been much confusion about this issue,so I thought it might be useful to lay out the rules for the granting of such permits in Qatar.
All foreign media organisations wishing to film in Qatar (but not those coming to make radio or print-only reports) must apply for a permit. They can travel to Qatar on a tourist visa, the number of which they must submit if they need to apply for one in advance. The application for a filming permit must be done at least 15 days in advance (so no spontaneous visits are possible) and the online application form asks for the correspondent’s main topic, details and serial numbers of all camera equipment, passport numbers and a list of filming locations.
In my experience, this list needs to be as specific and inclusive as possible, as once the crew arrive it’s too late to add anything to it. This means that it’s impossible to grow a story naturally, to decide, say, that you want to head to a public beach to interview someone you’ve just met, or to film in the souq to add some colour. In reality, of course, crews will generally chance filming in an unauthorised area and usually get away with it, but if police or security guards are nearby (and believe me, they’re always nearby in Qatar) then they’ll find themselves in trouble.
Why, then, did Bauer and Lobel and their crews not have permits? For his part, Bauer claims that he tried to get one for more than five weeks, having been successful in obtaining one in the past. However, he received no response to his application from the Qatar News Agency (who handle applications) despite also contacting the German Embassy and Qatar’s Human Rights Committee to chase it up, so, as he told the Telegraph, he concluded “that they didn’t want to give us one.”
Meanwhile, Lobel had been invited into Qatar by the Ministry of Labour to visit new accommodation for labourers. As part of a fully endorsed media tour, he’d had to submit his passport number, but was allowed to enter the country on his UK passport, which allows for visa on arrival. It turns out that government officials tailed him from his entry into the country, so they were entirely aware that they had a journalist in their midst. It seems, however, that they didn’t require him to have a filming permit, as long as he was filming what they wanted him to film.
“The problems that the BBC reporter and his crew experienced could have been avoided if they had chosen to join the other journalists on the press tour,” Saif Al-Thani, the head of Government Communications Office, said in a statement.
Inevitably for a journalist belonging to a media organisation which prides itself on its independence, Lobel decided to chase the story himself, rather than being directed by the country’s expensive PR machine. It was during this trip to the industrial area to speak to labourers in accommodation that hadn’t been hand-picked for viewing that the car he was travelling in was pulled over by eight unmarked white cars. Thirty-six hours of detention ensued.
Several of my Qatari followers have remarked that Lobel would have been fine if he’d simply applied for a permit. Others have commented that he’d obviously trespassed on private property, so his arrest was to be expected.
Taking Bauer’s experience into account, one has to ask whether it is likely that Lobel would have been granted a permit to film had he been entirely honest about where he wanted to film. We will never know. Similarly, it’s incredibly difficult to get an accurate picture of what actually constitutes trespass in Qatar. I can find no explanation of it in the country’s legal portal Al Meezan. If, for example, a tenant invites you in, are you still trespassing if the landowner doesn’t know you’re there? If you follow the logic and think that that is the case, does that mean that everyone in rented accommodation in Qatar is not allowed to have visitors unless they’ve sought permission first?
It’s worth noting though that Qatar’s tight restrictions on filming are not limited to foreign media organisations. Journalism students at Qatar Foundation are required to seek permission for filming on their own campus, for example, and large complexes like Katara also require local journalists to obtain permission to film, as do large malls like Villaggio.
Some would argue that Qatar’s obsession with filming permits is simply a part of its culture, that such a devout Muslim country obviously values its privacy . Others, however, would suggest that it’s the exact opposite – that it’s a serious emphasis on its public image that motivates this need to control the image the wider world sees.
It’s interesting to note that the Qatar News Agency’s Foreign Media team, who are responsible for processing film permit applications, state that one of their key goals is “to defend and encourage freedom of expression.”
It will be intriguing to see how this goal plays out in the months and years to come as Qatar comes under even more intense scrutiny in the run up to 2022.
Recently, I was commissioned by Telegraph Expat to write an article giving tips to single women who are considering moving to the Gulf to work. They asked me to speak to women about their experiences, and give them 500 words – I ended up writing more than three times that, as the subject was such a broad one.
Here’s the result – interestingly, despite living in different countries, the four women I spoke to shared similar experiences and had similar views – they all felt that their expat lives had been enriching (both financially and culturally) but also challenging, particularly when it came to dating.
It’s proved a popular story – it’s the most read in the section currently, and a precis of it was Doha News‘ most read story yesterday.
So far, commentators have suggested that advice about the availability of contraception would have been a good addition (if I’d had the space!) Anything else to add?
Here’s the full text of the piece:
Families are the foundation stone of Arab society, and so it follows that the Gulf region is extremely family-friendly. Make the expat move with a spouse and children in tow, and you’ll slot relatively easily into a life filled with play-dates and school runs, and make friends through both.
However, moving to the area without a spouse and children can be a daunting and sometimes isolating experience. And if you’re a woman, plunged into a society where men vastly outnumber women, and where marriage is the norm, it’s even more so.
Recently, two high profile cases have cast a shadow on this particular lifestyle choice.
The alleged murder of Lauren Patterson in Qatar and the alleged rape of Marte Dalelv in Dubai gave female expats pause for thought, demonstrating a – fortunately, rare – dark side to the sunshine lifestyle in the Gulf. Examples like these inevitably provoke questions, and so we spoke to four women who’ve lived and worked in some of the most popular destinations in the region – the UAE, Qatar and Oman – to find out what life is really like for a single woman living there.
Firstly – should those considering a move be worried about their safety? Liana Liston, an accountant based in Dubai, believes not. Like all of the women we spoke to, she feels that the region is essentially safe, with a few caveats.
“Everyone knows that if they misbehave they can be sent home,” she said. “But like anywhere, if you’re going to get drunk, just make sure you and your friends look after each other. Although rape is very rare statistically, the woman is also sometimes accused in rape cases in the UAE, so it may be higher than reported.”
Beth Howe, a British journalist who lived in Qatar for four years, argued that while the rate of assaults is quite low, harassment is fairly common.
“At some point you’ll probably be followed in your car or at the shopping mall,” she said. “I had my bottom pinched in the supermarket on my very first evening in Doha. My father had lived in the region before me and he told me that if anyone did something like that, I should make a big fuss – so I yelled! The man apologised, then ran off.”
If your chosen destination is Dubai, winter sun destination par excellence, you’re unlikely to be worried that your free time will be dull. However, the same can’t be said for sleepy Muscat, according to Serena Evans, who lived in Oman for three years.
“It’s a little like Groundhog Day – which one of the five bars shall we go to tonight?” she said. “Lots of socialising takes place at home. The only way to spice things up is to abandon your British stiff upper lip. I heard one person saying to a complete stranger ‘I need some friends, I just got here, fancy going for a drink?’ No shame in that whatsoever.”
Although smaller than Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar also have thriving social scenes, but, as Beth Howe pointed out, there’s life outside of the numerous clubs and bars.
“Now is the time to try something you’ve never done before” she said. “For example, Qatar has an active dive club, or you can take up yoga or have tennis lessons. All of these will make you friends and help you feel socialised.”
You might be single when you arrive in your new host country, but you might not wish to spend the rest of your life cooking romantic dinners for one. However, given the Islamic faith of the Gulf states, the whole issue of dating is, inevitably, a tricky one. Extramarital sexual relationships are illegal in the region, and kissing in public can also land you in trouble. So, how to negotiate this potential minefield?
“It’s definitely safe to date, but avoid public displays of affection,” advised financial risk manager and TV presenter Rachel Pether, who lives in Abu Dhabi. “It’s also illegal to live with someone of the opposite sex who is not your husband, but the police turn a blind eye to it generally.”
Aside from these concerns, finding a suitable single man also seems to be tricky for many. Despite a glut of dates (40 in just two years in Dubai) Liana Liston, author of blog datingdietingdubai.blogspot.ae, is still looking for love.
“Meeting single men for dating is easy, but finding the right one is hard,” she said. “I’d only recommend living in the Gulf if you would be happy not to meet anyone to marry here. It happens sometimes, but it hasn’t happened to me. That could be my fault, of course!”
Meanwhile, Serena Evans found that tracking down a suitable man in Muscat was “almost impossible”. “There were hardly any single western men in the city,” she said. “And I never dated a local. Omani men, on the whole, are happy to date western women but not to take them home to meet the family.”
Serena also came across many a married man pretending to be single, a point also raised by Beth Howe. “Many have left their wives and wedding vows in their home countries,” she noted, adding that for those who do find a single man to date, the very nature of expat life often leads to heartache.
“The transient nature of this part of the world often leads to relationships ending after a short time, and rather abruptly, and it can all be very painful,” she said.
In all countries in the region, modesty is the watchword when it comes to dress. Muslim women will feel right at home, but non-Muslims may struggle initially with the adjustment. As a general rule, aim to cover up shoulders and knees, and in some places, clothes covering up to wrists and ankles may be required.
Dubai is the most relaxed city in the region when it comes to clothing, although local campaigners are trying to change these attitudes. Other cities have stricter social rules.
“Abu Dhabi is much more conservative than Dubai,” said Rachel Pether. “I would never show my shoulders or my knees in the office. The beach and night clubs are a different matter, but carry a scarf or cardigan in your bag for a quick modesty check for your journey home.”
Oman is more conservative still, said Serena Evans: “Clothes I thought were appropriate on arrival, I didn’t wear six months in. The more covered I was, the more comfortable I felt. People are not used to seeing bare arms and legs – they stare for novelty, much more, I think, than to be sleazy, which westerners often don’t understand.”
Most of the women we spoke to said that although living alone was a perfectly safe and acceptable option, they felt happier finding a flatmate.
“Living by yourself obviously grants you independence, but parts of life in the Middle East are challenging, so it’s good to have someone to come home to, share a glass of wine, and discuss your day,” Rachel Pether explained.
Serena Evans was the only one of the four women we spoke to who chose to live alone.
“The area I lived in was very expat, and felt very safe” she said. “I had a maid and a part-time gardener. Both were concerned about my safety and looked out for me, but not once did I feel threatened.”
Given the region’s immigration laws, all single women moving to the area will do so for work. All of the women we spoke to enthused about the career opportunities they had, combined with the financial benefit of a tax free salary.
It’s not all plain sailing, however. Serena Evans urged potential expats to take a reality check when considering their new lives abroad.
“Expat life seems very glamorous, but everyone has the same problems that you have at home, just in the sunshine,” she said.
“There were times when it was a normal part of my day to leave work and sit in the car and cry. I’d say that the good points in Muscat far exceeded life in the UK, but the low points were much worse.”
Rachel Pether, however, feels that moving to Abu Dhabi gave her career a real chance to blossom. “One of my favourite parts of the UAE is the emphasis it places on career development,” she said.
“Entrepreneurship and self-development is actively encouraged. Here, more than ever, I feel that it is never too late to become the person I want to be.”
Overall, the top tips from the women we spoke to were:
- Get in touch with someone who already lives there to get an idea of what to expect
- Make sure your employment contract is watertight. Have a contingency plan in case things don’t work out
- Check you have good medical insurance. Local government health care standards are not the same as in the UK, and private care can be expensive
- Make sure you know where to go for emergency medical care as soon as you arrive, and find someone who can act as your local next of kin
- Invest in a few wardrobe staples that will cover your shoulders, elbows and knees
- Consider finding a flatmate to share bills and keep you company
As an aviation specialist journalist and the wife of an airline pilot, I’ve become a bit of a nerd when it comes to aeroplanes. Which is great – it gets me lots of #avgeek friends on Twitter, and my husband and I have thrilling conversations using lots of acronyms.
That is, until there’s an awful aviation tragedy, and I become embarrassed (and not a little infuriated) at the inaccurate reporting I see, hear and read. Not that you can always blame the journalists themselves. In an age where there’s a pressure to be first with a story rather than 100% right, and 24-hour news channels have rolling hours of time to fill, speculation and sensationalism win the day. Furthermore, not every news organisation has the money to maintain specialist journalists who have the time to learn about their area and grow their fact-checking contacts.
Before I moved to Doha, I was the BBC’s Transport Producer, working with the Transport Correspondent, who at that point was Tom Symonds. Aviation stories were something we dealt with regularly, and when something terrible happened, we were consulted on scripts, facts and quotes, making sure that what the BBC put out was both fair and factually correct.
Unfortunately, my move to Qatar meant I had to resign (very reluctantly) from that role, so after recent tragedies like the San Francisco Asiana crash, you’ll find me either bashing my head against a wall or bashing out multiple angry “public service announcement” tweets which I’m sure most people ignore. And I don’t blame them – who wants to read the rants of a broken record?
So, I thought I’d try another approach. I’ve decided to write a post laying out some basic aviation facts, which I’ll update as and when necessary, which journalists can use as a reference when they’re writing stories. I’d also like to invite any journalists reading this to drop me a line (my email address is on the right on this site) with any specific questions they have.
I firmly believe that getting our facts right is vitally important if we’re to gain and retain the trust of readers, listeners and viewers, and furthermore, that we as a media community have a responsibility to prevent the spread of panic and misinformation.
Here’s what I have so far. If you have other questions you’d like me to answer, please leave me a comment on this post.
Captain vs First Officer vs Co-Pilot. What’s the difference?
There are two pilots at the controls of any commercial jet – the Captain and the First Officer. The First Officer is often referred to as the co-pilot in the USA. Both are qualified pilots who have gone through the same professional training. All Captains will have been First Officers for many years before they were promoted. Both of them fly the plane, and both can also take-off and land it – they typically take turns. When one of them is physically handling the controls, the other one is monitoring and handling radio calls, and also keeping an eye on the other pilot’s flying. Flying is team work – one would not be able to function properly without the other. This means that when you say “the pilot” in a story, it’s misleading. Ask yourself – which pilot do I mean? If you mean the Captain (who is ultimately in charge, of course), then write the Captain. If you mean both, you can write “the pilots” or “the flight crew.”
Prime example of getting it wrong: Following the “Miracle on the Hudson,” there was barely any mention in the media of Jeff Skiles, the experienced First Officer sitting right next to Captain Chesley Sullenberger when they landed the plane in the river. It was simply as if the other guy just wasn’t there. Sullenberger has since commented that he couldn’t have managed that landing without Skiles by his side.
What is a “low hours” pilot, and should we be worried about them flying passenger jets?
The jury is out on this one, but I’d say a low hours pilot is one with a total time on all aircraft of less than 1000 hours – about three years’ flying, depending on the airline. Some airlines, particularly low-cost operators in Europe, hire pilots directly from flight school (note: this is very rare in the USA). This means that their first ever flight on a jet may well have passengers on it.
Having said that, even if their experience is low, all commercial pilots are well trained, and constantly being assessed and re-trained. They go through a rigorous process to gain a commercial pilot’s license (a CPL, later converted to an ATPL – an Air Transport Pilot’s Licence.) Once they’ve got the qualification, they then have to get a type rating (a licence to fly a particular plane) which involves yet more study, simulator time and exams. And every six months, pilots must undergo recurrent sim training, where they practice emergencies like engine fires and the other pilot dying, to check they are still proficient. They also have an in-flight test called a Line Check regularly too. Not to mention the fact that given there are always two pilots in a flight deck, a low hours First Officer always has a Captain by his side monitoring him. During a pilot’s initial training, they’ll also have a “safety” pilot, another First Officer, sitting behind them in the flight deck keeping an eye on things.
So, in short – you don’t need to worry – too much.
A go-around is when the flight crew assess that it’s unsafe to land – either because their approach is unstable, or if there’s something up at the airfield – another aircraft still on the runway, for example. These are very common, and usually nothing to worry about. Flight crews don’t ask air traffic control for permission to do these – they decide to do them, and then notify ATC afterwards. Sometimes, if time is short, the other pilot will not be notified of the go-around before it happens.
Just a word to the wise – eyewitnesses and passengers come up with some incredibly moving, compelling soundbites about accidents – but many also turn out to be very inaccurate. Although it’s fine to use these quotes as examples of how the passengers felt, relying on them for facts will only lead to error. Unless the passenger or eyewitness in question is a commercial airline pilot (and no, not even a private pilot – a single engine plane is a very different beast) I’d have healthy scepticism about someone who told me confidently that “we were too low”, “the plane almost spun out of control” “the wings were going to fall off”, etc. You get the picture.
Finding pictures to use
Talking of pictures… Pilots go mental when a story is written about, say, a Boeing 747, and the TV news digs out a picture of an A380 belonging to the same airline and uses that instead. This may seem a minor point to you, but I believe it makes us look shoddy. Instead, you can actually often find pictures online of the exact plane involved in an incident. If you know the registration number of the aircraft, try searching on Airliners.net or Jetphotos.net for the plane in question (note: always get permission to use the picture first). Not only will you be accurate, but the picture will actually have meaning attached to it. Your editor will be impressed.
A former cargo pilot contacted me to point out his particular bugbear: “People often ask “do you fly commercially, or cargo?” he writes. “Cargo operations ARE commercial operations. What they’re really trying to ask is “do you fly passenger, or cargo?””
Some specific pointers on the San Francisco Asiana crash:
Was the pilot at the controls of the Asiana flight inexperienced on the 777?
The pilot who was flying the approach, Lee Kang-kuk, was a Captain who had just transferred from the Boeing 737 to the Boeing 777. He had 35 hours on his new type, which the airline said amounted to ten flights. This is not a lot of experience on the specific type (he would be under supervision for another 10 flights before being released to fly a 777 unsupervised). However, he had around 10,000 total flying hours on other jets (amounting to at least 12 years of flying) and he’d flown into San Francisco lots of times in other planes.
As he was new on the 777, he had a Training Captain (also known in the US as a Check Airman) called Lee Jung-min flying next to him, who was experienced on the aircraft and would have been paying very close attention to what he was doing. However, he’s told investigators that this was the first time he’d acted as a Training Captain, so he didn’t have any experience in this role.
Sitting behind them was another First Officer, who was part of the relief crew (his Captain was sitting in the passenger cabin.) This FO had around 1000 hours on the 777, although we don’t know his total hours.
Why were there four pilots on board the Asiana flight?
On ultra-long haul flights, there are two crews on board, so that one can rest while the other flies. This is because there are limitations on the amount of time a pilot can spend at the controls, due to obvious concerns about the effects of fatigue. Depending on the aircraft, the resting crew will either use a special rest area on board equipped with bunks, or occupy seats in the cabin during their break. It’s interesting to note that the two extra pilots were also in the flight deck during the approach into San Francisco, meaning that four pilots were watching the same approach. Why didn’t the two other pilots do something? We will find out eventually, but it’s baffling right now.
On some long haul (but not ultra long haul) flights, there are three pilots, with one resting at any time. When the Captain is resting, an experienced First Officer will take on the role of Captain. These pilots are usually called Cruise Captains or in-flight relief pilots, and they undergo special training before they are promoted.
Is a broken glide slope (ILS) a big problem?
In good weather, not really. Pilots are given printouts of NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) before they depart, which tell them important things about their route and the airfield they’re flying into. These would have told the Asiana crew that the ILS was broken, meaning they’d have to do a visual (manual) approach, which is far from a rare occurrence. A lot of US airfields regularly clear airliners for a visual approach. All pilots train for these in the simulator and practice them for real regularly, otherwise they wouldn’t be legal to fly.
Is it important that the pilot flying the approach had never flown a 777 into San Francisco before?
No. Pilots fly into unfamiliar airports all the time. Essentially, from a pilot’s point of view, the procedure is pretty much the same in all major airports, except in some tricky mountainous regions, where special training is required. In clear weather at SFO, there was no reason to worry that he’d never landed a 777 there before. It is more of a concern (although not usually a worry) that he was relatively new on the aircraft type.
There are loads more things I could cover, and I intend to, as time allows. Post a comment if there’s anything in particular you’d like answered.
And if you’d like me to contribute to your programme, newspaper or website about something aviation related, do get in touch… I’m always ready to be the voice of reason.
A team from BBC Radio 4 – reporter Kevin Connelly and producer John Shields – have just visited Doha. I was their Doha fixer – I set up all of their interviews for them. Here’s one of their reports, about how Qatar will deal with the heat of the summer during the 2022 World Cup.
I make a small guest appearance this week in Chris Marshall’s expat column in The Telegraph. He writes that the secret to expat success is to do something you love (for money or not, either seems to work fine.) I couldn’t agree more.