A cautionary tale: Laid-off expats stuck in Qatar scramble to pay off debts

Kenneth Paton (left) and Tim Reeber

Kenneth Paton (left) and Tim Reeber

Earlier this week, I wrote an article for Doha News about the plight of two American paramedics who had been made redundant by Qatar’s Hamad Medical Corporation, but couldn’t leave the country as they had debts to pay. Even worse, they weren’t sure they’d be allowed to get another job to help pay them off. The possibility of jail – a normal punishment for unpaid debts in Qatar – beckoned.

If you’re an expat and you’re contemplating taking out a large loan in Qatar, read on… 

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A letter to all expectant mums: Five things I wish I’d been told before giving birth

 

Photo: Teilhard Scott

Photo: Teilhard Scott

As the birth of my first child approached, I knew I had it.

I had it nailed, motherhood. I had read every pregnancy and childbirth book I could find. I’m a journalist – I read constantly and research things for a living, and this was no different.

I’d researched my birth plan (gas and air first please, epidural a last resort, try to avoid an episiotomy); the right equipment (the bouncer, the play mat, the Baby Bjorn and the buggy I didn’t yet know how to fold); and the strategies (at all costs, avoid rocking your baby to sleep – shush, pat, shush, pat in the cot ad infinitum instead.)  I was clearly onto a winner.

And yet, twenty four hours after my son had been delivered by caesarian  – that section in the back of What To Expect on breech deliveries had come in handy – I felt like I was on the losing team.

Despite my detailed examination of breastfeeding diagrams, I had completely failed to get my son to latch. He lay in a cot next to me crying, and the nurses said he’d probably need to be given a bottle.

All of the depictions of childbirth I’d read about and watched were a million miles away from an operation I’d found frightening, and post-operative pain worse than any I’d previously experienced. I’d almost fainted trying to sit up, and my husband and a nurse had pretty much had to carry me to the toilet. After which, they’d fanned my face as waves of nausea gripped me and refused to let go.

When friends visited in hospital I pasted on a smile and I look reasonable in the photos of the event, but I know the truth. I was drowning in what I perceived to be my failure. I was not ecstatic and full of the joys of my new-found motherhood; I was petrified, out of my depth, and finally facing up to an unavoidable truth – my life had just changed absolutely, and there was no way back.

I remember feeling very angry with the mothers I was close to. Why had no-one told me this was how I would feel? The books I’d read focused largely on the pregnancy and the birth, but stopped abruptly after the delivery. I realised I knew loads about growing a baby, but pretty much nothing about how to keep one alive. Or, when it came to it, how my life was going to change, and how best to deal with it.

Recently, a close friend in her 40s told me she was expecting her first baby. I was delighted for her, of course; almost six years on from the mind-fog surrounding my son’s birth, I know that motherhood is a glorious gift, one I’m incredibly lucky to be experiencing.

But I also decided to tell her the truth. As she sat opposite me in a restaurant, eyes sparkling with delight, I made a choice to be honest. And she’s still talking to me, luckily.

So, here it is. Here’s what I wish someone else had said to me before I became a mother. If they had, I’d have realised that I wasn’t alone, and that’s a powerful thing.

It’s ok to be a bit crap

Some mothers just look amazing. There’s a woman who drops her child off at my son’s school every day, whilst carrying another one in a baby carrier, and pushing two more in a buggy. Four kids, and she still wears nice clothes and manages to look like she hasn’t got dressed in the 60 seconds between nappy changes and cleaning breakfast from the floor.

Meanwhile, I know my clothes are often covered in child-detritus, our buggy is covered in mud, and my brain is so addled that I regularly forget things and have to return home to get my son’s gym kit, despite the fact that he needs it on the same day every week.

Letters from school asking for costumes for assemblies and plays make me come out in a rash (I feel sufficiently guilty to still attempt to make things rather than buy them, but I’m not sure how long my son will continue to tolerate this – my last attempt at a beard was an airline eye blind with cotton wool buds stuck on it.)  And then there are birthday cakes. I try to make these too, and I have cried Every.Single.Time. Mostly with laughter.

The thing is, most mums feel like this most of the time. That mum with four kids probably feels the same, and Lord knows, she definitely has an excuse. Be gentle with yourself. Love your kids with all your heart and they’ll forgive you most things (hopefully.)

Breastfeeding is very hard for some people

Both my mother and mother-in-law were breastfeeding advocates, so I felt an enormous pressure to feed my baby myself. And of course I’d read the books and knew the significant benefits. But Lord, I found it so hard.

I know women who’ve sailed through the whole thing.  I guess they have nipples that point out perfectly to help the baby latch, a baby without a tongue-tie and a lot of support in the beginning stages.

It turned out that my journey was a hell of a lot more complicated, though. It was only with the help of a dedicated midwife, silicone nipple shields and a breast pump that I managed to keep it up for nine months. I also turned to mix-feeding – supplementing with formula twice a day – and it worked for us. Sometimes it’s reassuring to see the milk disappear from a bottle – either formula or pumped – and absolutely know that your baby is getting the nutrition it needs. They don’t say that in the books, but there you have it.

Your career will probably to take a knock

I remember thinking that having a baby would be a great break from my career. I know! How bonkers is that. I had a very demanding job working shifts, and I was tired and stressed. I believed that having a baby might give me a new calling, and a reason to step off the treadmill. Little did I know that I’d actually miss it. I discovered that my job had defined me far more than I thought; I’d worked hard for years to get where I’d got to, and it really meant something.

By contrast, I realised my new job was motherhood, and that I really wasn’t very good at it.  It’s a 24 hour job, seven days a week, which you can never resign or take a sick day from. It’s poorly paid and it’s pretty thankless until your little one begins to interact with you, so that’s quite a few months of mopping up sick, poo and wee without so much as a giggle.

The realisation of all of this made me want to return to my old job quickly, but I also realised that motherhood had made that tricky. If you earn less than your partner (and of course individual situations differ), it’s natural that you will probably be the one who has to find a job that works around childcare.

One of you has to, at any rate, and in my case, it was me. You’ll need to find a job that allows you flexibility for kids’ sick days and school holidays, and that works around childcare options. Often, those jobs are not as well paid as your previous one, or as high-ranking.  On the plus side, stepping off the career treadmill can turn into a blessing – you get an opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that can be lots of fun.

Great expectations, March 2010

Great expectations, March 2010

Your night life is dead for the foreseeable

When my son was a few months’ old, I ventured out to a mums’ coffee morning. Everyone else seemed to know each other and they were densely packed together in tight groups, but I managed to perch on the end of a table and the two mums nearest to me gaily asked if we were planning to have another baby. I looked aghast. One of them laughed and said “Well, my life was ruined already, so the second one was easy”. She and her friend roared with laughter. I didn’t find it funny.

Now of course I wouldn’t say my life has been ruined (reader, we had a second baby, and I still have friends and a job) but golly, my social life is unrecognisable.  

To give you an idea – we just went to the cinema for the first time in FOUR YEARS.  In order to go out after dark, we now need to kid our five year old son that we’re staying in (he has the ears of a bat – he can detect a babysitter from miles away) AND justify the cost of someone coming. Plus we can’t leave until the children are in bed, because they are very fussy about who does their bedtime routines. So anything that starts before 8pm like, you know, concerts and plays – they’re out. For years.

Anti-depressants are not an admission of failure Motherhood is the biggest adventure of your life, but like all adventures, it’s full of highs and lows, and for some, those lows are intense. The muddy cocktail of hormones you experience immediately post-birth causes many women to weep, but if it lasts longer, seek help. Several months after my son was born, it became clear that my baby blues were something of a permanent feature. A doctor put me on a low dose of an anti-depressant, and while admitting I was struggling made me feel like a failure, the pills themselves made me feel hugely better, very quickly. I was a better mother because of it, and I now strongly advocate more provision for mental health support for young mothers. Post-natal (and ante-natal) depression are both very real, for many women. Don’t feel embarrassed. Please.

So there you have it. That’s what I’d have like to have known before I embarked on motherhood. It’s certainly true that some women, the lucky ones, find only joy in motherhood, and that is a wonderful thing. But this is for the others, the ones who stumble a bit, who trip and fall before finding their feet.

Two very important things I’ve learned: Motherhood is a constantly evolving skill that cannot be learned from a book, however much you read. 

And it’s also an incredible gift – but one that may just take a little longer to unwrap than you imagined.

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Woman jailed for drug smuggling in Qatar blames system for plight

The National Crime Agency / Flickr

The National Crime Agency / Flickr

Recently, I co-wrote a story for Doha News about Martha Castellano, a Colombian woman who is in jail in Qatar for drug smuggling. Her story is complex and views on her predicament were mixed, but it certainly gives an interesting insight into the workings of the Qatari legal system.

Click here to read it.

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Filipina expat: Being jailed with baby in Qatar ‘blessing in disguise’

Mary's son, William

Mary’s son, William

Earlier this month, I wrote an update for Doha News about ‘Mary’, the Filipina expat jailed in Qatar for giving birth out of wedlock and her son, William. They both ended up spending a total of three years in jail together in Doha, and Mary gave me a very honest and insightful interview about life behind bars in Qatar.

The conversation we had about her arrest in her hospital room four days after her son’s birth will stay with me forever, I think.

Click here to read the story on Doha News, and here if you’d like to contribute to a family fund raising money for Mary to hire a lawyer.

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‘I lost most of my savings’ – The cost of risky financial advice in Qatar

Images Money / Flickr

Images Money / Flickr

Last month, I spent several weeks researching and writing this story for Doha News about the financial advice industry in Qatar, and the bad experiences some investors have had with advisers in the region, both regulated and unregulated. It sparked a lot of interest, with many people sharing their experiences – both good and bad – in the comments section below.

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Qatar Airways 777 sees ‘substantial’ damage after takeoff incident

Peter Russell / Flickr

Peter Russell / Flickr

Earlier this month, a Qatar Airways 777 hit the Approach Lighting System at Miami’s airport on take off, causing “substantial damage” to the aircraft. Despite this, the crew continued the flight as normal and the aircraft landed safely in Doha. Significant damage to the aircraft’s belly was discovered by ground crew afterwards, and the accident was reported to the USA’s FAA, which is investigating.

My resulting story for Doha News was incredibly popular. Click here to read it.

(Although I’ve now left Qatar, I’m still working for Doha News as Editor-at-Large, which means I’m still contributing stories, particularly those in which I have a special interest.)

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The green grass of home: Five things I’ve noticed since moving back to Britain

river

We’ve now been back in the UK for just over two months, and I’ve written my final post for Telegraph Expat. In this one, I list five things I’ve noticed since my return to Britain.

It’s been a huge pleasure to write for the Telegraph, but as I’m no longer an expat, I’m heading onto pastures new. Exciting challenges await.

Edited, September 2016: As the Telegraph has now deleted its expat blogs section, here is the piece in full:

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We’ve now been back in the UK for two months. When we were still living in Qatar, I often speculated about how we’d feel by this point. I suggested that life might feel a little dull after so many adventures, both good and bad, over the past six years; a little monochrome rather than technicolour. I also wondered whether our country would feel alien to us after so many years away, and whether I’d feel lonely, starting again in a new place with no supportive network of expat friends to fall back on.

It turns out I was wrong on all counts. Granted, moving continents with two children in tow and establishing said family in a new (unfurnished) house, a new school (little lad) and a new job (big lad) in just a couple of weeks had its moments (I never want to see an Allen key again), but we are loving being home.

The UK doesn’t feel alien at all, although it does feel a little like we’ve missed a couple of episodes of a long-running TV series; Austerity Britain part 1 and 2 have been shown already, but we’ve still got several episodes left to run, so I guess we’ll catch up in the end.

And my worries about loneliness were pretty much swept away on the first morning of my son’s new school when lots of his classmates’ parents introduced themselves, handed me kids’ party invites and invited me round for coffee. Similarly, lots of old friends got in touch and I’ve been gradually reconnecting with them.

Settling back in easily, however, does not mean I’ve been oblivious to the enormous change our daily life has just undergone. Here are just some of the differences I’ve noticed.

Multifaceted weather

Only in the UK can you experience several different seasons in a day. Yesterday, for example, it started off really chilly, then it rained, and then it was warm and sunny. A few days ago, we had hail, in June. (It was the first time my son had seen it. He picked pieces up and was distressed when it melted.)

Coming from a country with just two seasons – winter and summer – I’d forgotten the unique challenge of dressing for British weather. I am the mother at the school gates who consistently dresses both herself and her children wrongly. Baking hot but wearing a jumper, jeans and boots? Pouring with rain, and then discovering that neither child actually owns a raincoat? Yes, that’s me.

I am also the crazy woman who stands outside in the rain, inhaling deeply. This phenomena also occurs when someone nearby is mowing a lawn.

Fresh fruit and veg

One of the first things I did when I got home was to buy some English strawberries. To a palate accustomed to air-freighted fruit with an eye-popping air mile history, they were astonishingly lovely. Then I indulged in Jersey Royal potatoes, which were such a joy after the tasteless Saudi-grown variety we used to buy.

Granted, it was possible to buy good quality produce in Qatar, but it was hugely expensive, and not an everyday option. So since coming home, I’ve experienced the reverse of the “Doha stone”, the common weight-gain many experience when settling into expat life there.

Instead of dining out all of the time (a pretty cheap option in Doha) I’m now indulging in, and craving, fresh fruit and vegetables. My body is thanking me.

And then of course there’s the joy of getting it all delivered via online supermarket shopping, something many British expats crave in Doha. I’m fairly certain my five year old does not miss being dragged about Lulu once a week, consistently being refused chocolate.

Healthcare

Private healthcare in Qatar was a double edged sword. It was pretty easy to access – you could just walk up to a receptionist and request an appointment with a GP, or even a specialist – but its quality was incredibly patchy, and I always had the niggling suspicion that treatments and medication were being prescribed for profit reasons rather than because I actually needed them.

The UK’s cash-strapped NHS by contrast has a very tight fist, and I recently had to fight to continue to be given a medication I’ve been on since I was 21. I’ve also had to re-adjust to dealing with pharmacists who adhere to incredibly tight regulations on what they can and can’t sell over the counter; my days of buying the contraceptive pill without prescription are definitely over, although given the benefits of medical oversight in this regard, I’m rather glad.

One huge negative I’ve spotted since coming home, however, is dentistry. How on earth does anyone get their teeth done in this country without going into debt? We’ve actually registered with a local NHS dentist to try to get care at a decent price, but the first date they can give us is in August. I made the appointment in May.

Lush greenery

This is a predictable one, of course, but it’s been so significant a change for us that it warrants a mention. Before moving to Qatar, I’d never have stopped to marvel at an enormous oak tree, or the blossom on a cherry tree, or the curve of a meandering river, or the freshly-mown stripes on a lawn. My son did a football course over half-term in the tree-lined playing fields of a local primary school. Sitting down in the sunshine waiting for him to finish, I shed a little tear.

Living in the desert for six years has truly made me appreciate the wonders of nature. Hell, I even love it enough to want to don my dusty trainers and go running outdoors for the first time in years, so it must be good.

The cost. Oh, the cost.

Moving back to the UK from Qatar is rarely going to be financially beneficial. It was a lifestyle decision for us, and we were prepared for a squeeze on our finances.

Having said that, it’s still a shock the first time something breaks down and you realise that instead of the cosy expat renter’s solution of simply calling maintenance, you have to pay for the fix, and ooh, it’s gonna cost yer. It will also, it turns out, take at least a week for the engineer to turn up.

Then there are cars. Our time in Qatar means we have no no-claims bonus, and this year’s insurance has been painful.

Having said that, while doing the maths when buying our new car, we’ve realised that the cheap fuel in Qatar wasn’t such a steal after all. Our gas-guzzling Ford Explorer in Qatar might have cost us a tenner to fill, around a quarter of our fill-ups in the UK, but it was actually four times less efficient than our new car.

Mind you, our Golf is, err, somewhat smaller, but this bit of maths magic does make us feel a bit better when we’re averting our eyes at the petrol pumps.

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Some thoughts on filming in Qatar

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.

Permit rules

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.

Permit refusal

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?

Local restrictions

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.

 

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Expat life in Qatar has made me treasure my vote

polling-station1-300x164One 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:

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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.

Immigration restrictions

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.

Shifting regulations

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.

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Four new Telegraph blog posts and a big announcement

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There’s big news from me in my most recent Telegraph blog post. It turns out that almost six years to the day after I first stepped off a plane in Doha, I’m going to be flying back to the UK for good. It’s been an incredible adventure, and I’ll miss all of my friends here tremendously, but as I say in the post – it’s “time.”

Some other recent Telegraph posts for you: My reflections on Doha’s horrendous road congestion; my views on the country’s litter problem; and my opinion on the difficulties facing expat women who want to work in Qatar.

Enjoy!

Update September 2016: Since the Telegraph blogs have been removed from their site, this is my post about our decision to leave Doha in full:

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The end of our expat adventure is nigh

When I arrived in Qatar for the first time in March 2009, I pretty much wanted to leave immediately. If you’d have given me an airline ticket and told me to head straight for the airport, I would have done it. After all, I’d just resigned from a job I loved, had bid farewell to many people I loved, and had flown thousands of miles to begin a new life in a country I’d never visited before. It’s understandable I found the early days rather tricky.

We were accidental expats. My husband’s previous company had gone bust towards the end of 2008, and as the credit crunch hit the UK, potential new employers stopped hiring. This meant that job offer from Qatar, a country with supremely solid financial credentials (and that’s an understatement), was too good an offer to turn down.

The fact that we both knew it was the right choice didn’t make our expat early days any easier, however. I was homesick, culture shocked, baffled and lonely in equal measure.

To be frank, I’m a rubbish expat. I’m terrible at change, and I need routine and familiarity to feel secure. I remember feeling back then that it would somehow have all been easier if I’d known the date of my eventual departure from Qatar. Granted, I knew our time would be counted in years rather than weeks, but I still felt that knowing the expiry date of our expat lives would give me comfort.

As time went on, however, I learned to live without my cosseted departure date. I ceased to view my stay in Qatar as an extended holiday, and began to put down roots, albeit shallow ones. Tick-tock went the metaphorical clock as we moved homes, travelled, made new friends, had first a son, then a daughter, and generally went about making a new life for ourselves. Before we knew it, six years had passed, and I’d stopped thinking about how long we had left here. We were just focusing on the present.

But now, that clock is about to be stilled. In less than three months, we’re going to be boarding our final flight out of Qatar and heading home to the UK, where a new job for my husband awaits. Our expat adventure – and that’s certainly what it’s been, an adventure – is nearly over.

As we’ve broken the news gradually to friends and family over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself saying, over and over again, that “it’s time.” I do genuinely feel as if we’ve reached our own personal expiry date in Qatar, a phenomenon that many of my friends can relate to. Whether it’s for a short while or a very long tenure, everyone has their own personal limit, and I know that we’ve reached ours.

That’s not to say that we hate the place. On the contrary, I’ve grown to feel that Qatar has become my adopted home, appreciating its charms and benefits whilst simultaneously acknowledging its pitfalls and faults.

The clock was always counting down to our departure, though, whether we willed it to or not. Even if you are born in Qatar and live here all your life, if you’re an expat, you must leave when you retire. The phrase ‘adopted home’ implies permanence, but under the country’s (soon to be revised) employment laws, you have no choice but to leave if you lose your job and you’re not given permission to apply for another one. Any feeling of security and stability in Qatar is more a badge of your own innate optimism rather than something rooted in reality.

It’s an odd feeling, living out my final days as an expat. The countdown clock is finally reality, and as soon as my husband’s resignation was submitted, the country ceased to feel like ‘home’. The protective film I’d layered around me to represent security peeled away, and I started feeling like I’d already moved on.

Now, my head is full of British things – houses, schools, cars, mobile phone contracts, furniture, and that rather alien concept known as tax. In an echo of how I felt when I first arrived, part of me wishes I could skip the notice period and hop on a flight tomorrow, but the rest of me knows that’s not what I want at all.

This final three months will be an opportunity to say goodbye to all that we’ve built up over the last six years, not the least of which is an incredibly tight circle of friends – that much fabled ‘expat family.’ It’s also an opportunity to fulfil our Qatar ‘bucket’ list, the things we’ve always meant to do here, but haven’t ever got around to doing.

It also gives us much needed time to shed most of our possessions, as we’re aiming to return to the UK with just suitcases. We’ve giving a lot away, but also experiencing the flipside of the expat “I’m just popping over to see what you have that I may want to buy” phenomenon, so often the source of second-hand finds in our own home.

It’s also an opportunity to eat our way through our kitchen cupboards, although I don’t reckon we’re ever going to finish the buy-one-get-one-free two litre bottles of vegetable oil I bought before Christmas. My husband also pointed out that I’ll need to drink at least three cups of tea a day between now and April if we’re to finish all of our supply. No problem, I said. I’m British; that’ll be a doddle.

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