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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Here are two more Telegraph blog posts for you – the first about the true value of an expat’s possessions, and the second about Qatar’s ‘broken’ roads, a post I wrote following a particularly depressing week on Doha’s dangerous streets.
The first post was also published in the Telegraph Weekly World print edition.
I’m now back writing again after a rather momentous event, the birth of our second child – a little girl – at the beginning of August. Luckily she’s a very good baby and allows Mummy some time to dedicate to her passion. I love motherhood, but I also love having a creative outlet, so I’m enjoying blogging for The Telegraph about expat life.
The Telegraph recently deleted all of its expat blogging content. So here’s the text of my “Giving birth on Mars” column, pasted here for posterity.
“My daughter had been born on Mars. Or at least, that’s how it appeared when I looked through the window of my hospital bedroom. Admittedly I was somewhat spaced out after an unplanned general anaesthetic and some tremendously welcome pain killers, but still, my vista of sand and rocks as far as the eye could see, stained rusty orange by a desert sunset, did have an otherworldly quality to it.
My hospital bed, whilst not actually on another planet, was located in Zekreet, about an hour’s drive from Doha, near the coastal town of Dukhan. Barely more than a tiny settlement, the area is distinguished by a plethora of unusual limestone ‘mushrooms’ and sculptor Richard Serra’s new installation of his work “East-West/West-East,” four towering steel monoliths located in the wilderness. Zekreet might not actually be extra-terrestrial, but let’s put it this way – it’s not Epsom. Or even Doha.
Most Doha residents rarely venture out this far, except for occasional jaunts to admire the sunset from Dukhan’s pleasant beaches. The drive, along what must surely be one of the world’s least-used motorways, is by and large a study in beige. Beige sand, beige rocks, beige buildings – what buildings there are, that is. The most exciting part of the journey is the section that passes through Shahaniya, home to the country’s enormous camel race track. (If you can’t spot a camel from your car, you’re not looking hard enough.)
Now, however, an increasingly large proportion of the country’s pregnant women are choosing to make the lengthy journey on a regular basis, spurred on by the reputation of Dukhan’s local hospital for excellent care.
The Cuban Hospital of Dukhan is far from your average local general hospital. As its name suggests, it’s staffed by hundreds of Cuban doctors and nurses, transplanted more than 7000 miles and deposited in the Qatari desert. Opened in 2011, it’s funded and run by Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), Qatar’s public healthcare system.
The Cubans employed at the hospital, around 400 in all, are just a small proportion of the tens of thousands of Cuban medical practitioners who are currently employed overseas on fixed term contracts, through the country’s policy of ‘medical internationalism,’ which often sees its doctors being sent to war zones to carry out humanitarian work.
Qatar clearly doesn’t fall into this category, but Cuba’s Ambassador to Qatar recently said that the deal they’d struck was an example of the “excellent” relations between the two countries.
It certainly seems to be working well for both sides – Cuba benefits financially, and in return, Qatar has staffed an entire hospital from a guaranteed pool of well qualified staff who live in purpose built accommodation on site.
My plan to deliver at The Cuban was met with many a raised eyebrow and a discrete cough, particularly from friends and family who weren’t familiar with Qatar’s healthcare system. I’m not surprised. The place sounds fantastical to me too, and I’ve actually been treated there.
My choice, however, was a logical one. I was attracted by Cuba’s reputation for excellent medical training, the attractively designed, well-equipped modern hospital (with single en suite rooms as standard), and the fact that it came under the umbrella of Qatar’s public healthcare system, meaning that I received heavily subsidised care.
This was a tremendous bonus, as I’m one of a significant number of expat women whose employer-provided health insurance doesn’t provide maternity cover.
The cost of private healthcare in Qatar is increasing rapidly. When I gave birth to our son in Qatar in 2010, a private birth cost us around £2500, plus significant sums for all antenatal check-ups and tests. This has now more than doubled. So, the cost of my c-section at The Cuban – a mind-bogglingly brilliant 400 Qatari riyals (around £70) was a no-brainer.
Four years ago, none of Qatar’s public hospitals allowed husbands beyond the maternity hospital waiting room. So, despite the cost, we decided to deliver our son at a private hospital so that my husband could be present at all appointments, as well as at the actual birth.
This time around, however, we were attracted by The Cuban’s reputation for having a “more western” approach to maternity care than Qatar’s other public hospitals, allowing husbands to be much more involved, including welcoming them at all appointments and scans. My husband was not present, however, at my c-section – birthing partners are strictly not allowed in the operating theatre here, something that upsets many.
So, not quite the midwife-led units, multiple birthing partners and birthing pools of home (attitudes towards childbirth in Qatar do, on occasion, have a worryingly 1970s-UK, over-medicalised whiff to them.) It’s to be hoped, however, that Qatar’s forthcoming Sidra hospital for women and children will do much to change the childbirth experience here. For now, however, residents are seeking out pockets of medical care where they feel most comfortable, and for me, The Cuban was it.
The other huge plus was the hospital’s well organised appointment system, which meant we hardly ever had to wait. Even in Doha’s private hospitals, it’s not unusual to have to wait up to two hours to see an obstetrician at each antenatal appointment, but at The Cuban, I never waited more than 10 minutes.
I’d far rather drive an hour each way to my appointment, than wait in a characterless room decorated with plastic flowers, thumbing through years-old copies of Hello, for the same period of time – whilst paying through the nose for the privilege, of course.
Having given birth under both the private and state systems in Qatar, I must say I rate the latter more highly. My first experience – which I also wrote about for Telegraph Expat – was characterised by a lack of support from nursing staff. In particular, the absence of information about, or practical help for, breastfeeding was woeful. Based on this experience, it comes as no surprise that Qatar has a very low breastfeeding rate.
By contrast, the Cuban doctors and nurses were very encouraging, with the paediatric nurses in particular providing a shoulder to cry on and proper practical help in the wee hours of the morning when I was ready to throw in the towel.I also enjoyed getting to know more about their daily lives in Cuba, and finding out about their families, who they’d all had to leave behind – a decision made by Cuba, and not by Qatar, they said.
One nurse in particular told me about her baby son, who was three. She’d left Cuba when he was a year old, and she could tell me the exact number of days she had left until the end of her contract, when would be reunited with him again. She had less than a month to go until her flight out, so six weeks on, I imagine her now, souvenirs unpacked, suitcase stowed and forgotten, relishing her return to motherhood.
I’m so grateful to her and all of her colleagues for making my second experience of childbirth in Qatar a positive one. I loved the Cuban music I could hear being played at the nurse’s station in the evening; the bursts of “que Linda” (how beautiful) whenever they saw my daughter (I was convinced for a day that they thought she was called Linda); and even the odd Cuban coconut pudding I had for lunch.
Qatar and Cuba – an unusual partnership, I grant you – but at this hospital, it definitely works. I’m not planning on any more children (you can quote me on that) but I must say, if I did end up doing it all again in Qatar, I’d head back to the eerie, Martian landscape of Zekreet, and its Cuban inhabitants, every time.
Recently, I wrote a follow-up to a very popular Doha News story from last year, in which I focused on women who’d been jailed in Qatar for giving birth outside of wedlock.
In the latest story, I write about Mary (not her real name), who’d originally been sentenced to a year in prison with her baby for sex outside marriage, and was still in jail, more than 15 months later, due to debts, most of which she had accumulated after borrowing money from a loan shark.
The story went viral and got shared widely on Twitter and Facebook. It’s co-authored with my Doha News colleague Peter Kovessy, who provided the sections on the legal framework in Qatar.
You can click here to read it, and the comments underneath – 122 to date – are well worth reading, too.
I was recently asked to become a regular blogger for The Telegraph’s expat section. My first post is about Ramadan, and the surprising upside to being stuck indoors with very little to do for a month.
I’m expecting our second child very soon, and I’ve realised that Doha’s heat and Ramadan’s restrictions on day time activities have led me to focus even more on my little family – a real blessing.
Update September 2016: As the Telegraph has now removed all expat blogs from its site, here is the post in full:
Precious family time in Qatar during Ramadan
Many non-Muslim expats choose to leave Qatar for Ramadan. The reasons for this are myriad: almost all food outlets are closed during the day, and it’s illegal to eat or drink in public; the entire country essentially shuts down every afternoon, with most shops and offices closed; alcohol sales are banned; and road conditions around sunset require rally driving skills and nerves of steel, as fasting drivers speed to reach their iftar meal.
We’ve done similar in years past. Primarily, we’ve flown out to escape the furnace that is summer in Doha.
Ramadan moves annually, migrating backwards in the calendar by around 11 days each year, and for the past six years or so, it’s fallen in the most uncomfortable of Qatar’s seasons. From June to September it’s far too hot to go outside for the much of the day (our garden thermometer is currently reading 42c in the shade), and given that Ramadan this year falls neatly at the beginning of school summer holidays, you can see why a non-fasting family might choose to exit stage right.
Not us this year, however. Due to the impending addition of another Scott to our current family unit of three, I’m grounded. Quite literally, as it happens – pregnant women are unable to fly late in their pregnancy, so in Doha I must stay until our little one makes an entrance.
I’ve had plenty of people commiserating with me about the “miserable timing”, and I must admit to some pangs of jealousy caused by photos shared on Facebook and Twitter of Wimbledon, green hills, rural pub lunches and garden barbeques.
And yet, despite Doha’s oppressive heat and the restrictions of Ramadan, there’s a certain magic about this time of year here, even for a non-Muslim expat like me. Muslim friends of mine say they see this month as an opportunity to step off the hamster wheel and pause for a while, focusing on family life and reflection, and I must say I’m also beginning to see it that way.
As we enter the final few weeks of our life as a family of three, I’m beginning to appreciate the lack of distractions. Faced with nowhere in particular to go in the afternoons, for example, we’ve baked cookies, walked (waddled in my case)around empty (but blessedly air-conditioned) malls, and simply sat down to watch TV together, taking in the tennis whilst munching on ice-lollies.
And when my son helps me to mix the dough, holds my hand on the sofa or screams with laughter when my husband throws him in the air (and this happens frequently in our house) I am remembering to treasure that moment, to tuck it away and keep it safe.
I’m learning that a period of what essentially amounts to house arrest can have its benefits; when you’re about to embark on a period of huge change, being made to stand and stare for a while can be a blessing in disguise.
This week, I wrote a pretty hard-hitting piece for Doha News about the fate of women in Qatar who give birth to illegitimate babies. If they do so, they’re breaking the law, and they receive a guaranteed jail sentence, which they serve with their babies.
For the piece, I spoke to one woman who is currently on the run in Qatar after giving birth to a baby girl eight months ago out of wedlock. She will inevitably have to hand herself in and serve her sentence. I also include an extract from a desperate email I received last year from a woman in similar situation, who’s now also in jail. It was this email which sparked off my investigation.
Let me know what you think of the article.
Credit: Photo for illustrative purposes by Angela Randall
Business magazine The Edge have just launched a new opinion column, “Qatar Perspectives”, and I have the honour of being their first guest columnist.
My chosen topic – the huge challenges many women in Qatar face if they choose to pursue a career. Do you agree with me?
Credit: Photo by Anya Quinn
Footnote, 2017: The Edge has deleted a lot of its website content – so here is the full text of the column.
The talents of many women in Qatar are being wasted
By Victoria Scott
There’s a lawyer I know here who works as a swimming teacher. I also know a physiotherapist working as a nursery teaching assistant, an engineer who’s an admin assistant, and a midwife not working at all.
They have three things in common – they’re all expat “trailing spouses,” they’re all mothers, and they’ve all taken jobs far below their qualification level and usual salary – if they’re working at all.
Expat women sponsored by their husbands are legally allowed to work in Qatar, but they face a range of hurdles in their race to climb the career ladder – or even, to be frank, to cling to the very bottom rung.
These include childcare, sponsorship laws, and a lack of flexibility. To get around them, many choose jobs that guarantee long holidays and shorter hours, often for low salaries and in areas unrelated to their particular expertise.
Although sponsorship is not an issue, many Qatari women also find it hard to balance their careers with family life. Although they make up the majority of local university graduates, only 35 percent of female nationals work. Recent research by Wamda concluded that this group also wants more flexibility, and different childcare options, demonstrating that, whether Qatari or expat, working women here share a desire for change.
I believe that it’s primarily childcare issues which are holding these women back. At the heart of the problem is a disconnect between school hours (around 7.30am – 1.30pm) and average working hours (8am – 5pm up to six days a week – and that’s being generous.) Add lengthy school holidays to mix, and you’ve got big childcare gaps to fill.
“Get a maid!” I hear you cry. It’s certainly true that a full time live-in maid is an affordable and convenient option, but it’s not for everyone – me included. Some families prefer not have a member of staff living in their home (live-out, unsponsored maids are illegal), and many more don’t have the room to accommodate one. And even if you have a maid, there’s the difficulty of school runs. Working parents often rely on taxis, minibuses or (often illegal) drivers – not an option everyone is comfortable with.
Qatar’s limited maternity leave of 50 days also puts many women off, and nursing mothers face a quandary too – under Qatari labour law, they’re given one hour off per day to nurse their infants for a year, but this assumes their baby is nearby, or that they have the use of a pump and privacy at the office.
For expats, the Kafala sponsorship system is also part of the problem. Part-time work and job shares are an appealing solution for many, but sadly, they’re pretty much unheard of here. Although a local-hire expat spouse is “cheaper” (only one half of a couple can receive allowances) it seems that many HR departments simply aren’t ready to relinquish control.
Many insist on sponsoring even part-time workers, an option some are uncomfortable with, given the control over exit permits, annual leave and NOCs that this gives their employer. Many women also report that salaries are very low, as employers expect them to be “looked after” financially by their spouse.
Some would also like to peripatetic career, but this is also tricky. Expat spouses need to register as “working women” with the government, and this process assumes that they only work with one employer. Qatar currently has no registration process for freelance workers.
Others choose to set up businesses from home, offering services like cake making and hairdressing – and as inoffensive as these businesses are, they’re all illegal under Qatari law, which requires all registered companies to be 50% Qatari owned and run from an office.
So, what to do? I’ve canvassed opinion amongst both working and non-working women in Qatar. They’d like “wrap-around” care at schools, provided by trained staff; longer maternity leave; workplace crèches; flexible working hours for school runs; agencies offering live-out, licensed, trained nannies; and the establishment of a “licensed childminder” scheme for out of school hours care in a home setting.
They’d also like job-sharing to be an accepted option, and freelance work and small businesses to be officially endorsed by the government. After all, nobody wants to break the law just to work for a living.
If just a few of these suggestions could be made law, I believe Qatar would benefit exponentially from the expertise, enthusiasm and experience that presently unemployed women could provide.
After all, as Qatar moves towards a knowledge-based economy, doesn’t it make perfect sense to make the most of the skilled workers who are already here, just waiting for an opportunity to show what they’re worth?
This month sees the launch of new bilingual magazine Alef, which focuses on cultural topics indigenous to the Gulf. I’ve written one of its first features, on a “Passivhaus” – an environmentally friendly home – which has been built in Doha’s Barwa City. You can read it here.
Alef is being launched on the 6th of July at London’s Serpentine Gallery at 12pm. Afterwards, it will be available internationally – I’ll update this post with a list of outlets when they’re announced.
In this month’s Qatar Happening magazine, I interview teacher Steve Parenteau, whose brainchild, “Laptops 4 workers”, has blossomed into a large programme aimed at improving the quality of life of labourers in Qatar. I really enjoyed meeting him – he’s truly an inspirational man. Click here to read the story.