Tag Archives: Qatar

A three-part series on giving birth in Qatar

Megan Sparks/Flickr

Megan Sparks/Flickr

I recently wrote three stories for Doha News about the state of maternity services in Qatar. They were the result of a lengthy process of research, multiple interviews and communication with hospitals (where it was possible – Al Ahli hospital refused to reply) to get their responses and points of view.

The first piece was about systemic issues which midwives and doulas working in the country allege make giving birth in Qatar at times unpleasant, overly-medicalised and in the case of a restriction on opiates, very painful.

The second piece carried on in this vein, examining the aftercare new mothers do (and do not) receive from medical facilities in Qatar; and in the third piece, I spoke to three women who had experienced miscarriage and stillbirth in the country. It was a depressing story to write, and all three women called for change in hospital policies.

The comments underneath each story are very interesting. There’s a real mix – some women were clearly delighted with the care they received, saying that it was far better than in their home countries, while others argued strongly that the opposite was true.

Have you given birth in Qatar? What was your experience like?

 

 

 

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After years in Qatar jail, Filipina mother and son finally head home

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Catherine and Adam in the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs

Earlier this week, a long and painful saga came to an end. Catherine and Adam – previously known by pseudonyms Mary and William in a series of  Doha News stories – were finally able to leave Qatar, more than three years after Catherine was first arrested in hospital for the crime of giving birth outside of wedlock.

I wrote a story for Doha News yesterday about how her departure came about; about the efforts of a legal team who, after reading about her plight in DN, fought for the lifting of her travel ban. The story has been shared more than four thousand times in 24 hours. Click here to read it.

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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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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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‘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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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

dunes2

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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An expat’s possessions, and Doha’s ‘broken’ roads

Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

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.

Enjoy!

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