Tag Archives: Qatar

On the demise of Doha News and free speech in Qatar


This week, Qatar’s Emir told CBS that his country “wanted freedom of speech for the people of the region.”

Sheikh Tamim made the statement in defiance of demands from neighbouring nations that he should close the Qatar-funded news outlet Al Jazeera.

But while Qatar is busy patting itself on the back for bringing independent, Arab-led global news to the world, it is also busy suppressing similar voices at home.

Losing Doha News

Until very recently, I was Editor-at-Large of Doha News, Qatar’s most popular news website.

Founded in 2009 by two American journalists, Omar Chatriwala and Shabina Khatri, it stood up for truth, honesty and debate against a backdrop of the press release journalism published by local newspapers.

Doha News continued to stand for these principles even after Qatar’s government decided to block access to the site without warning last December.

And even then, despite having to shed most of its staff and move operations overseas, DN continued to publish well-researched, well-sourced, honest stories about Qatar.

And although DN no longer operated in Qatar and was therefore not beholden to local regulations, Qatar’s government persisted with its censorship of the site.

Sadly, the loss of traffic hurt advertising sales, and eventually Doha News’ founders could no longer continue to support it financially.

Sinking ship

In the hope of keeping the site alive instead of just shutting it down, it was sold last month to Star Reputation Consulting Ltd. The online media company from India said its goal is to promote “free and unbiased journalism.”


Initially, the plan was to retain the editorial team during a transitional period.

However, we decided to walk away after the company expressed a desire to enforce its own – undisclosed – editorial values on existing  staff.

Since the sale, Doha News has published only a handful of articles, and sent out only a few tweets. The new owners do not appear to have hired new journalists, and for now at least, the future of the site seems bleak.

This is incredibly depressing, not only for the owners and staff of Doha News, who have worked tirelessly and at times at great personal risk for the cause of free media in Qatar, but also for Qatar’s residents.

They now have only a steady diet of propaganda, advertising and rumour with which to discern what is actually going on in the country they live in.

Required reading

Before the sale, Doha News was an integral part of hundreds of thousands of people’s daily lives. The founders’ brave journalistic principles made the site required reading for anyone interested in Qatar, and its social media following to date – 488k on Twitter and 386k on Facebook – meant that a sizeable percentage of the country’s 2.6m population was reading its output every day.

As Doha News grew, so did its team and its ambition.

Doha News on Twitter, November 2017

It began as a Twitter feed that curated Qatar-related content, and then grew into a blog that included original reporting. The site gained a much larger following in 2012 during a fire at Villaggio mall that killed 19 people, most of them children.

As questions swirled about the blaze, Qatar’s television and radio stations remained silent. But the Doha News team live-blogged the disaster, sharing developments in real time.

Later, it was the only news outlet in Qatar to report on the Villaggio manslaughter trial, and the only one, incredibly, that actually named the high-ranking officials – one of whom was Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium – who were convicted.

Controversial opinion pieces

Other ground-breaking stories of note include this report about the arrest of a Nepalese teacher for allegedly insulting Islam; these photos of a the reality of life inside a labor camp; this story of a woman jailed for giving birth to a baby outside wedlock; this story about the plight of homeless Iranians working in Qatar’s markets; this interview with a Filipina nanny about what it’s like to look after someone else’s children when you’ve had to leave yours overseas; and this coverage of a riot started by laborers on a building site.

The site also made a name for itself featuring positive, lesser-reported stories, like this tale about the family who have a tap outside their house offering free laban to all comers; this piece about a poetic restaurant worker; and this story about a local beekeeper.

Alongside its reporting, the site also began publishing opinion pieces written by residents from all sections of Qatari society.

In some cases, these brought out into the open views that had never before been aired in the media in Qatar. Among them was this piece written by a Qatari who wanted to be allowed to marry a foreigner, and this piece by a gay Qatari man.

It was the latter op-ed that many believe to have been the catalyst for the website’s demise. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and an open acknowledgement that some of its nationals may in fact be gay was too much for the conservative elements of its society.

The blocking of Doha News came as a surprise to us because – until then – we had genuinely had no governmental interference in our journalism.

Run-ins with the law

We took the government’s support of Al Jazeera to mean that officials at least quietly believed in our mission. Indeed, some government agencies shared DN stories on social media, and we were invited to government press conferences and events. Government officials even told us privately that they were fans.

However, the country’s cybercrime law, enacted in 2014, was used repeatedly to try to silence Doha News, threatening the freedom of its staff.

The legislation’s controversial privacy provisions make it illegal to publish news related to the personal or family life of individuals – even if the information is true.

The cybercrime law also contains a vaguely worded clause that criminalizes any content found to violate the country’s “social values” or “general order.”


These two sections are essentially a blank check to write a prison sentence on.

In July last year, Doha News’ former Assistant Editor Peter Kovessy was arrested and detained overnight for naming a convicted (expat) paedophile in a story. He was not charged, but forced to sign a document saying he would not write about the man in question again.

Months earlier, Peter was brought in for questioning after looking into a story about a moving company which had recently gone out of business, leaving many residents without their belongings.

Fearful of negative coverage, the owner had complained to the police and was able to force Doha News not to publish the story, despite the fact that it was entirely true.

A year before that, Shabina Khatri and I were called by the Criminal Investigations Department and brought in for questioning over a story.

I was pregnant at the time, and terrified I would be detained and that there would be no one to pick up my four-year-old son from school.

It turned out that the police simply wanted to know who had given us the information in a story about an alleged gang rape. The source, an embassy staffer, was clearly noted in the story, and eventually they let us go.


It would have been far easier to have altered our editorial line to avoid incidences like these; far easier to do what all other media outlets do in Qatar, and toe the line. But we didn’t. And that’s why Doha News was so important.

Untethered to influential owners, not pandering to fragile egos and unpersuaded by the ever-present media freebies – Peter once returned a gifted iPad to Qatar Rail and they asked him if it was broken – DN simply reported the truth.

That, then, is why I am treating Sheikh Tamim’s enthusiastic defense of free speech with immense skepticism.

Doha News founder Shabina Khatri. Photo: Lance Cenar

It is not enough to insist that journalists in your employ should be allowed to report freely abroad (remember #journalismisnotcrime?)

No, if you are to avoid hypocrisy, you must also allow journalists in your own country to question, to probe and to analyze without fear.

A while ago, I was at a media function, and I got talking to a journalist who worked at one of Qatar’s major newspapers.

A talented reporter, he approached me earnestly with a list of stories he had wanted to investigate, but had been told by his paper’s editors that he could not. He desperately wanted to publish the truth as he saw it, but he was denied that chance.

In refusing to allow residents of Qatar to read Doha News, Qatar will now only have this sort of media: the media it deserves.

Doha News’ critics, small in number but very vocal, will get what they have wanted all along. A benign, malleable media, publishing advertorial rather than informative and useful news.

Lighting a torch

For our loyal Doha News readers who still want to know what’s going on around town, I have this advice: Maintain a healthy skepticism about all you read.

Join Twitter and save a #Qatar search; follow a wide range of publications and opinion-formers. If you read news from the broadest range of sources, the truth will be out there, somewhere in between.

And if, by any chance, there are Qatari men and women reading this who believe strongly in free media, I have a plea especially for you.

Photo: Lance Cenar

Take this opportunity to fill the void left by the old Doha News team. Start your own news website based on sound journalistic principles. Fund it well; give its editors free reign. Defend it against its inevitable detractors.

Qatar is a fascinating country going through a period of enormous change. It deserves to be studied and understood. Don’t let this period of time in Qatar pass you by in soft focus.

Good journalism casts light in the darkness; sharpens the image and brings much-needed clarity.

Grasp this opportunity and run with it.

Doha News has lit a torch – now it’s up to you to start a fire.

Qatar, your media is letting you down

A recent headline in The Peninsula

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.

Propaganda war

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.

‘Fake news’

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.

White House / Facebook

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.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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.

QNA denial

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.

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?




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.

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… 

‘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.

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


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:


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.


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.

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.


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:


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.