Q is for Qatar

The summer of 1987, before I arrived in Doha in October of that year, the governments of Qatar and Bahrain adopted threatening postures towards one another, the result of a dispute about the Hawar islands off the coast of Qatar. Both countries claimed the islands, which can be seen from the western coast of Qatar on a clear day and are miles away from Bahrain.

The islands are uninhabited, but are in an area with rich petroleum reserves. The increased tension between the two countries led to the closing of selected air lanes in the Gulf* to international flights. The US government was concerned that the closure of the air lanes put both commercial and military flights at risk since Iran and Iraq were also battling one another at the time, and their battles involved guns, not just words.

For a short period of time Bahrain severed communications links between the two countries. This proved to be a challenge to the embassy in Qatar. Without telegraphic communications, no reporting on the war could be sent from Doha to Washington. Instead, telegrams had to be printed and carried by non-professional courier from Doha to Bahrain where they were sent from the embassy in Bahrain. The fact that all reporting about the dispute, covering both the Bahraini and the Qatari perspectives, arrived in Washington with the name of the US Ambassador to Bahrain at the bottom was a source of some embarrassment to the US Ambassador to Qatar, I was told.

I saw one small remnant of the dispute–a T-shirt ordered by the Doha Hash House Harriers that included the outline of the country of Qatar on the front where a pocket would have been. In addition to the neatly printed country boundary, an indistinct blob made by a permanent Magic Marker appeared to the left of the outline. Qatari Customs would not release the shirts to the Hashers until they added something to reflect that the islands off Qatar’s west coast were part of the country.

Hearing the story from my colleagues on my arrival reminded me of a Ziggy cartoon I had seen just before leaving the US for Doha. In the cartoon, Ziggy was watching TV as the announcer said, War broke out today between two insignificant little countries you probably haven’t heard of.

Sometimes life is just as funny as a cartoon.

FYI: The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was settled in 2001 with Bahrain being named the owner.

*The Gulf referred to here has two names, depending on which side of it one sits. When I was in 8th grade geography, I learned its name was the Persian Gulf. On the southern side of that body of water, however, it is known as the Arabian Gulf. I saw atlases on sale in Qatar where the word “Persian” had been blacked out, again with black Magic Marker. I choose to refer to it as either “The Gulf” or “The Gulf that has two names.”

D is for Doha

When I got off the plane late one October evening in 1987 in Doha, my first thought was Who left the oven door open? The heat assaulted me at the top of the stairs set up on the tarmac to facilitate passengers getting off the plane. I had never felt such heat.

Doha seemed like a sleepy little town when I lived there from 1987 to 1989. I could barely find any information about it before I left. So instead, I read all about Saudi Arabia, including a cultural guide put together by members of the US embassy staff in Riyadh to help those assigned to the Kingdom prepare for life in an almost entirely gender-segregated society. Armed with that mis-information, I brought videos of every movie I ever wanted to watch, every book I ever thought I’d read, and every board game I could get my hands on. I expected to spend most of my two-year assignment there indoors, more specifically, in my own home.

But Doha was a surprise in so many ways. Those videos, books, and games I brought? Most of them stayed in the boxes. Of all the overseas assignments I had, none offered more to do than Doha.

My first weekend in Doha coincided with the first visit by a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Energy, to the country of Qatar. I spent the two days before the visit traveling around the city to see all the places the Secretary would be during his very short stay. The evenings were spent in the homes of other staff members at the embassy, entertaining the White House advance team members so they didn’t have to stay cooped up in their hotel rooms.

That week turned out not to be exceptional. Every evening there were dinners, receptions, or other events I was invited to attend. Many evenings, there were both dinners and receptions or receptions and cultural performances. If I managed to spend an evening at home, it was usually in the company of 20-30 other people, support staff sent on temporary duty from Washington or expatriates from the US or Europe whose employers were important contacts for the embassy.

Doha will always have a special place in my heart. I met my husband there, one of the British expats in Qatar. The country of Qatar relied on expats from all over the world–still does. When I lived there, the population of the country was around 300,000, only one third of which were native Qataris. Two thirds came from somewhere else–India, Pakistan, the Philippines, other Arabic-speaking countries, Europe, and North America.

Doha has a special place in the hearts of most European and American expats who lived there. Evermore after, when I run into someone I learn once lived in Doha, I see wistfulness in the eyes as we begin to share stories of how much we enjoyed living in that tiny little city in a very small country. As a small town Midwestern girl, I felt entirely at home in Doha, once I got used to the heat.