Peace in the Middle East (Safety Part I)
**This post covers some loaded material and, to alleviate some stress, there will definitely be an F bomb or two dropped.
Alright, the topic of safety in Qatar (and the Middle East in general) is like a big ol’ ball of knots. It’s a lot of nuanced information that gets tangled up with a lot of subjects, and it’s why I’ve decided to split the topic in half. Here we have Part I, primarily about how politics and religion tie into my feelings of safety in Qatar. Part II is about safety regarding human rights and crime.
You follow me? Great!
Note, though, that I am using the same introduction for Parts I and II, so don’t freak out if you get a feeling of déjà vu.
What You'll Find in This Post
The types of worries people had about my stay in Qatar
Quick list of Qatar’s government, history, and demographics
The U.S. and Qatar’s relationship
The 2017 GCC crisis
The Emirs of Qatar and some coups
The Salwa Canal
Final thoughts on my feelings of safety within Qatar’s religious and political circumstances
Palm trees at the Corniche
Ho-ly shit, there were so many worries people expressed to me before I went to Qatar when it came to things like crime, terrorism, and human rights. Most of their statements started with, “You might not want to go over there. Afterall…”
"It's so dangerous!"
“They're waging holy wars!”
“They treat women so awfully!”
“You’ll have to hide your hair!”
“They’ll make you go to Muslim-church!”
“The water will make you sick!”
“You’ll get caught in a sandstorm!”
“You’ll have to learn Arabic to survive!”
“You’ll have to wear black every day!”
“You’ll get kidnapped!”
“You’ll get sent to a shady Arab hospital if you get hurt!”
And, of course, we can’t forget the eternal question of:
“Are you scared yet?”
Yes, there was a lot of fear and concern coming from some of the people in my life, but I understood where they were coming from. America has fed its citizens some scary images of turmoil in the Middle East since at least the 1980s. We see images and videos of oppressed women, kidnapped citizens, murdered journalists, self-proclaimed terrorists, men with an uncanny number of guns, and bombs dropped on ancient sites and innocent civilians.
It’s true that a lot of fucked up shit has happened in the modern Middle East, and some of it is still going on, but all that scary stuff does not define any of the 22 countries* that make up the Middle East.
Every country is different; each has their own history, leadership, economics, social standards, and even though most are Islamic, each country usually has their own interpretation of the Quran. Further still, things like population and geography play a huge part in all those other things I just listed, and when everything combines, you see how unique each country is. Yeah, all Middle Eastern countries have some similarities, but the differences are what you should pay attention to because in the differences are where feelings of safety come into play.
In both Part I and Part II of this post, I’m going to discuss some of the safety concerns people had for me when it came to living in Qatar in four months. Thing is, in order to talk about safety in its entirety, we’ve got to talk about other stuff too, like politics, religion, crime, human rights, and civil rights. I know, those are some topics that can get real complicated real fast, but I promise to say things as simply as possible and I’ll toss in a few links to some outside resources. I’m not a great authority on any of the subjects I’m about to cover; I’m just a girl who was experiencing some unfamiliar things in Qatar and decided to Google shit so I could better understand what I was experiencing and why. I urge you to pursue your own research if something I write piques you’re interest.
If I can fall down the research rabbit hole, so can you.
Something else that might help is hitting up some of my other blog posts. As of 2019, there’s posts about being a woman in Qatar, the sort of art you’re allowed to do (freedom of speech), what it was like being surrounded by Islam every day, pork & alcohol (illegal substances), the migrant worker & expatriate situation, traffic & construction safety, racism/colorism/ethnic discrimination, nationalism, water, the immense wealth, the dating scene in Qatar, and even posts about weather, language, and the mandatory medical exam, just in case someone is worried you’ll get kidnapped in a sandstorm and taken to a suspicious hospital where everything is in Arabic. Those posts dive deeper into topics that also contribute to the feelings of safety and danger in Qatar.
Alright, are you ready? Let’s dive in!
*The number of countries in the Middle East/Arab World range between 16 and 22. Different sources provide different answers, but the two most popular seem to be 18 and 22.
First let’s establish what Qatar is and how its organized
Remember, that little red dot in the middle of the Persian Gulf is Qatar.
Official name: State of Qatar.
Between 1783 and 1971, Qatar has been ruled by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. It got its independence from Great Britain in 1971.
It is a little peninsula attached to the big Arabian Peninsula.
It’s physically about the size of Connecticut.
Government system: Constitutional monarchy
There’s an Emir who is the head of state and government. There’s naturally a royal family, as well as a Cabinet and a Consultative Assembly.
Qatar holds general elections. There was an election in 1999 where citizens could vote for all 29 seats in the Municipal Council. When the intention to hold an election was announced in 1995, only men were given the right to vote, but by the time the elections happened in 1999, women could not only vote, but could also run for office. Nowadays, all citizens 18 & up can vote in elections. The next election is to vote in 30 of the 45 seats in the Consultative Assembly. Thing is, this election has been continuously postponed since 2013. It’s now supposed to occur in 2019.
Here is a straightforward journal article from 1999 about Qatari elections and reforms made by the Father Emir’s administration. You’ll learn more about him later, don’t worry.
The population of Qatar is about 2.7 million and continues to increase.
For comparison, New York City is about 8.6 million. Richmond, Virginia is about 230,000.
Approximately 75% of the population is male, leaving 25% female.
Approximately 90% of the population are expatriates, leaving 10% Qatari nationals.
Qatar is split into eight municipalities: Al Shamal, Al Khor, Al-Shahaniya, Umm Salal, Al Daayen, Ad Dawah (or Ad Doha), Al Rayyan, and Al Wakrah
Doha, the country’s capital, is located in Ad Dawah. About 60% of the population lives in Doha.
There, that wasn’t too bad right?
Okay, let’s get into the serious shiznik . . .
Politics & Politics
Twice as nice when you say it twice.
It’s illegal to take photos of government buildings, so here’s some skyscrapers in downtown Doha instead.
First, I’ll cut right to the heart of it:
Is the U.S. cool with Qatar?
Hey, sometimes there are countries that the U.S. just doesn’t get along with. Sometimes it’s because of war, sometimes it’s because they are allies with a country we don’t like, sometimes it’s because we bombed them, sometimes it’s because we occupied their territory, sometimes it’s because we owe them money, sometimes it’s because they owe us money, sometimes our sour relationship with a country lasts a few years, sometimes it lasts a few decades, sometimes we all forgive each other no problem, and sometimes we walk around being fake friends with a country that we’ve low-key still got beef with.
So, do we have beef with Qatar?
The simple answer: The U.S. and Qatar are friends.
Qatar hosts six U.S. universities, Qatar donated aid money after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. buys Qatari oil, and we’ve had really tight military ties with them since the 1990s. Most notably we’ve got an army based and an impressive airbase over there—hey, have you ever seen Transformers? The opening scene takes place on a Qatari military base (not a real one, of course, but still). The first shots of an epic movie franchise filled with explosions, aliens, robots, cool cars, and a plot that sometimes gets a wee bit out of hand starts off in Qatar. C’mon, that’s like letting your schoolmate guest star in your home movie, it’s a sure sign we’re cool with Qatar!
And when the Emir met with U.S. Presidents?
The current Emir met with President Obama during his administration and everything stayed somewhere between friendly and neutral. That’s pretty good considering Qatar had some drama going on with some of its GCC neighbors in 2014 concerning accused funding of terrorism (you can read more about that in the Embargo section).
The Emir also met with Trump during his administration and that relationship was . . . flip-floppy. First Trump took credit for initiating the 2017 GCC Crisis (referencing his visit to Saudi Arabia being a sort of catalyst). Next, he essentially said, Qatar totally funds terrorism and I agree with all the countries that have put them under an embargo. And then suddenly he was like: Hey, Qatar, let’s hang at the White House! After all, I know you hate terrorism as much as I do, pal. He then asked the embargo-enforcing countries to play nice with Qatar and turn their attention to more important things like Syria, Yemen, and al Qaeda. It didn’t stop the embargo, but, well, he tried . . . sort of.
Oh right, and there’s also that whole thing about Trump and/or Jared Kushner having asked Qatar for millions (or is it a billion?) dollars to reconstruct 666 Fifth Avenue, an old skyscraper. I have heard four things: That Qatar gave him the cash, that Qatar didn’t give him the cash (and instead he asked Saudi Arabia), that Qatar gave him the cash without realizing what they were paying for, and that this whole thing was a rumor inspired by a meme.
I’m sure at least one of those is true.
Alright, now let's get into some big stuff . . .
I told you we were getting into some big stuff.
When it comes to Qatar participating, promoting, or funding terrorism:
They’ve been accused many times by their neighboring countries of supporting various terrorist organizations, but nothing has been proven.
The U.S. have been criticized for having campuses in Qatar. The issue is, is it really okay to have American schools in a country that allegedly sponsors terrorism (and limits freedom of speech)? Those criticizing the decision believe it's all about the universities making money.
When it comes to terrorism happening against Qatar:
In 2005 a man from an Islamic extremist group car-bombed a theater, killing himself, a British citizen, and injuring 12 others. This was the first and (as of 2019) the last major terrorist attack.
I know, this was a severely brief overview of Qatar's relationship with terrorism, but trust when I say that there’s a lot of information out there, too much to summarize in a blog post and none of it giving definitive answers. I recommend this be one of the topics you investigate yourself, my friends.
The Embargo (The 2017 GCC Crisis)
One thing the embargo didn’t effect? Fancy European chocolate.
I also heard the embargo be referred to as the 2017 Qatar Diplomatic Crisis, the Qatar Crisis, the GCC Crisis, and the blockade. No matter what you call it, though, people are definitely going to know what you're talking about.
So, what happened and what did it effect?
In June 2017 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates imposed a diplomatic and economic blockade against Qatar. By severing diplomatic ties, they essentially said, we don’t fucks with Qatar no more, and slashing economic ties meant, we ain’t buying what you’re selling and you can’t have our shit either.
There were some more countries that ended up slashing or limiting ties with Qatar after that, but it all boils down the fact that Qatar now had varying levels of new beef with most of its neighbors. As you can imagine, that effected a lot of things. Firstly, Qataris only had two weeks to exit some the countries that had issued the blockade and all Qataris were no longer allowed to enter the blockading countries (which created some concern over Qatari Muslims completing the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca located in Saudi Arabia). Unsurprisingly, citizens from blockading countries weren’t allowed to enter Qatar and many of their diplomats were called back from Qatar. In some countries it was illegal to express sympathy for Qatar and the blockade caused a huge effect on travel and trade. After all, Qatar’s only land border was with Saudi Arabia and suddenly that was no longer a usable option for . . . anything. Prices of some goods skyrocketed, accessibility to other goods vanished, and Qatari air traffic now had to avoid the airspace above all the blockading countries.
Yeah, it was a stressful for a while. Go look up photos of grocery store lines and air traffic maps.
But why did they get embargo-ed in the first place?
Well, first of all, Qatar and some of its neighbors had been butting heads since 2014 (which somewhat stems from Arab Spring, back in 2011). There were a lot of things that went down between 2014 and 2017, including some Qatari hostages, hacked websites, hacked email accounts, and Qatar’s support of both Iran and The Muslim Brotherhood, a country and a political organization that have been accused of terrorism. Some countries—including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—formally consider The Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization, but Qatar is cool with them.
As you can imagine, that created a problem.
Well, in an attempt to remedy the problem, Qatar agree to a document in 2014 stating that they would stop being friends with The Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Then, by 2017, Qatar was accused of breaking that agreement. This is when its neighbors presented another, stricter document with 13 demands Qatar needed to sign off on or else they were going to impose an embargo. Here’s a nice Al Jazeera article about it . . . it’s got plenty of graphics.
Well, Qatar didn’t agree to the 13 demands and here we stand, 2 years into the embargo.
And how did people feel about it?
A student in Doha described it as sibling rivalry. A faculty member said it was jealousy over Qatar having made a name for itself. And a lot of people said, “we just get our milk from Turkey now.”
Seriously, locals seemed really chill about it. There were some faculty I talked to who were a bit irritated because they could no longer get their specialty art supplies shipped in at an affordable price, but overall people were okay. It seems as though everyone adapted really quickly once the initial concern passed, so by the time I got there in 2018, about 9 months after its start, people it hardly came up in conversation.
It was also a big deal when Qatar beat the UAE in the Asian Cup in 2019. How did people feel about that? Overjoyed. It was a metaphor played out on the football field.
And how did I feel about it?
As luck would have it, the start of the embargo took place almost immediately after I returned home from Morocco, after I had decided studying in Qatar was a goal of mine. At first, I was reluctant; the embargo had just happened and I didn’t know what was coming next, I didn’t know how bad it was going to get. I didn’t even know if VCU would offer the exchange program for the semester. I was worried this was the quiet start to World War III.
To quell my worries, though, I installed a direct link to an Al Jazeera article on my phone, asked my friend in Doha how she felt about the embargo, went on ahead and applied to the program, and just waited to see what would happen. After all, if the country went to shit two days before my flight I would always just . . . not go.
However, nothing else happened and nobody in Qatar seemed worried, so I didn’t worry about it either.
Hey, why don’t I toss some more links your way?
Here’s a cute one. It’s Wikipedia, but it’s a simple place to start because the topic can get a bit messy.
Here’s a link to an old CNN article, written in July of 2017:
And here’s one about how Arab Spring plays into all of this
The Emir Situation
One of many images of the Emir in Qatar. This one is at the Corniche.
Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, previously an absolute monarchy, and it’s had a bit of drama involving the Emirs.
So, there’s been a couple of coups . . .
Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani: Emir from 1960 – 1972, deposed by his cousin while on a hunting trip in Iran. He and the rest of his family spent the rest of their life in Dubai.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani: Emir from 1972 – 1995. He was deposed by his son while in Switzerland. He lived in France until returning to Qatar in 2004
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani: Emir from 1995 – 2013. He technically just abdicated the throne to his fourth son, but I figured I’d included it because it broke the family coup pattern.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani: Emir from 2013 – present.
You following me? Well, the biggest names to remember as of 2018 were Hamad bin Khalifa (the Father Emir) and Tamim bin Hamad (his son and the current Emir). You’ll see images of both of them plastered all over the country and they both seem to be well liked (in addition to other members of the royal family, like Sheikha Mozah, the Father Emir’s wife. I Googled her one day in 2018 and the top hits were her Wikipedia page and articles titled “The Actual Ruler of Qatar”, “The Unacceptable Face of Qatar’s Global Expansion”, and “Best Fashion Moments”, so people definitely have a lot to say about her).
But you see, that wasn’t that bad! Just a few bloodless coups still in peoples’ living memory and a royal family that none of the locals seem to take huge issue with. It’s surprisingly less messy than contemporary American politics.
Oh, and what was it like living in a country that had a king? I mean, it wasn't a fantasy full of balls and royal courts. The royal family was kept at a reasonable difference, like any country's leader. Perhaps the most striking difference between switching from American democracy to a constitutional monarchy was seeing the Emir's face everywhere. Yeah, America doesn't do that; we like our presidents good and dead before we circulate their images around the country. Coins, bills, and the occasional monument is about as close as we're gonna get to Qatar's Emir image game.
The Salwa Canal
You see that little curvy bit at the bottom of Qatar, where it touches Saudi Arabia? Yeah, Saudi Arabia essentially wants to build a canal along that line.
No one in Doha mentioned this to me and I awkwardly stumbled upon the information while in a Wikipedia hyperlink rabbit hole. Thing is, they probably didn’t mention it because it’s not finalized. At least, I don’t think it’s finalized. As of 2018 it was still just a proposition, but it’s a proposition to keep in mind. After all, the act of installing a canal would effectively turn Qatar into an island . . . c’mon, that’s kind of a big deal.
Alright, but let's move onto our next section . . .
Politics & Religion
Here we can see the minaret at Katara Mosque. Katara is a cultural village in Doha.
Unlike the U.S. and many other Western countries, Qatar doesn’t have a formal “separation of church and state” rule. Instead Qatar’s governing system is a mix of the civil laws Westerners are familiar with and religious laws inspired by the Quran.
Sharia Law is essentially the laws of Islam and declares what aspects of life are halal (good stuff) and haram (bad stuff). Sharia law is primarily applied to issues regarding family (like marriage, adoption, paternity, and juveniles), inheritance, and some criminal acts (like theft, murder, and adultery . . . and for the record, adulty is still illegal in 21 U.S. states, so don’t go thinking Qatar is alone in that medieval thinking process).
Sharia law also warrants that a woman’s testimony is only worth half that as a man’s and sometimes female witnesses aren’t even accepted (but this is only in some family courts, not all). Flogging is also an acceptable punishment under Sharia Law. Thing is, a lot of Muslim countries—Qatar included—are slowly phasing out certain aspects of Sharia Law in civil court systems. In the meantime, though, Qatar is still relatively chill compared to some of its neighbors when it comes to acting out Sharia Law, so don’t stress too much over it over it unless you get caught doing something illegal.
Spirituality is abstract and this image is abstract. Could this photograph represent human spirituality? C’mon, ya’ll know I’m an artist, I couldn’t help but find a deeper meaning in a blurry photo.
Wahhabism. This term may have come up during some of the scary Islam stuff you’ve seen on television.
Alright, but first let me explain how Islam is organized. Let’s compare it to Christianity.
America is more familiar with Christianity than Islam, so I thought it would be a good comparison to start us off with. It’s time for us to dig deep into 8th grade world history.
Do you remember how big Christianity was in the Middle Ages? It stretched from Spain all the way through Turkey? Remember Rome? Byzantium? I’m trying to set the stage, bear with me.
Well, for centuries the Western half of Christianity had been beefing with the Eastern half . . . think Rome vs. Byzantium, Italy vs. Turkey. There was that fight over whether or not images of religious figures should be permitted (the Iconoclasm), there was disagreement over the role of the Pope, there was debate over where the Holy Spirit came from, half of Christianity spoke Latin while the other half spoke Greek—it was a lot—and eventually it led to the Great Schism of 1054. The Schism created Roman Catholicism (the Western Church) and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Fast forward to the 16th century. Remember Martin Luther? King Henry VIII and his six wives? Purchasing “indulgences” from the Church to erase whatever sin you committed and buy a seat in heaven? The problem with the Bible only being printed in Latin? All this stuff contributed to the Protestant Reformation, a split in the Western Church: Now we had Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
And you know how from here we got a bunch of mini Christianity sects? Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Latter Day Saints . . . you see what I’m getting at? One religion with multiple splits and denominations.
Okay, well, Islam is similar.
There is one main split in Islam: Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Sunni Islam is the largest sect, similar to how Catholicism is still the largest sect of Christianity; about 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Sunni Islam is centered on the Arabian Peninsula and has primarily spread to North Africa and Southeast Asia (similar to Catholicism having reached Central and South America). Shia Islam is much smaller and is centered around Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan.
Here’s a 44 second YouTube video describing the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam if you’re curious.
Are you with me so far? Well, there is one “denomination” of Sunni Islam called Wahhabi.
You know how different Christian denominations have different origin stories, traditions, social expectations, and interpretations of religious text? Wahhabism functions the same way.
Wahhabism was born of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia way back in the 18th century. It’s a very conservative theological understanding of Islam and the Quran, which can lead to some strict social guidelines (like women needing male chaperones, strict modesty dress codes, it being illegal for women to drive until 2018, and absolute bans on pork an alcohol). Wahhabism is very much a Saudi version of Islam in the way Russian Orthodoxy is very much a Russian version of Christianity. Naturally, it’s primarily practiced in Saudi Arabia, but there are a lot of Muslims—both Sunni and Shia alike—who aren’t fans of this particular denomination.
But why? What’s the problem?
Well, Wahhabism is associated with much of the scary shit we see about Islam. They are accused of inspiring the ideology of terrorist organizations like ISIL, for killing Muslims who don’t agree with their particular ideology after labeling them as dissenters, and for the destruction of historic buildings & artifacts, sacred to both Muslims and non-Muslims.
This is an especially nuanced topic that I recommend you Google for yourself.
And what does this have to do with Qatar?
From I’ve read, I think Qatar may technically adhere to Wahhabism, just a much less strict version of it. I say “I think” because I can’t find a clear “yes” or “no” answer. I mean, their national mosque is named after the Islamic scholar who inspired Wahhabism, that seems like a pretty decent clue, but maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe all those reforms and upgrades in the 1990s established a new, modern, friendlier concept of Wahhabism without actually ridding the country of it. Hell, maybe I’m not getting an answer because I’m Googling the wrong search terms.
I can say, though, that actions speak louder than words and Qatar’s actions seem to be very far from the strict conservativism of Wahhabi and the scary stuff Wahhabi is associated with. Some of those actions include the rights extended to all citizens regardless of gender, the more chill social customs, and disapproval of over the top Wahhabi actions (like that 2011 defilement of a Shia cemetery by Wahhabi extremists).
So, overall did I feel safe within Qatar’s religious and political circumstances?
Do you see that dog I’m looking at, nestled cozily amongst a pile of junk in an unmade bed? That was me in Qatar. There was a lot of mess sitting around me, but it didn’t make for a negative experience. . . and I definitely didn’t lose any sleep over it.
"You might want to rethink that,” people close to me said when I told them of my plans to study in Qatar. “Are you sure you want to go over there?” they would ask.
They were worried I was walking into danger, I get that. The Middle East is a very different place than the U.S. in a lot of ways and most of the people voicing their concerns were at least a generation older than I . . . meaning that they had memories of most of the major conflicts in the Middle East. I, however, was only 21 and hadn’t been exposed to much of the gnarliness that they had seen. Further still, what little gnarliness I had witnessed didn’t have anything to do with Qatar, so there was nothing there to deter me from the get-go.
Then after researching a bit, well, I understood Qatar was in the middle of a diplomatic crisis and that it was geographically close to some countries in rough situations, but I still felt okay with the prospect of studying there.
And heck, do you remember the U.S. in 2017 and 2018? Our politics were a shit show, safety for women and people of color was a joke, religion kept creeping its way into our civil rights (like with abortion and LGBT laws), and there were numerous terrorist attacks on American citizens by American citizens. I already felt unsafe living in the U.S. so the idea of living in Qatar didn’t scare me that much. They had their own set of problems, but so did the U.S., and I figured that at the very worst I’d be exchanging one for the other.
In the end, though, I didn’t. Yeah, many of the political and religious safety concerns people had voiced to me were technically present in Qatar, but the environment wasn’t as bad as people thought it would be and it didn’t interfere with my everyday life and peace of mind. At no point in time did the religious or political climate make me feel bad, scared, or worried in any way.
Listen, religion, safety, and politics in an Islamic state can look terrifying on paper, but like I said earlier, every country is different. I think that as long as there’s not something intense going on—like an active war, a humanitarian crisis, a string of terrorist attacks, or some suspicious disappearances—you should seriously consider travelling to the country. Yes, definitely do your own research, gauge your comfort level, and then make your decision from there, but only make the decision after having really thought it through. Don’t rob yourself of an incredible experience by jumping on the fear wagon too early.