Doha, Qatar 2015
A unique opportunity: Jacqueline Kruithof invited me to give a presentation to the How Women Work network and a workshop to women professionals of Exxon Mobil. Jacqueline, who knows Doha well, promised to show me around on a private ‘business safari’. She even gave me advice on what to pack, since Qatar is pretty traditional; no tight clothing, no skirts above the knee, no short sleeves and absolutely no cleavage…
Unfortunately my Ryanair flight from Mallorca was two hours late, so I missed my Emirates flight to Doha and had to wait half a day on the Barcelona airport for the night flight. I HATE night flights, because I cannot sleep sitting up. So when I was offered a Business Class upgrade at a special rate, I took the offer. From then on, my fairy tale trip started.
Emirates business class is just heaven. Soooo much space! All flight attendants came to introduce themselves with a radiant smile and showed me what all the different buttons were for. There were even various massage programs in my chair! It could be turned into a full bed, complete with real pillows and blankets. When I ordered a cup of tea, they made my table with real linen, a small bouquet of flowers and served me a lovely tea in a porcelain cup and saucer with a cookie. Then one of them asked: “would you like some hot nuts with that?” and placed a tray with delicious, warm and fragrant nuts, like pistaccios, macademia and other nuts on my table. Needless to say, I enjoyed some more foods before I tucked myself in for a great, though short, nights sleep.
When I finally arrived in Doha (after a stopover in Dubai, a total of 24 hours of travelling), my friend Jacqueline was waiting for me in the lobby of the new Melia hotel. A man in traditional clothes offered me Arab coffee with cardammon and sweet dates. That woke me up! Jacqueline had checked my room to make sure it was quiet (there is construction going on 24/7) and non-smoking (all rooms are non-smoking but apparently people do smoke in the rooms and don’t care about the fine).
We went for lunch in the W, a popular hotel next door, apparently the place to see and be seen. Their Market express lunch is great value and the setting is just unbelievable. Huge but tasteful flower arrangements in the lobby, modern decoration with Arab details. We met Carolin Zeitler there, who organizes the How Women Work events and who had suggested my workshop at Exxon Mobil.
The next day, we had coffee with the Dutch Ambassador Yvette van Eechoud in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel; on of the other places to see and be seen. A cup of coffee is expensive (50 Qatar Riyal, about €12,50) but the setting is absolutely worth it. Many local businessmen, dressed in their white robes or ‘dish dash’, with traditional head dress, next to European businessmen and –women, expats and the occasional holidaymaker. At the time we had our meeting, the French president Hollande was visiting, so the lobby was swarmed with security people.
The ambassador turned out to be a real modern lady. She surprised her guests at the embassy by personally singing ‘aan de Amsterdamse grachten’ during Kings day celebration. Mrs Eechoud is active on social media, tweets frequently and is therefore nicknamed the ‘Tweeplomat’.
Islam forbids the use of alcohol. Still, social life of expats seems to evolve around it. Some tourist hotels have special licences, permitting their bars and restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages. These places have therefore become favorite meeting places. When I told expats I was staying at the new Melia hotel, the first question they asked was “do they serve alcohol there?”
In one of the lovely new boutique hotels of Souk Waqif Jacqueline had organized a meet and greet with a very international group of business ladies; from English to Moroccan to Qatari power women. They had all fallen in love with Qatar, sometimes a Qatari man and/or enjoyed their work so much that they brave the sometimes unbearable temperatures, heavy traffic and sometimes difficult (social) life.
Walking around the Souk, I was mesmerized by the sights, the sounds and mostly the smells. Beautiful traditional architecture, small streets, clothes, household articles and traditional food for sale. Women dressed in black abaya’s, men in their white dish dash and children in bright modern clothes. Walking past the perfume alley, I got intoxicated by the lovely smells, the pure ingredients of the perfumes. I really felt like I found myself in the fairy tale of ‘Arabian nights’.
I loved the Souk, it was one of the highlights of my visit. think next time I would choose one of these Boutique hotels at the Souk to stay in stead of one of the international big hotels. Walk out of the door and be in the souk, a truly different world.
Jacqueline took also me to the Emirs horse stables, where many white stallions were enjoying the relative cool of the evening. Nearby was a part of the souk with a falcon hospital, shops selling falcons and accessories for falcon owners. It was a bit sad to see these beautiful animals with ‘caps’ on their heads to keep them quiet. But when I saw one without cap, he looked me straight in the eye. Apparently Emirates is the only airline that allows falcons to be taken aboard as ‘hand luggage’.
Another must visit is the MIA: Museum of Islamic art. Spectacular modern Arab architecture, with elaborate staircases, beautiful traditional details and huge glass windows, looking out on the modern skyscrapers of the Doha skyline. The museum has interesting exhibitions and is a perfect place for a coffee or to spend a hot afternoon working on your laptop.
Make sure to take the 10 minute walk to the bar by the water. In the evening it is nice to relax in the beach chairs and to look out over the water, with the city skyline on the opposite side. While walking there, you pass old Arab buildings with beautiful wooden dhow boats in front. The contrast between the modern skyline and the old boats is stunning.
The short walk to the beach bar drained me of all energy. I really pity the many foreign construction workers toiling in the hot sun for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Sure, they earn money for their families in India, Pakistan or wherever they come from. But this heat, in combination with the sand and dust from the desert are just unbearable. And now it was just May. Can you imagine having to do construction work in this climate, during Summer?
Lunch at Eatopia was refreshing; a more modern in stead of luxurious environment, where every type of food is available. There is even a store with (expensive) organic food and delicacies from all cultures. Each counter offers a different kind of food, and you can order and mix to your liking. I chose salad and sushi, but there’s also arab food, BBQ meat and colorful pastries.
At the Exxon event, I got the rare opportunity to meet many professional women.
Daughters of traditional families are not allowed to live on their own. Therefore, studying abroad was often not possible. Sheikha Mozah, the wife of the previous Sheik found a great solution: she invited various famous universities from all over the world to come to Doha, so now there are many universities represented in Qatar. Two thirds of the students are women and many of them graduate with honors. This indicates not only how intelligent they are, but mostly how motivated they are to use this new found freedom.
After my presentation, many of the women came up to me to express how they had liked my story. Each of them had a copy of my book ‘What is your dream?’ and about fifty ladies stood in line for me to personally sign it for them. I asked for their name and their dream and wrote a personal message in the book. I was reassured that their dreams are the same as those of many European women: to raise a family, be a good mother, be successful in their career or as an entrepreneur, wanting to contribute to others, to find balance and happiness.
Hearing about my struggles in the charity world and during the TV program Survivor, some of the smarter, ‘bubbly’ ladies confided that they also found it hard to ‘fit in’. It felt really special to connect on that level and I gladly shared my experiences. I explained that when you are different; faster, more alert and/or energetic than others, it is no use to try and fit in. Others can always tell that you are different and will sometimes feel threatened by you. I reassured them that it is better to just be yourself and stand out. Some others won’t be interested, but likeminded people will get drawn to you. Meeting people like yourself, even if they are from completely other backgrounds, offers a sense of belonging.
Some ladies invited me to their homes for coffee, offered to prepare traditional food for me and meet their friends and family. I would have loved to do so and get to know them better, but unfortunately I was leaving the next day ;(
I would love to go back to Doha one day and stay a bit longer, and connect with those warm, interesting women again.
Jacqueline Kruithof organizes ‘business safaris’ to Qatar and is my agent in Doha. She is Qatar enthusiast and specialist who guides organizations and entrepreneurs in the country and connects them with local businesses and organizations.