Doha: Stories Unheard and Voices Ignored
Today marks the third day of the Conference of Youth (COY8) leading up to the beginning of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) international climate change policy negotiations begin tomorrow.
This morning was a rough start. We had to take care of some issues with the hotel (under-booked, overbudget) which took a little bit longer than anticipated. Once we finally reached our bus stop (which is about a 15 minute walk) our bus had already left.
After waiting for the bus for about 45 minutes (and making new friends with a youth delegate from Algeria), we were on our way. We were having a very intense conversation about the production of natural gas in Texas in comparison to that of Algeria, solar solutions for irrigation, and the environmental movement at large, when I was distracted by a beautiful building. The young woman sitting in the seat across the aisle from me told me that it belonged to one of the higher ups in Doha (I thought that it was a museum). She told me about how the current King took the throne from his father while he was on a trip and ever since then the cost of living has increasingly risen. If cost of living was high, I wondered, how was the overall standard of living?
Doha is a city that takes up 80% of the Qatar’s total population. Of this 80%, only approximately 10% of the people living within the city are native Qataris. The majority of the population consists of an immigrant workforce mainly from Southeast Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. My new friend’s name will be V. in this blog for the sake of anonymity. She is a local Qatari of mixed Indian and Sri Lankan descent and who was born and raised here in Doha. Before V. was born in Doha, her father, who is originally from Delhi, India, had been living here for the past 35 years. She was on our bus to the convention center because she is event staff for the conference. With tears in her eyes and a slightly choked voice, V. told me about the struggles of the laborers and “minority” populations (I use quotation marks to signify that they are, indeed, the majority of the population and are still treated as second, even third, class citizens).
In Qatar, every Thursday and Friday are what is called “family days”. This is the equivalent to U.S. weekends. In Doha, things to do are few and far between. One of the most common activities in the city is to go shopping. V. told me that laborers are forbidden from going to malls on these days, sometimes the only time off of work they will have. There is nothing else for them to do in the city. They are unable to go for drinks because in Qatar the consumption of alcohol is illegal save for within the confines of hotel bars, which are far too expensive for the laborers to afford. I was not only shocked and appalled by this blatant racism, but V. also told me that the laborers only earn an average of 500 Riyals per month(approx. $133) working well over 60 hours per week. She told me that most of the laborers will just work non-stop for two years, go visit their families for a few weeks, and then come back to work non-stop for another two years- the cycle continues.
What can they do about it? They are explicitly not allowed to assemble about it. Doha has never seen a march through the city or any sort of protest- it is illegal. I felt so much guilt when we mentioned that the COP NGOS had gotten special permitting to march on a very specific strip of road, for a very specific amount of time- the first march EVER in Doha. V. told me that she was excited about the march and that we was going to try to come because she would love to see it. While I was happy that she was so interested, I also felt guilty that we were able to march and express ourselves while others, who have struggled for years continued to be swept under the rug and denied the freedom to express their needs while we could get permission in a little under a year.
I look at the beautiful skyline and all of the growth and development and I think “wow, Doha is doing really well,” while the reality, as V. told me, is that most of the higher paying jobs in oil, architecture, and industry are outsourced to Western and other Arabic peoples. Most of the minority-majority are the ones building the new buildings, constantly cleaning the sand off of the perpetually gleaming glass buildings, and driving the frustrating turquoise taxis (a.k.a. mobile death traps).
What can I do about it? I don’t know. Other than continuing to treat every person I meet as a person and not just a door holder and entering each conversation I have with others with as much intentionality as I can, how do I approach the continual development of exceptionally multi-faceted systems of oppression in a rapidly expanding nation, one with no outlets for people without money to voice their needs or concerns? Back home in the States, I’ve seen issues like these overcome by some of the most powerful people’s movements. In Qatar, however, they do not have the option to organize the way we are able to. How can I, as a visitor, show/express solidarity? (Any thoughts? These are my 1:30am reflections and trying to digest an issue that has been haunting me for the last 14 hours)
For now, I’m looking forward to learning more and am eager to understand the real struggles and power dynamics behind a shiny curtain of perfection, growth, happiness, and relative equality. I parted from V. with the promise and hope of seeing each other again in the next two weeks that I am at the conference.
Until later, Aloha from Doha.