Katie Burton reviews John McManus’ book Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from one of the richest nations on earth, published by Icon Books
How much do most of us really know about Qatar? One of the richest nations on Earth per capita. A successful, and potentially dodgy, World Cup bid. A place beset with workers’ rights abuses. That might be the limit of it. Feeling in a similar boat, but determined to find out more ahead of this year’s football spectacular, social anthropologist and author John McManus decided to spend a year living in the country and attempting to get to know its people.
It wasn’t an easy task. The country is so full of foreign workers that Qatari citizens make up only around 10 per cent of the population and many of their chief hang-outs aren’t open to visitors. These native Qataris remain the most mysterious people in the book, although McManus does eventually have some success in prying open their sanctums.
He has more success however among the immigrants, using different chapters to cover the lives of female domestic workers, male construction workers (often working on World Cup infrastructure) and wealthy Western businessmen. Other chapters cover issues such as press freedom (or the lack of it), football, religion and the Qatari national past time – rearing and racing falcons. You sense that McManus went into each situation determined to keep an open mind, not to condemn without evidence. But sadly, the evidence seems all too apparent. The country’s kafala system of labour sponsorship is clearly wide open to abuse, despite moderate changes. Workers report having their passports taken away and living in cramped and filthy conditions. The plight of domestic workers is particularly tough. One woman McManus speaks to was forbidden even to take two hours off to go to church and was eventually accused of theft by her employer.
It’s hard to know what to make of Qatar on finishing this book, although that’s not the fault of McManus, whose writing is entertaining, in-depth and compassionate. What comes across is a place at odds with itself and its own identity, but sadly unlikely to change.