Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: fre, Feb 5th, 2016

Branding Expats in the Middle East

Imagine you are an expat on the Arabian Peninsula, not one of the tens of thousands of service workers in construction, stores, cleaning and maid services but a professional on some level from Europe or America. In your home country you are probably used to going out to a bar on the weekend for beer with friends or a nice Italian restaurant with plenty of wine. Your conversation would probably have few taboos.

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If you are female, you might dress to kill, club style with plunging necklines or short skirts; if you are male you might try the Armani look, shirt buttons open and a swagger in your walk. But here you are in a country like Qatar, which is quite conservative. Expats in Qatar can buy liquor with a license and the major hotels have bars for foreigners and there are residential pockets where non-local women can wear bikinis at a more-or-less closed beach, unlike nearby Saudi Arabia. But where do you go to meet up with fellow expats in such a conservative place?

If you have a Facebook account, you will be inundated with ads for the Doha expat Community for Doha expats, one of 390 cities that support expat groups for an organization called internations.org. The main webpage shows the contemporary Doha skyline with an invitation to join for free. Free means you have access to just a few parts of the site, which are only partial. As a free member you soon get a notice that “You are currently a Basic Member. As a Basic Member, you only have limited access to the Expat Guide articles. Only Albatross Members (starting at 6.95 Euro for 3 months) have full access to the Country & City Guides.” The notion of being an Albatross member is rather ironic given the memorable lines from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner:

“Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”

Internations.org is advertised as a getting-together site for expats, but it has all the characteristics of a singles meeting and dating site. This is nowhere more evident than in the advertising image that came across my Facebook page for Doha. Look at this carefully: two men (one not very visible) enjoying the company of seven laughing women drinking from wine and beer glasses. The women are sleeveless and one is revealing her cleavage. The message is rather straightforward: join up and meet lots of women to have a drink with (for a starter of course). There is indeed the making of an expat community as the Doha brach boasts 59 “group consuls,” mostly expat businessmen and women. While the website has a variety of social and business aspects, it seems to be more of a way to meet other expats to have a drink with than anything else. I note a section called “Women Online” which has two events listed in early February; the same exact events are listed under “Dining & Nightlife”. There seems to be a lot of interest in events at the Doha Golf Club. The website also features a blog, but this is generic and not related to Doha. A feature on the blog for February 2 is entitled “My InterNations: LGBTE(xpat)” with a focus on Brazil and Austria.

Much is made of the public relations branding of the Gulf States, all of which (apart from Oman I suspect) have hired major firms to make their brand positive. Qatar, perhaps more than any other Gulf State, has undergone a feverish development of high rise buildings, infrastructure and imported educational institutions like Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and UCL. The successful bid for the 2022 World Cup has also accelerated construction projects, especially for the underground Rail system, hotels and stadiums. The Qatar brand is especially prominent in sports with their sponsorship of Barcelona football and other clubs and the attraction of top tennis stars to matches in Doha. There are also numerous high end shopping malls with boutique shops and about every restaurant franchise you have ever heard of. Qatar Airways, one of the newer airlines in the region, now boasts one of the largest and ever expanding fleets. Despite the recent decline in oil and gas prices, the pace of development continues, but all of this is dependent of expat labor at all levels. But it seems the Internations Doha expat community is one brand better left out of the official picture.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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