You can only see Ismail’s profile in the BMW he is driving on a desert highway stretching from Doha to Dukhan. He speaks French. I don't. So he says, in English, pointing to the beautiful homes along the way, "those are the new houses of the big people from Doha."
The car radio is tuned to QBS Country, a station that plays American country music on Qatar Broadcasting Service. "Is there any Qatari music on the radio?" I ask. Ismail fiddles with controls, but after a while, QBS Country is back on. The desert wind hums and whistles as Alan Jackson sings, "Don't rock the jukebox...."
"How long have you lived here, Ismail?"
"Eighteen months," says Ismail. "Too long."
Eighteen months is indeed a long time for migrants in Doha, but the desert land of Qatar has become an oasis for migrants. Relatively speaking, it is by far the largest destination for migrants in the world.
"Do you send money home, Ismail?"
Ismail turned around to briefly look at me. He thought for a moment, and said, "Yes, about $300 each month."
"How much do you make, if I may ask?"
"Money is good. About $550-600 a month." he said nonchalantly.
Four out five persons in Qatar is a migrant, implying that for every adult Qatari male, there are about 8 migrants! Three out of four migrants are men, mostly unskilled. Like many neighboring countries, Qatar does not publish data on outward remittances.
The night before at the hotel, I crashed a party organized by the Kenyan diaspora for their President (who was in town to attend the Financing for Development conference). About 1,500 to 2,000 Kenyans have arrived in Doha less than 12 months ago. Qatar is now beginning to recruit workers from Sub-Saharan Africa, they said. There is no Kenyan embassy in Doha, so they go to the British embassy for consular services. Without an embassy, no one knows how many Kenyans are working in Qatar. Today the President of Kenya announced that he would open an embassy here shortly.
Contrary to my worries, Qatar shows no sign of a slowdown despite the headlines about falling energy prices and a global credit crunch. While many tall buildings in downtown Doha appear dark at night – indicating vacant office space - the vast desert land outside, from Doha to Dukhan, is dotted with cranes and blue-clad migrant workers. "Why do they wear blue?" asks Sonia. "They are blue-collar workers," I said. "Do you know what kind of worker wears blue shirts but not blue collars?" They are in the news a lot these days -- bankers!
At some point during the day, I visited an authentic South Indian restaurant in downtown Doha. The manager was from India (22 months in Doha), the servers were from Nepal (4 and 6 months respectively). I was trying to warm up to a conversation with them about how much they remit when two men in traditional Arabic clothing walked in. The manager ended the conversation abruptly, and said, "Have a good day, sir!"
Later that evening my group and I saw a spectacular sign as we drove on a beach-side road in downtown Doha. The crescent moon flanked by Venus and Jupiter looked like a smiley face in the sky. Later I read in the newspapers that that was a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.