Who's Watching Me Now?

One thing Westerners, particularly North Americans*, just might have a hard time adapting to in the ME is the continuous tracking and CONTROL of movements and transactions that go on here during the course of an ordinary day.

While this can be somewhat disconcerting, there are undoubtedly benefits to be had from a certain degree of vigilance.  

Entering and Exiting the Country

The initial and most traumatizing realization is probably the fact that upon entry as a resident into this part of the world, all subsequent entries to and exits from Qatar will not only be tracked, but will also be subject to approval/rejection by your sponsor (if he/she is your employer) and in all cases communicated real-time via SMS to your sponsor.  

If your sponsor is your employer, you will need an 'exit permit' to exit the country.  If you are one of the chosen few, you may be granted a 'multiple exit visa' of set duration (e.g. 1 year validity).  Let it be stated that I have yet to meet the recipient of such a prize, but it does exist.  

Your sponsor is normally your employer (if you're a man) or your spouse (if you're a woman).  While there can be exceptions to the sponsorship rule, these are rare (e.g. for women hired overseas and brought into the country on "single status").  

As such, every time my daughter or I leave or enter the country, whether with or without Smilin' Vic, he gets a magical 'Ping!' on his mobile phone.  Whether or not I am gainfully employed in this country, my husband continues to be my sponsor, so he, and not any potential employer, will always be the receiver of the 'ping'.  His access and egress to the country are consequently monitored by 'his' sponsor (his employer).  In his case, his employer is the recipient of the ping. 

Driving

You will also be tracked as you drive.  Traffic/speed sensors have become more and more common and sophisticated in this country over the past decade.  Though road traffic stops are extremely rare (I have seen maybe 4 occasions where police had actually pulled someone over), I have yet to meet an expat who has not been the sad recipient of some type of infraction recorded by one of the above-mentioned sensors.  Whether for speeding, getting caught in the middle of an intersection at a red light, driving on the soft shoulder, even overloading a vehicle ... all manner of violation can be caught on tape.

Once these are recorded, the recipient of the fine (person to whom the car is registered) cannot exit the country until the applicable fine (usually steep ... some running well into the four digit arena) has been paid.  I must say, the guy who thought this rule up was absolutely genius.

Spending

Your credit/debit purchases are also tracked and communicated real-time.  My husband and I have a joint account (when we initially requested this six years back the Qatari bank clerk stared intently at my husband from behind his aviator shades and, as if I were not even in the room, said:  "Are you SURE you want her to have full access to your account?")

Since the fateful day Smilin' Vic answered "Yes", every time I buy eyeliner at Shiseido or foundation at Estee Lauder he gets ... you guessed it ... a 'Ping!'  Since the 'Ping' is followed by details of purchase price and store name, it makes it hard to hide something like, "ahem ..., cough, cough", a Dior lipstick fetish or some equally benign interest.

You can actually ask the bank turn this feature off.  But while it might seem really irritating at first, we found it to be a blessing last year when someone started using my credit card info to make random purchases in Uzbekistan, Syria, Brazil and China.  The magical 'Ping' allowed us to immediately contact the credit card company and let them know that trouble was afoot.

Boozing

Your alcohol consumption is also monitored and tracked.  If you are an expat non-Muslim and earn 4,000 QAR a month or more, you are eligible for an alcohol permit.  This must be supported by your employer via a letter to the distribution center, stating your title and salary.  Your monthly limit is a set percentage of your salary.  Approval on all counts gives you a little blue library-like swipe card with a REALLY bad picture that you must present to the guards outside the QDC, to the guards inside the QDC and finally to the QDC cashier who will swipe it and proceed to charge you 200% the actual import cost of your beverage of choice.  

It should be noted that the security guards and cashiers NEVER miss this opportunity to ask to see your card, and make no effort to conceal their smirks, snide snickers, and the occasional shudder at the atrocity of the snapshot found thereon.

No worries, this does NOT dissuade expats from indulging in spirits.  But as the cashier totaled up my purchases today, I started to wonder a little about the deal with my card details.  I'm always slightly paranoid that one month the cashier will ring up my last item and strobe lights will begin to flash, bells will ring, confetti will fall from the ceiling as they announce:  "Folks, we have a winner over here at Cash Number 8 - Gypsy is our Big Spender of the Month!  Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for the biggest lush in Doha!!!!"

The infamous 'black bag'.

The infamous 'black bag'.

Like maybe there's some guy in a room somewhere monitoring this stuff remotely, running a betting pool on who's gonna buy the most Budweiser this month?

That's probably why I always feel the need to defend myself at the till as the chugables get loaded into black opaque bags (to be transported directly to your home and hidden from view on the journey there).  "You know, I was here last week, but I bought mostly pork ... not booze.  Oh, this case of Valpolicella?  It's not all for me, we're hosting a wine and cheese, and I use a lot of red wine in my bolognese sauce, and ... sigh ... I just like wine, ok?  Just give me the horrendously overpriced bill and consider that my contrition, ok?"

More Boozing

Once you've exhausted your QDC budget, you can always go out for smart pops at  a local imbibery (prettied-up term for drinking hole).  And yes, you will be asked to buy a membership card there as well.  "Ahhhhhh, yes, Gypsy.  Your reputation precedes you.  So you've finally depleted your QDC budget, yes?  Just stand still and smile for the camera while we take another horrendous mug shot.  And remember, bring your card with you next time so we can all have a good laugh while scanning you through."

Having to show that hideous picture card is usually enough to ward you off visiting drinking establishments for the next few months at least.

Surfing

And finally, worn out by all the tracking, you'll end up back at home, alone, blogging about nothing really.  And you'll decide you need to find a synonym for "sexy" to help enrich that post you've been working on.  And as you Google "sexy", you'll get a pop-up screen that says "Ooops!  This site has been blocked!"  

Sigh....

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*My favorite "whatever!" source of info, Wikipedia,  "estimates that the number of cameras in the UK is 1.85 million. The number is based on extrapolating from a comprehensive survey of public and private cameras within the Cheshire Constabulary jurisdiction."... "This works out as an average of one camera for every 32 people in the UK, although the density of cameras varies greatly from place to place. The Cheshire report also claims that the average person on a typical day would be seen by 70 CCTV cameras."