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Embrace Doha began with the simple idea that a two-way dialogue can create sustainable friendships and connections, and at the same time aid in the preservation of Qatar’s traditional identity as it undergoes intense development and transformation. Founder Amal Alshammari intends for her initiative to be a cultural resource that increases understanding between the Qatari and non-Qatari communities. First, she reached out to different expatriate communities via Facebook and found her idea met with genuine interest. She then booked a hall in a hotel, decorated it to look like a traditional Qatari majlis, complete with servings of coffee and dates, and invited a group of people to discuss local culture. After the success of her first majlis, Amal took her idea to several startup competitions in Qatar and won an office space from the Qatar Business Incubation Center and seed money from Qatar University. She found a space in Suq Waqif, a historical part of Doha’s old city, and began hosting regular educational sessions as well as tours and activities to increase cultural awareness. Amal hopes that Embrace Doha will help to “speed up the adjustment process” for newcomers moving to Qatar for work.
Speaking with AGSIW, Amal discussed her personal experiences with misconceptions about Qatar, what she hopes visitors will take away from their participation in Embrace Doha’s programs, and the importance of preserving Qatari culture.
AGSIW: Tell us what inspired Embrace Doha.
Amal: Two things happened at once and I felt like together they became a sign to start this. When I was offered the job at my current company one of my brothers asked me to cover my face at work. I was very upset and talked to my mom who advised me: “If you want the job, do what your brothers are telling you.” She wanted to avoid problems. I didn’t want to lose the job so I covered, but I noticed that my colleagues approached and looked at me differently. When I met people they assumed I was closed-minded and anti-social. They felt like they couldn’t talk to me or approach me. But I am a very social person so they were surprised when I would talk to them; so it was kind of a cultural shock. They began asking me, “Why do you cover your face? Why do you wear a black abaya?” They asked many questions and I wondered why they didn’t know the answers. I began searching to see if their embassies or the company was offering a cultural induction to new employees but none of that was available. That was the first sign I had.
The second was that when I joined the company, my manager handed me the Qatar National Vision 2030 and I read about the challenges that the government was facing to implement it. The first challenge was how to keep developing the country while at the same time preserving the Qatari identity.
Qataris and expats live in a small country together but rarely mix together. It seemed like they wanted to talk to us [Qataris] but were afraid of offending, and we wanted to talk to them but we didn’t know where or when. So I decided to open a majlis for expats to come and for us to talk about the Qatari culture and explain; and that’s why I started Embrace Doha.
AGSIW: How do you get people to attend the cultural sessions or tours and how is Embrace Doha different than other tourist organizations?
Amal: I use social media or I go to companies and try to convince them why it’s important to give their employees this kind of induction. Some are ready and others are facing budget cuts because of the oil prices. I explain what we offer: cultural sessions, business etiquette, team building in a cultural way, national day events, informative tours, and trips around Doha. Sometimes we do events for the public – for people who don’t work but want the cultural introduction. Groups of stay-at-home moms for example often want to come. People can go onto the website and select what kind of activity they would like.
The Ministry of Tourism is one of my main clients; they love Embrace Doha. Most of their trips and tours are through us. They were opening offices all around the world to market Doha to expats in Europe and Asia. They invite different groups from around the world to Doha and they were initially working with big companies that do tours but didn’t have any Qataris. With Embrace Doha I guarantee that a Qatari will be with the group and that person will be able to answer all the questions. We know about the Qatari restaurants, where to stop, and which farms to take people to. Nobody else in Doha offers the cultural sessions.
AGSIW: What are the misconceptions you see in those who are either new to Qatar or have little interaction with locals, and which you hope to change?
Amal: I think the media gives us a bad image. People know that we have money and that we need them and their work and that they can save a lot [of money], so it’s a great opportunity. But they don’t know how to handle the culture. They experience a cultural shock. Many of their misconceptions are about women, laborers, and kids. They think women are abused, and they pity us, not realizing we live very normal lives and some things are just part of our culture. They also talk a lot about the abuse of laborers, especially now that we are hosting the World Cup. With kids, the way we raise them is very different than, say, the U.S. or Europe. We tend to give kids more freedom – we are not strict and we are less organized with them. In our cultural sessions we try to explain these cultural differences and answer their questions.
AGSIW: What are the main aspects of Qatar and its culture you hope participants will take away from your educational sessions?
Amal: Our hospitality as Arabs, our morals like respecting your parents, honoring neighbors, putting others before yourself – these are all our values and I want them to see that we aren’t the aggressive Arabs they see on TV. We are calm, social, and we love having guests. I want them to feel welcome and see that we are peaceful people. In terms of Qatar, I want people to see its history and what Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed, founder of Qatar did; our story is very unique. There were only small tribes in Doha and he was facing challenges from both sides: British from the sea and Ottomans on land. Before independence, which came much later, he founded a land called Qatar. I also want participants to know that the government and royal family here cares about the people. They often ask us why we are so loyal to them so I try to explain why we feel loyal. We have a lot of charities and institutions that take care of the poor and I feel proud that the government takes care of us and doesn’t take the wealth and leave us desperate. Our education and health care are free for Qataris; the electricity and water and the basics are all provided. On top of this we get generous salaries so we really feel they do everything for us.
AGSIW: You mentioned earlier the need to balance modernization with preservation of tradition. What does this mean to you and why do you think it’s important?
Amal: We don’t want to end up like Dubai. If you go there you won’t find an Emirati. If you do, they look like expats: the way they dress, talk, walk… You can’t tell when one is an Emirati. Dubai is a big, modern city but they’ve lost their identity and it will be difficult for them to get it back. I can see Doha improving and developing in a way similar to Dubai. People often compare the two because we are both experiencing fast development. We as Qataris don’t want to lose our identity; so to keep it, we believe in educating expats about our culture and educating Qataris about the “why” aspect of our culture and its history to make them see we have something unique and we should keep it. We want to be modern and well-educated but keep our culture.
AGSIW: The way the two communities co-exist in the Gulf tends to be very disconnected. Some cultural awareness can help but how do you hope to create more long-lasting connections between Qataris and expats?
Amal: If you explain the culture to others, they will understand how people think and why it’s easier for them to approach Qataris in public. If you respect and understand how to deal with the culture, you’ll have Qatari friends. By showing them tips, how to meet Qataris, what to say, and how to be respectful and greet them, they tend to become comfortable talking to them. Also, during our sessions they will meet many Qataris and they often end up becoming friends. If every Qatari can have 20 expat friends that would be awesome; this is what I want and I’m in the process of getting them to mix more.
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