New York lawyer Sonya Shaykhoun thought she’d see the world by taking a job in the Middle East.
Then she found herself trapped in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar — one of numerous westerners barred from leaving the country because they have a debt, are involved in a lawsuit, had a falling out with an employer or simply crossed a powerful native.
Her new life mixed oil billionaires, slave laborers, western grifters fleeing trouble in their native countries, and a girl from Idaho who didn’t survive it all, she told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
She saw gleaming high-rises sprouting like weeds in the capital city of Doha, which on the outside appeared as clean as any Swiss city. The outward image projected by Qatar — the host of the 2022 World Cup and the site of a major American military base — was one of western-friendly liberalism.
But all of that was different once one was inside.
“There’s an Arabic phrase, ‘marble on the outside, shit on the inside.’ That is the best description of Qatar itself,” Shaykhoun, 47, said. It’s a country where image is everything, and usually misleading, she said.
First, she took a job in Bahrain, a neighboring country in the Persian Gulf region. The TV network Al Jazeera, which the royal family of Qatar controls, offered her a job in Doha in 2010. She accepted the offer and quit her job as instructed, but there was an unexpected delay in Qatar processing her visa. Al Jazeera declined to let her work remotely, and Shaykhoun was stranded for six months in Bahrain, racking up debt.
People who owe money in Gulf countries can be jailed and are banned from leaving the country. So when the visa finally cleared, she took a loan from a Qatari bank and paid off the Bahrain debt. She shipped her belongings to Qatar, but the county’s customs authority took her personal diaries without explanation and snapped the head off of a Buddhist sculpture, she said.
In Doha, four very different groups come together in one city in the desert.
Qatar is a country of 313,000 citizens — about half the population of Wyoming or the District of Columbia. But it is also the richest country in the world on a per capita basis and one with a troubled workers’ rights record.
A serf class of imported foreign labor — mostly from Nepal and India and numbering more than 2 million people, or seven for every Qatari — serve Qatar’s elites. Nepalese laborers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar while building the World Cup stadium and working on other projects, according to The Guardian.
“These laborers make maybe $100 per month, and people pull up in these sports cars and their mouths drop. That’s where you see this shocking contrast,” Shaykhoun said. Qatar set a minimum wage of $195 per month for migrant workers in November 2017, though, according to Amnesty International, they say they often aren’t paid at all.
The foreign population also includes thousands of people like Shaykhoun: white-collar, English-speaking expatriates from western nations. When she arrived at the Al Jazeera headquarters in 2011, she found a mix of westerners (from England, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere) and Arabs from various countries — some from Qatar, but more from Sudan, India, Pakistan and others.
Finally, besides Qatar’s oil billionaires and sheikhs, there is the middle-class population. Shaykhoun and others who have spent time in Qatar described it as headed for disaster because of cultural pressure to exhibit outward displays of wealth.
“It’s very into image and fashion and status, shopping and luxury. They get into debt spending more than they have to show off,” Shaykhoun said. “I went to get a small amount of credit from a store and they said this is nothing, people here take millions. For trips. So much pressure to keep up the Joneses.”
Another American who has spent time in Qatar, who asked not to be named for fear that his travel will be blocked, told the DCNF that many in the middle class are headed for bankruptcy because of unnecessary purchases.
“It’s like if you were making $70,000 and you decided to buy a Lamborghini to show that you were just as cool as your neighbors, but all your neighbors were in the same position.” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s insane, and it is widespread. It’s a bubble that’s going to burst, and it’s not going to end well.”
Reuters reported in 2016 that 75% of Qatari families were in debt due to the attitude some call a “social curse.”
“You cannot have a bad watch on your wrist, a second-hand car … you need to have the latest models so as not to appear ‘poor,’” former police officer Mohammed al-Mari told the outlet.
Shaykhoun’s salary was relatively high, but Doha was a deeply unequal city, with one section full of gleaming, brand-new luxury resorts and apartments, and the rest unsafe slums.
“A Sudanese secretary whose father worked at the CID, which is like FBI, she said Qatar is a very dangerous place, and I could feel the edginess in the air. People get murdered,” she said.
There was little in the middle, so Shaykhoun found herself in the unusual predicament of being forced to live in a high-end resort.
She could take in the sun after work on the Four Seasons resort club’s beach or ride horses at the Al Shaqab stable. But her salary evaporated as soon as it came in, going straight to living expenses.
“I remember calculating my salary and working out the shortest time in which I could pay back my loan to the Qatari bank and despairing that it would take me 2.5 years to repay my loan, even handing over one-third of my salary,” she said. She couldn’t leave the country until she repaid her loan.
Qatar is governed by Sharia law, and extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion and alcohol consumption are crimes. Women have far fewer rights than men.
“The society is harsh in certain ways. Some of the women wear niqabs with the black veil, but others wear the rheshwa — it’s more restrictive than that, with a black gauze that goes over their face, covering even their eyes,” Shaykhoun said. “How do you drive in that?”
At the same time, the status-conscious, approval-hungry country attracted western favor by putting on airs of liberalism and modernism for outsiders. The wealthy western ex-pat community seems partially, informally excepted from ultraconservative laws that govern the rest of Qatar. The result is a stunning duality.
The ex-pat scene attracts aggressive “Wolf of Wall Street” types hoping for huge money, as well as hucksters, troublemakers and con men looking for a fresh start where no one knows them. Then there are those on work assignment who simply feel they’re on vacation. Put them together in an atmosphere of hedonistic luxury that could be out of a rap music video, plop that in the middle of the desert in a Sharia law nation, and you have Doha, she said.
“I have heard loads of stories about sex parties. They had a sex party at the St. Regis — homosexuals, married people, ministers,” Shaykhoun said. She said she turned down an invitation to swing from “this crazy Australian lady — she said, ‘I’m learning how to live fearlessly. My husband and I started swinging!’”
A colleague who worked in “compliance” at one of her jobs was an ex-pat who was sexually harassing a subordinate while also having an extramarital affair, Shaykhoun said. “Affairs are punishable by death in Qatar, but he believed the laws don’t apply to him.”
Among the high-flying Doha scene, it seems everyone’s hoping to get one over on the next guy, she and others said.
“Qatar is crawling with expatriate Arabs and Westerners who are motivated by greed and, acting with the notion that Arabs are slow and gullible, will make audacious and bold moves that risk their own lives,” she said.
At Al Jazeera, Shaykhoun said she noticed fraud and mismanagement and called attention to it in order to fix it. She faced retaliation, her emails were hacked and her boss joked about having her assassinated, she said. (Al Jazeera denies the allegations.) Al Jazeera fired her.
But in Qatar, “one needed a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from one’s company to even ship ones belongings abroad – I felt utterly trapped,” she said. “In a state of shock, I would go to the beach and try to think my way out of this pickle – how could I leave Qatar with that huge debt?”
The only way to survive was another job in Doha.
Though the circumstances of Nepalese laborers and white-collar ex-pats are very different, many laws tightly controlling foreigners in Qatar do not draw a distinction, and numerous westerners who came to Qatar for business are currently barred from leaving by its government.
“Travel bans” are imposed due to debt, being in a lawsuit or employment disputes, but can even be imposed for traffic fines and “gestures or behavior reported by Qataris that are viewed as ‘offensive,’” the State Department says.
“U.S. citizens have been subjected to exit bans which bar them from leaving Qatar; some have also been placed in prison pending payment of debts,” the State Department’s Qatar country information page says. “Once placed under an exit ban, you are barred from leaving the country until the case is abandoned or resolved by the court.”
“This process could take months or even years,” it continues. “The Government of Qatar does not offer any social support for those who remain in the country.”
A sick, 70-year-old Australian grandfather has been wrongfully imprisoned in Qatar since 2016, with the Australian government apparently unable to get him out, Australian media reported on July 24.
Joseph Sarlak came to Doha to conduct business, and a sheikh from the ruling Al Thani family served as his company’s “sponsor.” (Qatar doesn’t permit foreigners to control businesses, so a native must own 51%.)
Sarlak’s family says the sheikh used his status as nominal majority owner to write himself checks from the company, then threw Sarlak in jail because of the consequential debts, forcing him to sign a confession in Arabic. Now, the criminal charge has been resolved, but he is not being allowed to leave because he doesn’t have a valid visa, 9News reported.
A State Department official told the DCNF there is little the U.S. can do to rescue Americans subject to a travel ban.
“We are aware of multiple instances in which U.S. citizens have been subjected to exit bans in Qatar,” the official said, declining to give an exact figure because of privacy. “In a foreign country, U.S. citizens are subject to that country’s laws, even if they differ from those in the United States. … Consular officers can provide a list of local lawyers, but cannot provide legal advice or effect the release of U.S. citizens who are detained or subject to exit bans.”
Shaykhoun said more than a dozen ex-pats have formed a tent city in the desert, afraid of debtors prison. The DCNF could not confirm this because Shaykhoun said they feared Qatar’s reputation for hacking and monitoring communications.
On the beach at the Four Seasons, Shaykhoun met a chain-smoking, tattooed Californian named Allan Callo. He had a tech startup called Syscontek that was looking to hire a lawyer.
On paper, the company was owned by his wife, a Thai woman named Ann Unsanun, and a billionaire Qatari, who served as its “sponsor.” Shaykhoun met the billionaire’s daughter and was swayed by her charm and the salary, which was $100,000 more than she was making at Al Jazeera. She took the job in 2015.
But “I had been conned – by the fancy residence, the expensive clothes, the BMW and the brand new Mercedes that Ann and Allan drove, and sucked in by the BS that Allan spouted,” she said. After she started the job, Callo reneged on the salary and paid her less than half, while spending lavishly on himself.
Callo worked at Parsons Corp., a U.S.-based defense contractor that also runs large construction projects in Doha, until he was fired in March 2014 for allegedly setting up a competing company – Syscontek – in his wife’s name and stealing secrets, legal documents the DCNF reviewed show. Callo and Parsons sued each other, causing Callo to be subject to a travel ban that trapped him in Qatar.
Parsons confirmed Callo’s employment dates to the DCNF but declined to comment on the litigation.
Shaykhoun said after Callo hired her, he told her he’d taken documents from Parsons and given them to the Qatari billionaire.
She said he also said he’d spent time in jail. Public records in the U.S. show a history of state and federal tax liens against him totaling tens of thousands of dollars, as well as an eviction. Callo did not return a request for comment from the DCNF.
Syscontek’s employees were a “motley crew,” she said. There was a red-haired Englishman who got stiffed the same way she did.
There was a young American woman from Idaho who died suddenly, an obituary and other records the DCNF reviewed show. “They said she committed suicide,” Shaykhoun said.
Twenty Americans have died in Qatar of non-natural causes since 2004, according to State Department statistics. Four were recorded as suicides, five were recorded as homicides and the others were billed as accidents.
There was Richard Kilde, who Shaykoun described as a brash Brit who was fired after he came to suspect that Syscontek was engaging in money laundering and confronted Callo’s wife.
“All I can say is [Callo and his wife] belong in jail,” Kilde told the DCNF. “The rumor was the so-called restaurant which never opened was a front for sex workers, always bringing new staff to Qatar for a business that was closed. Very weird.”
Then there was Juan Carlos Tavarez, a New Yorker who had been fired from an office job at Qatar Airways for being drunk at work and couldn’t leave the country because of debts, Shaykhoun said.
Kilde told the DCNF that “deep down [Tavarez] is a good kid,” but $250,000 in debts fueled by bad choices, including two drunken car crashes, have led to a situation where he is “trapped in a country and will probably never leave because of the money he now owes banks.”
Tavarez did not return a request for comment from the DCNF.
After Shaykhoun received only a fraction of her salary, she sued Callo’s wife in the Qatar courts for breach of contract. She won her case in 2017 and got a financial judgment against Callo’s wife — which meant Callo’s wife would be banned from leaving Qatar, too, until it was paid.
FIFA selected Qatar — eager to enhance its image on the world stage — in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup, allegedly after paying bribes. The problem was it had no infrastructure to host it. It set out to build Lusail, a city intended to house 450,000, Business Insider reported.
This bright image was built on the backs of literally millions of Nepalese and Indian migrant workers, now totaling 95% of Qatar’s workforce, according to the International Observatory of Human Rights. They worked 18-hour days for $6 a day, toiling in temperatures of up to 118 degrees, according to news reports.
They died at a rate of one per day, a human rights group says. The International Trade Union Confederation predicts 4,000 will die by the time the World Cup begins.
“I saw a lot of them in court and they were really up a creek. They had very limited access to rights and the national human rights office had precious few people who could speak Hindi,” Shaykhoun said.
“Everyone needed an exit permit from their employer to leave the country, so your boss was your owner,” Shaykhoun said.
At risk of losing the World Cup in the face of international outcry, Qatar pledged in 2014 to abolish its “kafala” system, which gave employers full control over foreigners. It walked back the practice partially in December 2018. Under the new law, most workers no longer need permission from their employer before getting an “exit visa,” but travel bans for other reasons remain in place.
Parsons, the U.S. company that once employed Callo, is one of those companies that employs third-world construction workers and confiscates their passports, an activist group called Avaaz said in a 2015 advocacy campaign.
“Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are trapped in Qatar, enslaved to construction companies that hold their passports hostage,” it said. “But a massive global call on the American company managing a major part of the project can help these workers go home.”
Parsons’ CEO, Chuck Harrington, had a salary and bonus of $2.5 million in 2018, with up to $4.5 million in incentives. Parsons did not respond to the DCNF’s questions about its labor practices.
Qatar is a tenuous house of cards, Shaykhoun said: It is well aware that its wide-scale abuse of a third-world workforce that wildly exceeds the native population has the potential to end in mutiny.
“When you have a small indigenous population, it becomes a very delicate balance — especially because it’s a gun culture there,” she said.
Performing manual labor, there were abused Indians and Nepalese migrant workers who outnumbered Qataris seven to one, seething at their bosses, grieving at the deaths of friends and with nothing to lose, she said. Running powerful institutions in the country, meanwhile, were a cadre of highly paid foreigners who, having no particular attachment to the country, phoned it in at best.
Even the guards that politicians depend on to preserve their power are from war-torn regions with no particular loyalty to Qatar’s ruling family, Shaykhoun said.
The sense that Qatar is Icarus flying too close to the sun, a mirage built on a shaky foundation of human rights abuses, is what has led to Qatar paying more than a billion dollars to American universities in order to open campuses in Qatar, she said.
“They brought these universities to Qatar to educate locals so they wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on educated ex-pats, and it also accommodated the local female population who wouldn’t be able to travel to study without a chaperone,” she said.
Shaykhoun got a job at Qatar Airways in 2017 while her lawsuit against the tattooed Californian was winding its way through the Qatari courts. At the airline, employees were prohibited from leaving their desks during the day and were not allowed to leave the headquarters to get lunch, according to a memo from the CEO reviewed by the DCNF.
Indians primarily staffed the airline, not Qataris, Shaykhoun said. Malfeasance and false credentials were rampant, her boss sexually harassed her, and the workplace was dysfunctional, she said. (RELATED: The Bizarre Story Of How Pakistan’s Military Deep State Allegedly Tried To Shake Down British Money Laundering Investigators Who Found $1 Billion)
The dysfunction seemed to permeate virtually every aspect of life in the country. She felt an obligation to satisfy her debts, but danger seemed to lurk everywhere, and she didn’t know how much longer she could hold on.
Shaykhoun was riding a horse one day when an employee of an equestrian facility named Olga told her that her husband drove a van that took scofflaws to “Chop Chop Square,” where they were killed, she said. She wanted out.
She developed severe acid reflux and got a doctor’s note in March saying she needed care in New York, went home and never returned.
Shaykhoun is now in debt and looking for work, but she doesn’t mind.
When she walks down the street in Manhattan and sees wide-eyed, rough-looking homeless people camped in doorways, she thinks about how that could have been her — homeless in the desert, living in a tent.
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