Friday, July 7, 2017

Memories of Qatar, Hold the Remorse

Ah, Qatar, I remember you well. At least, I think I do. It's been a while.

Qatar is back in the news again, shunned by its Middle Eastern neighbors for snuggling up to Iran, promoting terrorist broadcasts on Al Jazeera and harboring Turkish military. The U.S., which also has a military base there, is urging reconciliation.

Qatar is easy to locate on a map. It sticks out like a sore thumb into the Arabian Gulf. In my working days, I called there often. That was back in the 1980s. Doha, the capital, was an important business stop.

Back then, the Arabian countries were ripe markets for water-treatment chemicals, with huge desalination plants cranking out drinking water for the desert masses. Desalination, both by distillation and reverse osmosis, needed antiscalants to prevent mineral buildup on the heat-exchanger or membrane walls. And the Arabians could pay for those chemicals. It was said back then, with only slight exaggeration, that a barrel of fresh water was worth more than a barrel of oil.

My recollection of those days is slipping, but I do remember we were not well schooled in Arabian culture, particularly as it applied to business. We learned, often the hard way, that relationships take time to build, family comes first, time has little value and maintaining face is all important.

Here's an example. Several colleagues and I, prompt for a call on a departmental secretary, were shunted to the rear of a large conference room when a relative showed up unannounced. We cooled our heels while the secretary and his cousin (or perhaps nephew) consumed vast amounts of tea and chatted for nearly an hour.

That turned out to be the high point of the visit. When we were summoned back to the front of the room, our marketing manager -- a voluble New Yorker -- extolled our products, gesticulating, making the big pitch. Later, our Egyptian salesman took us to task. He said we erred by pointing (very threatening) and by telling the secretary our products could help him solve his problem (making him lose face). But our salesman said, don't worry. It turned out the secretary didn't understand a single  word of English!

Another recollection points up the fact that terrorism isn't new to the Middle East. Back in the 1980s, everyone was on edge and security was tight, particularly at airports. On one visit, I was walking to the terminal, having just landed at the Doha airport, when I realized I had left my briefcase on the plane. I swore and started running back to the plane. My colleague shouted, "Dave, stop, stop!" I turned around to see a sub-machine gun pointed at me. I nearly got shot in the back. The guard thought I was a terrorist going back to blow up the plane. You tend not to forget things like that.

Less dramatic is my recollection of a fishing trip in the Arabian Gulf. With government offices closed on a Friday, the Qatari sabbath, I joined a veritable United Nations of visitors on an old Arabian dhow, a fishing vessel tricked out with ... nothing. No compass, no charts, no radar, no life jackets, no depth sounder (it did have a lead line). The captain, in white gown and checkered headdress, stripped down to his underwear once we cleared the breakwater. It was at least 105 degree Fahrenheit.

The sea was flat; there were no buoys or markers of any kind. Yet the captain seemed to know exactly where he was going. At one point we passed another dhow going in the opposite direction. Someone on the other boat shouted to us, trying to get directions. Our captain ignored him, later explaining the other vessel had passengers from another sect, a lesser one, one unworthy of his attention. Tribalism, at least back then, was alive and well.

Ultimately, the fishing trip was successful. Using hand lines (the boat had no fishing poles), we used shrimp to catch bait fish and the bait fish, hooked through the eye sockets, to catch grouper. The key was to jerk up the line when we felt a hit to keep the grouper from diving into the rocks below. By the time we returned, everyone was bloody from the lines cutting into our hands. But we also had fish, big ones.

How does the story end? We didn't get to keep the fish. Instead, we were told we could order grouper, very fresh, for dinner that night at the hotel by the wharf. No one ever accused the Qatari's of being poor businessmen.

Time have changed since the 1980s. Most Qatari officials speak English now. Planes pull up to jetways. All passengers go through security. Fishing boats have GPS and even fishing poles. Western ways have overtaken the Middle East. Just look at television shots of the skyscrapers. Dubai has the tallest building in the world.

Time has air-brushed many details of the past. Or maybe it's just age making memories more selective. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Next year I may remember nothing at all.

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