Return to Qatar

December 1975 in Qatar was relatively cool and as I descended from the airplane the warm smell of aviation fuel mingled with the balmy air and wafted with me during the short walk across the tarmac to the arrival gate. Nothing much had changed on my return to Qatar, some of the faces of the airport staff seemed younger, my passport almost filled with Qatar entry and exit visas earned little attention, my one suitcase was late in arriving on the baggage rack, but Hassan who had been waiting near the arrivals exit door supported by male members of his family became impatient and pushed past the policemen at the door. The suitcase was now on the bench ready for inspection by the young customs officer. Hassan rapped out a torrent of commands; the youngster made as if to rebel, took another look at H. Y. A. and scrawled his wiggly chalk mark on the case.

“Good to see you again in Doha – welcome back – every one is waiting to say hello – we’ll talk in the car, come let’s go!” and so saying he appointed a porter to pick up the luggage, and marched off scattering travellers and their kin regardless. I followed through the melee being greeted by his relatives and friends waiting near the exit and off we went in a pack, pushing our way through a milling crowd of fathers and brothers, cousins and uncles, women and shrieking children who invariably make up the social scene in any Arab airport.

The guest wing, tucked away on the ground floor ensured I would be most comfortable. Heavy damask curtains shaded the large window looking out on to the small courtyard, one could see out but outsiders could not see in. The huge mahogany wardrobes that lined one wall swallowed my few clothes and bits and pieces. A large bathroom next to the bedroom off the entrance lobby was as I remembered it, fitted out with a generous sized shower and separate bath, loo, bidet and washbasin and plenty of mirrors. Yes, six star hotel treatment indeed.

I thought over H. Y. H’s proposition made during our ride to the house. It seemed quite attractive. His uncle, an old fashioned wealthy merchant had suggested I join his trading house and build up a modern commercial section retailing building materials. His third, and I suspect, favourite son, presently at college in Cairo, was due back in two years and he wished for him to take an interest in the firm. Yes, indeed, most attractive, but the one thing I had accomplished, my freedom to travel would be curtailed. I had sufficient funds on which to live, the extra cash, for I assumed some recompense would be offered, would however be welcome. The stumbling block seemed to be losing my freedom. I had no qualms about working during the hot months although it would be nice were I able to visit Europe during the summer months. H. Y. H. suggested I give it a few days thought and then go and see his Uncle and discuss the idea.

It was arranged I took up his offer for a slightly reduced fee to work for eight months each year, absenting myself in June, July, August and September, to open and develop a retail department on a section of the ground floor of a large building he had recently constructed on the outskirts of town. I was to have a two bedroom flat the use of a car for which all expenses would be paid. I had my doubts about the viability of such an undertaking in so far as it situated out of town. However, such doubts were not entertained by Uncle Ishaq nor by H. Y. A. who advised I give it chance at least for a year if I could withstand the frustration working for his uncle, who he warned me, was of the very old school. These arrangements were made after several visits to Ishaq’s majilis. He set his seal of approval on the deal by inviting the neighbourhood to a kousi dinner, which in our earlier and less enlightened days behind the oil company fence we jovially described as a “mutton grab”. The guests, mostly family and the more senior members of his trading house assembled in the main majilis. The assistant manager of one of the banks currently in favour had the second place of honour, sitting on Ishaq’s left, I was on his right, H. Y. H. on my right, ready to translate should my Arabic not be able to cope with the finer points being made. The signal being given by the coffee boy, Ishaq rose and led us out on the wide veranda. Three rather lovely carpets had been separately spread out each with a copper dish four feet in diameter and each displaying a steaming mountain of saffron rice supporting a succulent roasted sheep. The dishes were decorated with dates, hard-boiled eggs and cashew nuts. Taking myself and the bank manager by hand Ishaq guided us to the centre dish and commanded the other privileged members of his family to be seated, the other guests finding their places by the time-honoured practice of precedence.

Ishaq, in true Arab style did not eat with us, he attended to our wants until the second son, embarrassed by such attention, bid his father please to be seated in his place and he undertook his father’s duties. Ishaq made much ado handing me choice pieces of meat and generally paying much attention – apparently he had taken to the idea of employing a European manager in his trading house. Arising from the meal and having washed in the ritual manner, Ishaq took my arm and asked H. R. H. and his son Ibrahim to follow him across the courtyard to where a line of cars was parked. He then proclaimed that I should have the Oldsmobile. A rather ancient and dusty maroon American saloon standing in the shadows, at the end of a line of six or seven large limousines was the one he had chosen for my use. To say I was pleased would be an overstatement. I was pleased to get a set of wheels even if only the old office car, which I soon learnt it was. Indeed much jealousy was caused by the choice for most of the then office staff had cause to look upon it as their perk. In fact they soon had it back for their use because Ibrahim worked on his Father within a week or so and I was allocated the small black 220A B. M. W. coupe which had been used by Ishaq for his daily shopping spree in the suq. The Oldsmobile limousine had seen better days. It was fitted with air conditioning that unfortunately had ceased working when the gas leaked out from the system several years previously. But it was a goer, the power steering masked the front wheel wobble and the short distances I travelled did not show up too much the wacked out suspension.

The rather ancient and dusty Oldsmobile

The rather ancient and dusty Oldsmobile

“That will be a big problem for you, something new and quite alien to them,” said H. Y. A. “You will need to forget modern business practice – I doubt you will find a ledger or set of books as you know them anywhere in the office. It’s mostly in the old man’s head or Ibrahim’s pocket. Look, take it easy, there is no mad rush, no one will expect you to do anything for two or three weeks, your most important job is to get this flat organised and a decent car laid on, make no mistake, the people who work for my Uncle will judge you and your position by the quality of the car he gives you and the furniture he buys for your flat”. These remarks were to be proved most true.It was clean, with not too many bruises, yet being several years old it did stand out as not being quite suitable for a manager’s car. H. Y. A. was not pleased with the original choice and said so to Ibrahim. Going back to his house he mentioned he would have a word with Ibrahim about it. I asked him to leave it for at least a week or so as the prestige of the car was unimportant, I had other matters to resolve which would require Ishaq’s and Ibrahim’s goodwill and attention. I needed to know the extent of the budget for the new department and to define the scope and the responsibility I would have.

The office staff consisting of an Indian engineer, a Pakistani typist and an Irani born domiciled Qatari who liked to take command over all the office building made up the total complement so far as I could judge. A moonlighting Arabic speaking Irani clerk turned up at odd times to put Ishaq’s ideas, I suppose, into intelligent letters.

I would have to recruit a small nucleus of office staff as and when I needed them. My first objective was to win Ibrahim’s confidence. Ishaq’s eldest son had gone off on his own to become the largest second hand car dealer in the country. He also took on small construction projects from time to time, poaching his fathers’ workforce as the occasion demanded. Thus the second son was the kingpin in the daily running of the construction business. Transport and mechanical plant were under the stern control of Ishaq for he and the Darwishes had been the original suppliers of transport to the pioneering Oil Company way back in 1936 – in those far off days, using donkeys and camels. He sat in a slick modern leather chair in a teak panelled office with wall to wall carpet over which were laid expensive Persian carpets calling in a muster of drivers and odd job men detailing and dispatching some immediately, bidding others be seated on the fawn leather settees which lined the office walls. He enjoyed the ritual and would at times allow older hands to laugh and joke with him.

I spent the first week riding around in the old Oldsmobile visiting the various sites and factories that formed Ishaq’s little empire. His big tipper trucks six news ones having recently been added to the fleet were busy three shifts six days a week, lucratively engaged on infill on the water front – tipping millions of tons of sand shale and rubble into the sea to make more land! The cranes, bulldozers and shovels were invariably out working and woe betide a driver or operator who didn’t perform one hundred percent. Tucked away out of site near the airport he had limekilns, brick making and breeze block plants, gravel pits, each a modest little earner, grouped together, a sizeable income. The construction side fully managed by Ibrahim boasted a carpenters shop and forge. The garage overseen by a pleasant but highly jealous Punjabi with a bright but surly son was a shambles. However in their own fantastic way vehicles and plant got repaired. A new section was being formed, an aluminium workshop for fabricating aluminium door and window frames.

It took quite some time before I could be told the value of the company and see the articles of association. In response to my almost daily request to know how much I could budget for the new commercial and trading department we hoped to establish Ibrahim would airily respond “We have plenty money – more than you need for this year just make your plans and go ahead. We trust you to do every thing right”. Very gratifying but not of much use if there is no established system.

Having taken H. Y. A’s advice and settled into the flat, obtained the B. M. W. and tamed the office farrash who questioned almost everything I asked him to do, an accountant arrived from Egypt, a pair of clerks began to settle into the simple office and stores routine. A telex machine was installed and I was lucky to get the services of an Indian clerk though I was ashamed to pay him the slight salary Ishaq dictated. He ran the telex, acted as secretary and in time would prove to be an invaluable aid whom I could leave in charge of my office when I would be absent in the summer months.

A store was built at the back of the office block though this clashed with the workshop being built for the aluminium venture and it had to be sited too near the quarters being constructed for the Egyptian labourers who had been recruited in Cairo at the behest of his brother.

Things began to happen. Orders for items were being received slowly and in odd consignments. Telexes were flying back and forth for quotes on all manner of items, construction materials, steel bar, sheeting, quotes for shiploads of timber from Africa, paint from U.K., tiles from Portugal and Spain, plumbing and bathroom ceramics from Germany and London. All manner of ironmongery, door furniture, piping, glazed and plastic. There were times when I would casually mention the value of the items on order and the cash required to pay for the shipments – just to keep Ibrahim in the picture and hoping he would be alive to the necessity for meeting the cash requirements. I need not have worried, for at that point in time there were millions floating free in Ishaq’s accounts with three major banks in the town.

The old man kept all the chequebooks and his personal scratchy “check” book in an old safe in his private room in the big house. I never saw any accounts worthy of the name. The Egyptian accountant kept his books in Arabic in a very skimpy old-fashioned way. He begged me to teach him “proper accounting” as he so aptly named it. I refrained from interfering with his cosy method which satisfied Ishaq and his son and if this may have seemed churlish, to have done otherwise would have antagonised them and caused me too much involvement. I had pondered over the remarks made by H. Y. H. about Ishaq being of the old school and the frustration I could expect working for him.

My plan was to spend my time setting up a viable organisation and allow the family to take care of the financing. To fit into the nature and habit of the way things were done and had been done for many moons past. The accounts were kept in Arabic. To attempt to install modern business methods would meet with suspicion and be firmly resisted, starting primarily with the very man who asked me to teach him, the Egyptian bookkeeper. He had not the capacity to quickly assimilate and adapt a new system that would need to be maintained in English and Arabic. Leaving things as they were suited my short-term objective very neatly.

Opting for a short escape into commerce became a gratifying challenge. It was no great step from the various executive tasks I had undertaken in my career with the oil company, indeed without that fund of experience I would never have had the confidence an been able to tackle the task.

There was one disadvantage. This time I was on the other side of the fence…. that very fence we denied ever existed between the oil company and the expatriates who worked in the private sector. This did not make much difference to me I had my friendly Lebanese family of long standing the few oil company staff with whom I kept in touch and by working only two thirds of the year I could look forward to long holidays.

At the beginning of June the time came for a change of scene for the summer months. Ali was due to return from Cairo and had he been on time instead of playing around in nightclubs I would have stayed on to see him. Instead I left the responsibility of receiving the outstanding materials to arrive in my absence to be overseen by the Indian clerk, Imtiaz in whom I had much confidence. Ibrahim agreed to give him his support and promised to increase his salary as a reward.

The B. M. W. 320 was handed back to Ishaq personally. The younger son, Fuad wanted to take it over and suggested his Father had told him to take it over from me. Knowing Fuad and his tricks I skirted around his ‘suggestion’ until it was time to say farewell to Ishaq. After the first few weeks driving around in the scruffy Oldsmobile I had enjoyed the quality of the 320 automatic. Compared with the larger Mercedes it was much more responsive. Of course it was newer than my old 230, in fact ten years younger, therefore the comparison was unfair. Being much smaller in size and engine capacity it did not have the same powerful thrust of the 300 or 500 Mercedes, yet for my choice I liked it better it was more a sports car. When Ali came from Cairo he took it over and almost stripped the gearbox, though whether he was responsible or the Garage Foreman who knew little or nothing about automatic gearboxes and fixed it in his own fashion, we shall never know. It was never the same again.

During the summer months spent in Algarve I enjoyed driving the Citroen Club, it had stood in the garage of Casa Branca for eight months whilst I had been swanning around England and out in Qatar. It gave no trouble starting and was in fine condition. However reports from the housemaid and acquaintances of the political temperature now more than a year after the ‘carnation’ revolution and my small brushes with inefficient soldiers who insisted in ferreting out the ‘boot’ of the Citroen each time I crossed the bridge at Portimao helped me make up my mind to take the car back to England and garage it there. The villa had been broken into during my absence. I had a very good idea who was responsible; nothing much was taken, one of the amorous waiters from the nearby estalagem had enjoyed the company of one of his girlfriends in the main bedroom.

An old carpenter from Alcantarila made excellent shutters to fit the interior of all the windows. He fashioned them from eight of the fifteen wooden crates in which my household goods had travelled from Qatar. They had been made with quality five plywood. The cost of labour and stout bolts and brass hinges purchased at the local ironmongery shop was quite modest. I was pleased with the result.

Returning to Doha in the autumn I was faced with a change of accommodation. H. Y. A. knew I would have liked my old house back. The private house I had leased for the last eight years I was in Qatar belonged to his papa. When I retired from Qatar it had been leased to an Armenian on the staff of main hospital. He could not be evicted under Qatari law. There was nothing to stop his father building another smaller house in the courtyard of the old house and partitioning it with a great high wall. It was small, a fifteen by eighteen sitting room, a large double size bedroom, a spacious fully tiled bathroom. A useful veranda had stairs leading to a roof terrace. The kitchen following Arab custom was placed outside in the courtyard, actually neatly built from part of the existing garage. Which made parking a large car a bit tricky. The B. M. W. was off the road, whether by accident or design, by the garage foreman in collusion with Fuad the younger son.

Being without transport for even two days was most awkward and on the second day I tackled Ibrahim about it. He thought the B. M. W. was still allocated to me, in which case I said I would wait until it was repaired. The garage foreman was sent for and grilled when he couldn’t give any good reason why the car was not back on the road. Ishaq appeared in the office at that point and settled the matter by saying the green Buick, one of his personal cars should be for my use. I now had the exclusive use of a large 5.8 litre Buick limousine, air-conditioned, electric power to the steering, the windows and all ancillary equipment. Although the garage section maintained it I was very wary of it being in there for longer than absolutely necessary. It was a fine car and if not driven too hard would take me all over Qatar in air-conditioned comfort. Going on leave the following year I hinted to Ibrahim that I liked the car and would be please to be able to use it on my return. But this was not to be. Ibrahim always forgot promises. He never gave any backing to Imtiaz the Indian clerk who I had left in charge of the functioning of the office. Ali had given responsibility to the Egyptian bookkeeper who knew little about the work and ignored Imtiaz who he treated as an ordinary clerk. I realised the trouble lay in the language difficulty. Imtiaz was great with dealing with the bilingual Indian and Pakistani clerks at the port and customs office, but could not communicate very well with Ibrahim and Ali. In fact Imtiaz was very unhappy and soon after my return he asked me to release him as he had obtained a position as counter clerk with one of the international banks operating in Doha. I had trained him to be my right hand yet it was patently clear that he would be much better off if he took the job. I would lose but he would gain and it would set him up for the rest of his working life. If I insisted he stayed with us, for we had endorsed his work permit and were entitled so to do, he would never overcome the prejudice of being “an Indian” in a very Arab company no matter how many rings he could run round the other staff. I let him go and gave him a glowing reference unbeknown to Ibrahim, for he could not understand my action in letting Imtiaz better himself.

The smart and powerful Buick

The smart and powerful Buick

When the traffic foreman delivered the Buick the morning after my return he seemed no little satisfied with himself. I should have known, the car was in a terrible state. The engine was rough, the exhaust baffle was hanging loose, a nasty scratch all across one side of the car. It was in a hell of a state. The foreman had no answer other than a silly smirk. When taxed, he admitted that Fuad had been driving the car. I was not happy. Ishaq knew this but nothing was said or done until one day about six weeks later the radiator sprang a leak and the car “blew up” and went dead about ten miles out of town. The next day Ishaq gave me an almost brand new Pontiac, a very pretty car on which every thing worked. There were only four thousand kilometres on the clock. Yet after a time, I realised there was something wrong with the steering. I had not been very far in the car, just around town on very short runs. I took the car on a long run out on the Wakra road. The steering had a bias to the left so I decided to take it to the agents. I could not be bothered with our garage, I did not trust either the foreman or his men.

As soon as it was on the ramp in the agents garage I spotted the reason for the steering wobble. The right hand front wheel was a different size to the rest. The spare wheel was missing so nothing could be done. I didn’t wish to order two new ones; my aim was to find out where a pair of almost new wheels had disappeared. I searched all the bays in the company garage. There was an assortment of wheels but not the right ones for the Pontiac. An old Cadillac was in one of the bays, from the evidence of the thick cover of dust it had been there for a long time. I tried the boot lid. It was not locked. Inside where two very newish wheels the size and pattern of the Pontiac wheels. There and then I had the car up on a ramp and instructed the foreman himself to change the offending wheel for one of the correct ones and put the second wheel in the boot. He attempted to tell one his men to do it but I insisted he did it and I stood there until he did. Of course he immediately went round to the house and complained to Ishaq but word got around on the jungle telegraph and nothing was said to me about it. I did notice certain people began to pay me more respect.

Thereafter the Pontiac ran as new. A very comfortable saloon and quite prestigious. Of course, it did not have the perfection of the Mercedes 500 which Ibrahim used or the 350 which Ali used, for in this third year Ali had been brought back from Cairo by his father and told off to understudy me, which he did only when inclined to do so. Ishaq had another reason for getting Ali involved in the organisation. Whilst I was away during the summer months Ibrahim had become involved in a strange deal with a Lebanese. Using the Ishaq organisation name and backing from the bank they had bought a shipload of cement from Greece and with a little old boy juggling had managed to off-load the cargo and ferry it to a hired “go-down” using some of huge trucks normally engaged day and night on the earth “in-fill” project. I could find no trace of the transaction in the books nor any costing of the use of the transport. I learnt from copies of telexes what had been sent during my absence.

The young Cairene labourer who had been brought in from the building site to learn to operate the telex machine had done well. He had obeyed me precisely and kept a copy of every telex sent and filed them in my desk. The office file he kept by the telex machine had been mutilated, I suspect by the Lebanese. When I started asking questions about the importation of so much cement Ibrahim moved this almost clandestine business to a newly converted and claustrophobic office, except it had powerful air conditioning on a mezzanine level half way up the staircase. I countered by taking tighter control of the telex machine, but this was not always successful I returned during a lunch break to find the Lebanese busily typing away. He was most apologetic and pretended he was just practising.

I was kept out of the “cement” business as I began to call it. I made an attempt to talk to Ibrahim about import licences and demurrage charges and to make him aware of the grave risks he was taking. He had brought in a full shipload of cement without a licence and was now being pressured by the Lebanese and his Greek associates to import two further loads The national building programme could absorb as much cement as could be obtained, but, and it was a very big but, the established business interests would not be amused to have a very junior outside party muscling in on their territory.

The whole sorry business came to a head when the second ship telexed it was arriving in port within eighteen hours. Had it not been so serious I would have been amused by the panic that ensued Ibrahim tried to buy in the senior customs official to allow the ship to offload with priority. This he could not, dare not do. So they attempted to use the natural gas jetty for off loading but got a resounding rocket from the minister for oil and gas affairs for daring to suggest such a thing. Ishaq was still in London with many of the family and was soon due back in Doha. Panic.

The third shipload was even too much for the Lebanese to take on. He disappeared overnight to Beirut, supposedly on his way to Athens to and negotiate the delay of the shipment. Meanwhile the second ship was hanging around in the port, not allowed to berth and running up catastrophic demurrage charges. Ibrahim was rushing around most government offices, visiting the bank manager and fixing various people to get the ship unloaded. Of course the answer had to be using costly lighters involving much labour and losing almost twenty per cent of the cargo spoilt by seawater due to bad handling by untutored labourers and leakage of ships bilges. The whole exercise was most unprofitable especially as no one would buy the cement except at a thumping discount. No one wished to get on the wrong side of the Minister, certainly not after he had put the word around that the cement on sale by Ibrahim was unwelcome in the market. By doing this, he knew that Ibrahim would have to off load at a loss and that was to be the punishment.

Ishaq kept the whole business quiet. He knew it was none of my doing. I had been in London whilst he was there and the cement scheme had developed during that time. Meanwhile I enjoyed building up the store and the department and trying to get Ali’s interest and attention when his mind was not either in Cairo or elsewhere.

Parties at the big house now became frequent. Ishaq strove to impress the bank managers and officials and spent a small fortune on entertaining. I was ‘on show’ at all of them until I became exceedingly ‘fed up’ in both the figurative and literal sense. I was enjoying the work and was happy in Qatar but the time had come to return to England.

Leaving Qatar had been a major decision. The seven years spent during the early development of the oilfield had brought marriage, happiness and a delightful family. The transfer north to Iraq afforded eight years packed with experience, drama and trauma covering all four areas of company operations. The year spent in Lebanon can be considered the high light and a happy memory of ‘part one’ of my career. The next episode, a period of ten years was spent under a different guise and for a different purpose. That I achieved all I set out to do may be called to question. The training and redundancy programmes were considered fairly successful yet there were other things to be done and these were finally accomplished during the last tour with Ishaq’s organisation in 1977.

To have stayed on in Qatar would have been much of an anticlimax. During the twenty years spent in Qatar I felt more at home there than anywhere. One had many friends and acquaintances working in the company and more than several Arab friends of both sexes with whom one built up trusting and valued friendships. Then came suddenly the realisation that Qatar had no claim on me. I felt I must return to England. When asked to join a consortium of oilfield consultants the problem was resolved.

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