Lamborghinis, Burkas, Sex Party Invites And ‘Chop Chop Square’: A New York Lawyer’s 15 Years In The Middle East

In Qatar, oil sheikhs, edgy western ex-pats, an image-obsessed native middle class and Indian laborers working in modern slavery come together in the desert.

Thousands of white-collar Americans and other westerners have gone to work in the country, and many are being held captive there. The State Department says nothing can be done to get them out.

Ninety-five% of Qatar’s workforce are laboers from India and Nepal, and there is a sense that a mutiny could take place given how outnumbered natives are, one longtime resident said.

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.