Qatar is famous for its fast cars, luxury living, air-conditioned malls and tax-free dollars. The oil-rich Gulf state is one of the wealthiest places on the planet. But delve into the southern suburbs of the capital, Doha, and life is very different.
Doha’s Industrial Area is a cluster of small-scale workshops, factories and cheap accommodation. It’s a 45-minute drive from the capital’s glitzy West Bay district, and a 60-minute drive from the Saudi Arabian border. It’s hot and dusty. The roads are choked with endless upgrades and construction. And on every corner, new and old cars, tractors and trucks are on sale.
This is where most of Qatar’s migrant labourers live. Between 700,000 and one million are estimated to be in the country, out of a total population of 2.3 million. Qatar is booming and expanding and the World Cup is not too far away.
Hidden in the heart of the area is Zaiqa Restaurant. It’s a modest but popular establishment – and it’s gaining attention.
Two cardboard signs are taped to the front window – one written in English and one in Arabic. They say: ‘If you are hungry and you have no money, eat for free.’
The Indian brothers who own Zaiqa put up the signs last month when they realised too many migrant workers couldn’t afford to eat.
“When I saw the signs I had tears in my eyes,” said one of the owners, Shadab Khan, 47, originally from New Delhi, who has lived in Qatar for 13 years.
‘People were hiding outside our restaurant and waiting for us to close, so they could eat the leftover food in our rubbish cans. We had to do something to help,’ he said.
‘Once the labourers pay rent and send money home, many are struggling to buy food. Many aren’t paid on time.’
Shadab says his younger brother Nishab came up with the idea.
‘To be honest, our restaurant is only just breaking even. We’re not making a profit. But the purpose of the signs is not for publicity or to try to please anyone. We just want to help,’ said Nishab.
‘The idea actually came from Facebook. I saw a photo of an Arabic restaurant with a sign saying, ‘If you’re hungry eat a shawarma for free. I thought, yes! I want to do that’.
Shadab says those eating for free are mainly from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Africa. We are told most work 12-hour days and are paid on average around US$300 a month. We hear stories of bosses disappearing, without paying their staff – leaving the migrants without money to buy a ticket home.
Restaurant manager Birkha, from Nepal, says people are honest and many are reluctant to take food for free.
‘People stare at the sign and they aren’t sure if we mean it or not. We can easily tell if someone can or can’t afford to pay for their meal.’
For those who choose to pay, Zaiqa’s Hyderabadi cuisine – an authentic Indian menu from the heart of Delhi – is on offer. It’s 10 riyal ($3) for vegetable thali or biryani and an extra 2 riyal for chicken or mutton.
Shadab says he’s happy to see the idea is starting to spread across Qatar.
‘I’ve received calls from restaurant owners who’ve said they are also offering free food to those who need it. The idea is catching on.’
‘I don’t mind paying out of my own pocket. I think it’s important to look at the life in front of you – at the people. There is so much food wastage and so many people going to bed hungry. Look around you and help your neighbours. We need to help our neighbours near and far.’