Expats working in the Gulf states are sponsored by their employers and given residence permits. This permit allows a non-citizen to exceed tourist time stay limits, work, rent housing, open a bank account and get a drivers license.
Like much of government over here, the process to obtain a residence permit is somewhat opaque. In the UAE, my employer had a ‘public relations officer’ – a fixer really – who drove us expats where we needed to go, pushed to the front of lines, shouted in Arabic and made our permits appear in a week. But so far, my Qatari employer is pretty DIY compared to full service Abu Dhabi. This means I spent most of my first week of work here on a bureaucratic scavenger hunt for chest x-rays and embassy stamps and the other inputs needed for a complete residence permit application.
My application process started with a medical examination at a private hospital called The Doha Clinic. For QR600 ($200 Canadian) a tiny Asian nurse escorted me through the medical version of a college floor crawl: chest x-ray room, height and weight measurement room, HIV test room, blood typing room. Our last stop was a medical ‘consultation’ where an Egyptian doctor barked a series of contagious disease acronyms at me with a questioning inflection and I shook my head no to each one. He also asked about the health of my husband and children and chastised me for having neither at my advanced age. I left the clinic with several pieces of paper with lots of stamps on them and a promise that the hospital would text my official results to my employer in a couple days.
I was doubtful about this ‘results by text’ system but as promised, two days later I got an SMS saying my clean bill of health had been sent to the Supreme Council of Health. So the next afternoon I was back in a cab, this time on my way to be fingerprinted by the Crime Evidences and Information Department of the Ministry of Interior.
My Kenyan driver navigated half an hour of stop and go construction-related traffic congestion before we hit a free flowing eight lane highway into the desert. After several large SUVs with tinted windows and Saudi plates passed us, my driver explained that we were only an hour from the border. He said the Saudis will come to Qatar just to see a movie because there are no cinemas in KSA.
We pulled into a white walled government compound on the left side of the highway and my driver stopped at a building that said Search And Follow-Up Department. He said he’d brought another expat woman there the day before to get fingerprinted. Apparently all that was lost that day had already been followed up because the large waiting room inside was empty except for a security guard who stared blankly at me when I said I wanted to be fingerprinted. I repeated my request and wiggled my fingers at him, trying to mime fingerprinting but really just showing him my best jazz hands. It worked though – he pointed to the door I’d come through and said, “first building.”
My driver took me back to the white building at the front of the compound with a big sign saying FINGERPRINTS that we had somehow missed on the way in, and smaller signs saying MEN with an arrow to the right and LADIES with an arrow to the left. It’s never women here; it’s always ladies. Like only well-bred versions of the fairer sex exist here.
The door to the ladies entrance was plastered with different combinations of words and pictures that made it clear men were not welcome inside the building. The door opened into another large waiting room with a handful of female occupants and a raised stage at the end with several fingerprinting stations.
When it was my turn, a short round woman in local dress called me up to the front of the room. The fingerprinting machine she was operating was much taller than she was and looked like a drill press from shop class. She inspected my documents, took an unflattering photo of me, and then held my right thumb with her latex-clad finger and pressed it against a scanner, rolling it from right to left. She repeated this with my left thumb, each of my fingers, both palms, and the sides of my hands. It felt weirdly intimate to hold hands with a gloved woman covered head to toe in black. Part way through she smiled shyly and asked me if I knew her cousin who works at the same government ministry I do.
The whole process took all of ten minutes and I exited the building to find my driver leaning against his cab, smoking in the shade. As he drove me back into town he asked if I could help him find a Canadian girlfriend, just someone to message with, help him work on his english. I laughed and told him that all of my friends are married. He pushed the same theme a bit longer before we lapsed into silence and I went back to watching the buildings go by, bathed in warm afternoon light.
A few other pieces came together and I submitted my RP application on the last day of my first week, setting a new speed record among the expats at my office. If this sort of good fortune continues, I might be able to rent an apartment before summer.