Followup – "Misrepresented by the Press"

As a followup to the recent post of the NY Times article about the tensions between locals and expats here in Qatar, here is a blog post by one of the men quoted in the article.  Word on the street is that this guy was on a business trip when the story was published, and he was called and told to return to Doha immediately.  The next day, he was fired.


Journalism Bias, Unethical Reporting, and Hidden Agendas…

The Holy Quran has two verses that we recite to illustrate how an intended meaning can be changed or reversed if the statement is incomplete or out of context. The initial fragment of each verse warns that we must not pray: “O you who have believed, do not approach prayer” and “So woe to those who pray”. But when the complete verses are read, the meaning becomes clear and logical:

“O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are inebriated, until you know what you are saying […]” (Surat An-Nisa, 4:38-44)

“So woe to those who pray [but] who are heedless of their prayer” (Surat Al-Ma’un, 107:4-5).

What the journalists of the New York Times did with the quotes attributed to me in their article dated 14 May 2010 is similar to the aforementioned sentence truncation and decontextualisation. Mike Slackman’s and Mona El-Naggar’s approach was friendly and indirect. They requested to meet us to talk about obesity and diabetes, but after the formal interview they casually discussed national demographics and economics, then they wrote an article on bitterness between expats and citizens, twisting interviewee statements and painting the words with sarcasm and disrespect. The reporters had agreed to send us the articles or quotes for comments prior to publication – as has been the case in all my previous interactions with the press and media – yet we did not get to read nor discuss any quotes or statements prior to publication.

The first quote attributed to me, “Qataris are very spoiled”* is short and maliciously framed to convey the sense “become bad/ruined” rather than “treated kindly/generously”. Furthermore, the context in which I made this statement was in comparison to neighbouring countries that have similar wealth but unequal social benefits.  It came to my surprise that an Egyptian newspaper translated my intended meaning into Arabic in a more accurate way than in the original article.

The second quote attributed to me, “They are only valuable in this cultural and political context” is phrased implying a generalisation to Qataris, whereas the remark was about professionals (locals and foreigners alike) who quickly shift their careers from their scientific or engineering background to management positions. The idea I tried to convey was that scientific knowledge acquired in academia or industry is valuable in a wider geographic/economic scope than managerial experience which may be specific to local laws, customs and cultures. The phenomenon of non-transferability of skills or knowledge applies a number of professions that depend on knowledge and customs specific to a country or a region. I happened to suffer from this phenomenon in 2006 when my parents forced me to renounce the scholarship I had earned six months into my PhD at the University of Bologna (the world’s oldest, established in 1088). My PhD was in design of orthopaedic implants using finite element analysis and experimental biomechanics. The idea at the time was that I would be too specialised in a field that is extremely limited in the Middle East and my parents’ fear was that I may not be able to return to work in Qatar. A few years later, they look back and realise how short sighted they were, because the jobs in medical devices and technology have increased several fold in Qatar due to the government initiatives to diversify the economy and to deploy its intellectual capital.

The reporters went further, reshuffling words I had used with reference to a key challenge highlighted in the Qatar National Vision 2030 (“Size and the quality of the expatriate labor force and the selected path of development”) to infer that I contend that Qataris often lacked the skills, education and qualifications to be competitive in many other economies.  They omitted my mention of the positive trends of the last decade and the initiatives of QF that expanded the academic arena as well as the high-tech industry.

Slackman and El-Naggar fuelled the tone of my quotes further by referring to me as ‘a non-Qatari Arab’, thereby placing me on the expat side of the battle they were painting, and omitting any mention that my siblings and I were raised in Qatar.  But I had made that point quite clear to the reporters, and added that I have always considered Qatar as home (despite my two other nationalities), and that Qataris have been close childhood friends, class mates, neighbours, colleagues, and the most sincere friends of my family. This is the reason why within 48 hours the article going online, I received countless emails, phone calls and text messages from family, friends and colleagues, expressing shock and astonishment from the quotes attributed to me. People who knew me well knew the quotes could not have come from me, or that I did not intend the meaning conveyed therein. The most interesting remarks I received from residents in Qatar are:

”I know what Mo honestly thinks. Mo doesn’t make such statements, end of story.
I told everyone who talked to me about it: the guy would feel bad enough just THINKING about it, let alone saying it out-loud and to the press. He’s that
good-hearted. I truly believe that and feel bad about the consequences.”
– H.G. (Qatari Manager)
“Mo, did the NY Times article capture you correctly?”
– A.B. (German Management Consultant)
“Hello Mo, I saw this article and was shocked to see your name after the
Quotes. […] These are very harsh quotes. The problems are with the
foreigners that are hired.” – M.M. (Arab-American Scientist)
“I look forward to everyone moving forward with mutual respect, understanding and tolerance.  And I know you to be a person who firmly manifests all those ideals.”
– E.S. (American Lawyer)

The reporters, Slackman and El-Naggar, contacted my institution on 4 April 2010 requesting information and contacts for a investigation they are writing about obesity and diabetes.  I was asked to provide them with the necessary contacts and provide them with information on our medical research initiatives that may be of relevance to their investigation. I provided them by email details of a ten or so contacts from local institutions including the Ministry of Health, Qatar Diabetes Association, Aspetar Sports Medicine Hospital, Sidra Medical Research Centre, Shafallah Medical Research Centre and Hamad Medical Corporation. I then met with them to share my knowledge about the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in the country, emphasizing that I am not an expert in this field.  None of the content of my formal interview was reported, but instead they misquoted things that I had said casually after the interview in response to their questions on our population demographics and economic development.

I feel a victim of journalist distortion, especially considering the similarly critical and sarcastic tone of their recent article of 27 April 2010 about the people and culture of Qatar. The article of 14 May 2010 is obviously very highly valued by the New York Times – it made it to the front page of the printed International Herald Tribune – a great success for Slackman and El-Naggar, much at my expense.

“All one can ask of history, and of the history of ideas in particular: not to
resolve issues, but to raise the level of the debate.” – Albert Hirschman (1996)

Mohammed Saffarini

Paris, 16 May 2010


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.