What impact does culture and its change have on the people living in Qatar? – Interview with Dr. Suhaila Ghuloum (Psychiatric consultant)

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Qatar has a population of almost 2,200,000 persons. Its expansion is fast, as it grew at a rate of 10.2% between the years of 1980 and 1985, growing with a slightly decreased rate in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then reaching its peak in population growth in 2005 with 15.3% lasting for another 5 years. This growth is due to the migration of different people from different countries to Qatar. Thus Qatar has not only become the home of many non-locals but is currently accommodating foreigners making up more than 70% of its population, leaving Qataris as a minority in their own country. This is a significant fact, as almost no other country in the world outside the region has such a ratio having many effects on the society of the country.

But what effect does such a skewed ratio, of locals and non-locals, have on culture, the perception of its local culture and the understanding of these many different cultures?

Another question that comes to mind is, in what way does this clash of cultures influence a country and the people living in it, being Qataris or non- Qataris?

This interview with Dr. Suhaila Ghuloum a Psychiatric consultant at the Psychiatry Department of Hamad Medical Corporation will give us insight on the effects of cultural change in Qatar, so we can understand the process some of us go through when moving to Qatar, but also the ones of us that are from here and still have to adapt to a change in culture.

  

1.    

How much of an impact does cultural change have on the well-being of someone?

A huge impact actually; cultural change needs to be a gradual process in order for one to adapt and to adjust to it. When you have somebody coming to Qatar for the first time for example, they could go through, what we refer to in mental health as an adjustment disorder, because they suddenly have to adjust to a different country, culture, habits, a different language and religion, and different rights sometimes. Thus everything is suddenly changing around them. For people who are stable, wherever they are, but there are sudden, rapid changes around them, it takes human nature to take a while to adjust. If they were deprived of this natural process of adapting, then that may cause psychological consequences.


2.    

What differs from the way people migrate to Qatar in contrast to a country such as the UK?

 Migration here is very different, because when you are talking about migration generally, the intention of a migrant is usually to settle in the country to which they have migrated, while here in Qatar and the GCC generally, the migrants are not here to settle. They are here for a short period of time, starting with a two to three year contract, and then can be extended, so there isn’t the knowledge of long-term stability from the beginning. Usually there is the intention of ultimately returning to their origin.

 

 

3.    

What is different about the mental health issues or concerns that non-locals seek help for, compared to other countries you have practiced in? 

There isn’t as much of a difference; mental health is the same world wide. Symptomology is the same. There are cultural differences in the symptoms, and their representation, but they remain more or less the same. Prevalence of disorders is the same. The main difference we see here  relates to single male laborers and maids; a group that makes up quite a considerable size of Qatar’s population. Individuals in this group come to us with adjustment disorders  or with acute psychotic episodes, acute periods of deterioration, and changes in their mental state amounting to psychosis. which can be severe and are primarily linked to stress. We see these types of cases frequently in the Psychiatry Department.

Among the other expats coming to Qatar, the reasons for them seeking mental health services would not be different to any local person, including depression, and anxiety which are common and treatable health conditions. What could happen is that if someone was predisposed to having mental illness or experienced one previously, the stress of moving countries could precipitate a relapse.


4.    

How does one best adapt to living in a country with a completely different culture? 

Preparation really. To know where you’re moving to, even if it is only for two years, because two years is not a short time. Even if we go for holidays, we learn about the place through research, to see what is accepted and what is not accepted, what is normal and what is not. It is the same if you are coming to Qatar. So you understand more what the culture, environment, and temperature is like. We have patients coming to see us with stressors such as inability to deal with the heat, especially when they come during the summer. So adapting means preparing for all these factors.

Once here, having the support from people around you is extremely important. Often it also means people from the same background who share language, country or culture. These people can share their experiences and difficulties, relate to their experiences back home and know what it feels like to miss the place you are from.

People always think they are on their own when struggling, but in reality the whole society must be experiencing the same at certain levels. Talking to others always helps, which doesn’t necessarily mean talking to a professional like a psychologist or a therapist, but even talking to a friend or a family member is beneficial.

 For example, if a Qatari is having difficulties adapting to his/her workplace where mostly expats work, he or she should talk to his/her colleagues who might be Qatari, or long-term residents. There are always going to be issues, and these people are bound to feel the same. So approach others, try to understand the culture of the people around you. If you don’t know or understand something it may be difficult to accept it, as the unknown and uncertainty scares people. You might have a lot of misperceptions and misconceptions, but once you know the individual these stereotypes and misconceptions are usually proven untrue. 

Also sometimes we feel the urge to change or change the things around us, which can be a huge source of pressure, mentally and physically. Realizing what you can change and changing it, and realizing what is not in your hands, and therefore adapting to it and living with it, is an important process.

 

5.    

Seeing that over 70% of the population consists of non-Qataris, do you think Qataris go through a similar process of assimilation, acculturation and adaptation of other
cultures?

 Absolutely, because they are a minority in their own country. And the culture of the country has changed dramatically and very rapidly. They need to assimilate to these changes, and adapt to it. Not everyone has the same flexibility in adapting, which means they need to undergo a process of understanding the cultures of the different expats coming to this country. The Supreme Council of Health and Hamad Medical Corporation realize the importance of cultural sensitivity in practice. Just a few months ago they started giving training sessions for health practitioners, for doctors, nurses and anyone working in the health sector, to help understand the uniqueness of every culture, which is extremely important.

Society doesn’t only consist of Qataris and expats, and you cannot separate yourself from one of these groups, because you think you may not be involved with them. You have to mix with each other, because they are situations were you are bound to “deal” with each other. So both sides need to accept and learn to understand the other.

You need to understand what is normal for the other person from whatever culture they are from. What may seem to you as extreme or an over exaggeration might be normal in someone else’s culture, and vice versa. So we need to learn not to be offended by a cultural difference, but also have our gained understanding of other cultures decrease the risk of offending someone else.

An example of this can be a patient who was admitted to the Hamad Psychiatric Department saw the doctor as superior and would not sit on a chair or the sofa when I asked him to, but remain seated on the floor. After some time I let him sit on the floor, because I could see him being uncomfortable, and even if that made me feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing him any favors asking further pushing him to sit on the sofa.

So there are little examples and moments that help you understand how the other person thinks or feels about something.


 

6.    

How significant is this clash of cultures on the psyche and well-being of Qataris?

 The biggest impact, in my opinion, lies on the younger generation. The older generations have lived most of their life in a certain environment, which only started to change lately, which allowed them to cope with it and understand it, and to select positive aspects of it and disregard negative aspects of it. The younger generation haven’t actually had that opportunity, and sometimes do not have the maturity yet to be able to differentiate. They go through quite a conflict of being in between the ideologies that they were brought up with and what they see in their everyday life, and the clash of this. And this is not just due to the different cultures in Qatar brought by expats, but also the increase in social media.


7.    

What do you think is the biggest challenge Qatar faces when maintaining their own culture and accommodating so many other cultures simultaneously?

I think the question itself is the biggest challenge, because the biggest challenge IS maintaining its own identity, while at the same time being open to all the other cultures. I think it is already doing that and has taken more steps in working towards that, such as reviving the old traditions, which you can see happening more and more in Ramadan, the national holidays, and all celebrations that give us an opportunity to remind people of our culture and background. The old traditions, which we might not be practicing in our everyday life, still have value, being sentimental value, social value and cultural value, in our lives.

So I think the challenge lies more within the individuals now, rather than the society as a whole.

 

8.    

In what ways, do you think, does Qatar manage to overcome issues concerning maintaining a culture while welcoming many others?

There was a speech by HH, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, on TEDx Women Talks in 2012, and she was wearing the traditional costume, the Abaya. (“Globalizing the local, Localizing the global” in February 2012 https://www.ted.com/talks/sheikha_al_mayassa_globalizing_the_local_localizing_the_global ) She was very confident, and hearing her speech you could see that she is very well educated, quite knowledgeable, and confident as a woman. By talking about the local culture, and by wearing an Abaya giving a speech infront of thousands of people, shows that tradition and the Abaya itself is not a restriction or hindrance. Messages just like this encourage people to adhere more to their traditions and not to see them as a hindrance, or obstacle of development. This is a message we need to convey more to the younger generation, because it’s easily perceived that because one is adhering to their traditions, one is not evolving. Sheikha Mayassa’s statement is a perfect example of how that is completely untrue.

Here in Qatar there is special emphasis on being proud of one’s culture, as for example in some independent schools, children will wear the traditional clothing, which is a very positive introduction to someone’s connection to culture and traditions.

 

Many thanks to Psychiatric Consultant, Dr. Suhaila Ghuloum for the insights given in cultural and social clashes and their effects on individuals such as you and me. Significant aspects of achieving a good understanding cultures in Qatar, include knowing yourself and the problems facing when moving to a different culture, finding and offering the support to others, and building strong bridge between the cultures by the means of communication and knowing each other’s cultures. Thus the importance of approaching each other, in order to attempt to understand our cultures, is indisputable. We need to realize that, just as important as our own culture and background with their traditions and values are, are they important to the person next to us, even if these differ. Our background and origin influence who we are and should be accepted, recognized for their value and maintained, through culture and tradition. Anyone has one or many they feel attached to, so make a step towards each other, and you may learn a few things about others and yourself and find aspects of another culture that will enchant and inspire you.