Im an English girl, living in Qatar since 2013. I have immersed myself in the arabic culture, developing close friendships with locals and other arabs from the region, Yemen in particular. I've travelled to the UAE, Jordan and Yemen in 2014 before the war started. I am fascinated by other cultures and blog about my life in Doha, Qatar, my travels in the region and my love of Yemen.
It was a quiet, star filled January night in 2017 and 8 year old Nawar Al Awlaki was asleep with her mother in her Uncle's house in Yakla, a rural village in the mountains of Al Bayda, a region of South Yemen. Suddenly she was woken by the sound of gunfire and she instinctively went to hide.
Her neighbours were under attack and were being killed as they fled their homes, including the Ameri family with three children - Aisha, 4, Hussein, 5 and Khadija, 7.
Nawar's home then came under attack and she was shot in the neck by a bullet that came through the window. Despite her own assurances to her mother not to worry, she died two hours later from a loss of blood.
25 civilians died that night, including 9 children under the age of 13, one of them a 3 month old boy and a pregnant woman who was shot in the stomach.
The photo below shows some of the children who survived that terrible night, haunted by the loss of their family members and the horrific scenes they witnessed.
As the chaos and devastation in the small Yemeni village unfolded, a new US President was settling in to his new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump had been President for just 8 days and the war in Yemen was almost completing 2 years. Already there were reports of human rights violations on the part of the Saudi coalition, using weapons supplied by the US and the UK.
To date, with the war in Yemen now well into its fourth year, the Council on Foreign Relations estimates the civilian death toll as 16,200 but this is likely to be a conservative estimate, and accurate figures are very difficult to gather, given the restricted access to the country.
The US is now appearing to act as peacemaker with the Defence Secretary, Mattis, trying to squeeze a ceasefire out of the warring parties within the next 30 days.
However, while the US encourages a cessation of hostilities, the Trump administration keeps hidden its own direct operations and human rights violations in the country.
The attack on Yakla, that killed Nawar and 24 of her friends and neighbours was, in fact, launched by Donald Trump himself.
An NBC investigation found that this particular Special Ops ground raid was discussed and approved “during dinner” with Trump’s National Security team, including the former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn.
It is not so widely reported that, in addition to supporting Saudi Arabia in its campaign, the USA is itself directly bombing Yemen and has been doing so since 2002, when then President Bush embarked on the so called ‘counterterrorism’ program in response to 9/11.
The program expanded under Obama and has literally exploded under Trump, with the inevitable associated casualties which the administration are now refusing to release.
Just two months after 9/11 in November 2001, George W Bush entered into an agreement with the now deceased Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which the shrewd Saleh gave permission for Bush to set up a CIA ‘counterterrorism’ training camp in his country in return for a $400 million aid package.
In addition, the US Government turned a blind eye to some of Saleh’s more brutal control measures at home, while he allowed the US to start a ‘targeted’ drone bombing effort to take out key AQAP (Al Qaeada in the Arabian Penninsula) personnel in Yemen.
The US uses a combination of unmanned Predator drone attacks, launched from a base in Djibouti, as well as traditional air strikes and ‘Special Ops’ ground missions, such as the one in Yakla, to assassinate ‘terrorist targets’ in the rural mountain villages across Yemen.
These operations targeting ‘known militants and terrorists’ are often described rather glibly as "surgical strikes", but they have been found to be nothing of the sort.
One of the worst cases of ‘collateral damage’ during Obama’s Presidency was in December 2013 when a wedding party was mistakenly targeted, killing 12.
After the US Government initially denied any civilian casualties, an investigation by Reprieve, a British human rights organisation, found that “more than $1 million was paid to the families of those killed and injured.”
In fact, the rate of civilian casualties not only in Yemen but also in Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan, became so concerning for Obama that in 2016 towards the end of his Presidency, he signed an executive order to provide more transparency on civilian casualties, including reports of all missions, numbers killed and planned condolences and reparations to the families of deceased and injured civilians.
This increased transparency can be seen on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism website, which lists all known attacks with details. Details which, since Trump's inauguration, are no longer available.
Unfortunately, when Trump came into power, his administration decided to ignore the executive order and as a result, any attempt at transparency of the number of casualties was lost. This coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of operations immediately after Trump became President.
To date, since his inauguration, Trump has launched 163 known drone strikes in Yemen, now surpassing the number conducted during Obama’s entire 8 year tenure as President.
One of the first things Trump did on becoming US President was to designate Yemen as an area of ‘active hostilities’. This allowed him to launch attacks unchecked by the rigorous ‘sign-off’ process that Obama had put in place previously to ensure some accountability.
The Navy Seal raid on Yakla involved 50 special forces soldiers going house to house, shooting anyone who left their homes and burning down houses with women and children inside. One of the villagers had lost his son during the 2013 wedding party drone strike but had survived himself only to be killed 3 years later during this botched raid.
The White House subsequently announced the raid as “successful by all standards” and even when the father of one Navy Seal who died in the raid, came out and demanded answers, Trump refused to take responsibility for his decision in giving it the green light.
It might be safe to assume that this catastrophic loss of civilian life so early in Trump’s tenure would see him scale back and take a slightly more cautious approach. Sadly not. Shortly thereafter, the US administration got somewhat ‘trigger happy’ and launched almost 100 drone strikes in just a couple of months in the Spring of 2017.
However, while we have an idea of the number of strikes, there is almost no information about the number of casualties, particularly civilian, since Trump decided not to release the report as required by the executive order.
The charts below, published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, are revealing and show the extent of the White House cover up. The first shows the number of strikes, in blue. The second shows the number of 'reported' civilian casualties in red.
The spokesperson for the National Security Council told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, that there had been “NO increase in the number of civilian casualties compared to the previous year”. This is a somewhat disingenuous statement, given that the administration has published no report into how many civilians were killed in 2016 or 2017 and the chart below bears that out.
To believe that there has been no increase in civilian casualties when the number of strikes has more than tripled, is to believe that Trump's inauguration crowd was the biggest in history..... yet another Trump lie.
The report for 2016 should have been published by 1st May 2017 but the deadline quietly came and went. And with all eyes now on Saudi Arabia’s transgressions both in Yemen and recently in the gruesome killing of a journalist in Turkey, these US operations are sliding nicely under the radar, for the time being.
Secretary Mattis has directed Department of Defence representatives not to give out information on strikes, and a spokesman told the BIJ “Secretary Mattis has made it clear we are not providing numbers or tactics that gives our adversaries any advantage”.
But this secrecy is troubling civil liberties groups and it should concern us all. The US Government under Trump is eroding any semblance of accountability for murdering innocent civilians in foreign lands...... sound familiar?
I will make the assumption that most of you reading this are also regular social media users and that somewhere among the videos of tennis-playing dogs and cute little kittens, you’ll be familiar with the often posted stories of human rights issues and abuses around the world, whether in Myanmar, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere.
I am more guilty than most for constantly posting on social media about such humanitarian issues, including the oppression of the Palestinian people, the killing and imprisoning of journalists and activists, the attack on freedom of the press in the USA and particularly the horrific and heartbreaking war in Yemen. I do it, in the full knowledge that it will do little for the people who suffer the abuse.
I simply post about these issues because I care and I want to keep these stories front and centre in my mind and in the minds of others who care. And I care, not only because I hold values such as honesty, decency, fairness, respect and compassion at the core of my being, but also because I’m empathic. Empathy is a trait which is described by Psychology Today as “the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own” https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/empathy
One might expect that this is a normal ‘human’ trait that we all share, and this is why myself and many others continue to call for governments and their leaders to intervene in situations that from our empathic standpoint appear obvious. For example, when a bus load of little Yemeni boys is destroyed by a US made bomb from a Saudi jet, it seems obvious to us with an empathic nature that this is unacceptable. That something must be done. And so we call for change and we believe that because we are all human, that change will come and no more little Yemeni children will be killed for no good reason. To some that may appear a naïve expectation, I rather think of it as a human one.
But the change doesn’t come. And more children are killed and continue to be killed and starved to death to this day. And far from putting pressure on the Saudis to change their targeting, the US government reinforced their support.
So whats going on? We know that a big part of the story is about money. The USA and UK in particular are making billions in arms sales from the Saudi led coalition and thus profiting from the deaths of innocent civilians. But is there something else about the leaders themselves that inoculates them from any feelings of guilt for the hurt they inflict on innocent lives?
It seems that many of today’s world leaders – and I’m sure yesterdays were no different – share certain traits. And many of those traits would be expected, such as a sense of self importance, a pre-occupation with success and power, and a high degree of arrogance. These may even be necessary to make it to the top echelons of power.
But none of these attributes explain what appears to be a complete vacuum of humanity at senior levels of major governments around the world today. The recent disappearance and almost certainly murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is just another example that appears to prove that there is something seriously lacking at the heart of those in the most powerful of positions.
Current leaders such as Putin, Sisi, Bin Salman, Netanyahu, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un and, of course Trump, all spring to mind as those who say and do things which leave us open mouthed in disbelief at the sheer audacity and inhumanity.
So is it simply a case of ‘power corrupts’ or is there something darker in the human condition of these leaders? When you look at certain personality types, common traits emerge which may explain why human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated in all corners of the globe, seemingly unchallenged other than at a superficial level.
Many have already made the link between Donald Trump and narcissism which according to Psychology Today includes the traits of
· a sense of entitlement,
· unable to accept criticism,
· haughty arrogance,
· diminishes and devalues others,
· pathological envy,
· demands to be considered special and admired by all
· a lack of empathy
This may explain much of Trump’s strange gas-lighting behaviour, the chaos in the White House and what many are calling the erosion of democratic institutions in the US.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, are the next level up in the spectrum of personality disorders and although, at face value and to the outside world, may appear quite normal, charming in fact, they have a dark and dangerous side.
Psychology Today lists some of those darker traits as including..
· a prioritization of their own rights above any consideration for the human rights of others,
· a complete disregard for rules and norms,
· a complete lack of emotion,
· a feeling that the victim deserves what they get,
· seek to destroy those they cannot control,
· a lack of conscience,
· a lack of empathy
The likes of Putin, Kim Jong Un, Sisi, Netanyahu, Assad and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman all appear to exhibit some if not all of these traits.
When these leaders take such blatant and abhorrent steps as blowing up a bus of little kids, flattening entire neighbourhoods, starving their own citizens to death, killing members of their own families, assassinating citizens in other countries, murdering opposition politicians and critics, imprisoning and murdering journalists, they do so without a flinch because their brains are wired differently.
They have no sense of humanity or empathy and therefore can feel no guilt or remorse in hurting others. Of their own volition, they will never stop and they will never understand what all the fuss is about.
So what can be done? That brings us to the remaining world leaders who may be the only ones able to hold these maniacs to account, because - and this is where the money comes back into the equation – we live in a totally interconnected and interdependent global system of buyers and sellers, producers and consumers. The relationships between global leaders are crucial in this cauldron of capitalism and we have seen this play out starkly under Trump, as he destroys traditional alliances and embraces all of the leaders on our maniac list!
On the one hand, it is not in the interests of the international monetary system and the integrated financial capitalist society in which we now live, to pick fights with the players with the biggest pockets. But on the other hand, this leverage is the only thing we have that can save the world from these psychopaths.
When you understand that these murderous despots cannot and will not change and will always seek to destroy those whom they cannot control, will never feel empathy for those they hurt and simply don’t understand why we bleat on about human rights, respect for life and freedom of the press etc, we should limit our expectations on what is possible. Lets face it, if the world couldn't stop Assad, how the hell can we contain Mohammad Bin Salman or Putin?
Given that rather depressing conclusion, we may be forgiven for letting go and giving up, if these unhinged regimes are so inoculated from humanity not only by their psychopathy, but also by the firewalls the international community enables around them.
However, to give up is to let go of our own empathy, is to detach from the humanity within ourselves. No, for the little boys on the bus, for every murdered journalist, for the starving children of Yemen and Syria, for every persecuted minority, we must shout louder, rise up and in the words of Dylan Thomas “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
As the end of Ramadan approached, with only 5 days to go until Eid, I decided to step up my fasting regime to see what it would feel like to echo the diet of the desert nomad, the Bedouin, who famously could survive for months on only dates and camels milk. Sadly, unable to easily get hold of camels milk, I decided to swap it out for labeneh.... a thick strained yoghurt. But of course, dates are available aplenty so no issue there.
As is the custom during Ramadan, I'm fasting completely throughout daylight hours, having only 3 dates and a couple of table spoons of labeneh for Iftar (the Muslim meal to break the fast) and the same before bed, accompanied only by water or black coffee and nothing else. Muslims will usually eat their last meal, Suhoor, at dawn.... which is around 3am here in Qatar, but having experimented, I felt better having my final sustenance at around 10pm and sleeping through the night.
I had already been fasting during Ramadan, so the daily fast was not a problem, but the first night of eating only the dates and labeneh left me wanting more. Where was my daily grapefruit? My delicious chicken salad? I kept busy and drank alot of water to compensate. I didn't feel hungry during the day and I think it was only habit that made me crave my usual foods in the evening, because actually I found the combination of dates and labeneh really filling.
From day two it became much easier and I felt lighter on my feet and by day three, I'd lost a kilo in weight! This wasn't supposed to be about weight loss, but I'm never one to pass up a good side benefit!! Day five finally came today and I stepped on the scales to discover another kilo gone! 2 kgs lost in 5 days and I didn't feel any ill effects.
The Bedouin of course would survive alot longer than 5 days on their meagre diet. Bedouin literally translates as 'desert dwellers', and dates and camels milk were their staple diet for a reason. They were both readily available to nomadic North African and Middle Eastern pastoral tribes, who would wander for months, from well to well across dusty plains and sand dunes, devoid of any other natural resources.
The Bedouin would rarely slaughter a camel for meat unless it was very sick or there was a special event such as a wedding or visiting tribe, when custom and legendary Bedouin hospitality would necessitate the sacrifice of one of the herd. So for most of the time, the two most humble of food sources provided all the nutrition required.
But can they really be good enough to sustain families in the harshest conditions, doing physical work, walking for hundreds of miles for days, weeks and months? The answer lies in the nutrient density, with camels milk in particular lauded by the Bedu as having strength and power giving properties. In fact when they couldn't get dates, they would survive on the camels milk alone, and the Bedu revered their camels, referring to them as a 'gift from God'. A tribe could survive for very little time in the desert without them.
Camels Milk Often drunk straight from the udder, it would be warm and frothy and plentiful..... the female camels would be milked each morning and evening, and even when suckling young, could provide an additional 4 to 5 litres of milk each day, for 11 months. Camels have the extraordinary natural ability to continue to produce milk even when going without water for weeks themselves.
Camels milk is the most nutritious of all mammals' milk and is in fact closer to human breast milk than it is to cows milk and is often given to babies who are suffering malnutrition. Compared to cows milk, it is higher in protein, lower in fat and cholesterol and has three times more vitamin C and 10 times more iron. It is also interestingly, lower in lactose and has been found to help in reducing levels of the type of haemoglobin in the blood to which glucose attaches, so can be useful in the control of blood glucose levels. Mineral levels such as magnesium, copper, sodium, zinc and potassium are all higher in camels milk.
Camels milk has some other rare properties. For example it is high in immunoglobulins which boost the immune system and research has found that it has an impact on reducing allergies, autism and other autoimmune illnesses. And it also has certain special proteins which have antibacterial and antiviral properties Dates Pastoral nomadic Bedouin tribes would usually purchase most of their dates from souqs in urban areas, rather than coming across them on their desert journeys, although date palms do grow naturally in many areas. Before the emergence of a cash economy, many of the nomadic tribes were paid in dates for protecting villages, urban markets and farms from other raiding tribes.
Like camels milk, dates are particularly nutrient dense containing not only carbohydrates but also protein, fibre, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, iron, zinc and vitamin B6. Many of these particular minerals have been found to be beneficial to bone health and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis.
The high level of fibre in dates is very beneficial to gut health and contributes to their surprisingly low glycaemic index, despite the carbohydrate content. Studies have found that dates, eaten in moderation, can help in regulating blood sugar and improving insulin levels due to the zinc and magnesium content.
Dates also contain some powerful anti-oxidants.... flavanoids, carotenoids and phenolic acid.... which all contribute to protecting cells from free radicals, known to cause disease. These anti-oxidants help to reduce the risk of all manner of diseases such as Alzheimers, cancer, diabetes, eye disorders, heart disease and general inflammation.
Even though in my own small way, I replicated the Bedouin diet, unlike the true desert dwellers of yesteryear, I'm lucky enough to be living in the comfort of an air conditioned environment, not in the 46 degree heat outside! I have a deep respect for the Bedouin and their beloved camels, and their clever use of the most meagre of resources to sustain themselves.
I can only assume the secret lies in the combination of the types of carbs, fat and protein contained in these two superfoods, providing them with the nutrients they needed to remain strong, lean and alert. The discovery of oil and instant wealth has provided access to an abundance of sugary, fattening, unhealthy and unnecessary foods, causing an obesity epidemic in the Gulf in particular (with the exception of Yemen). In todays world of overconsumption in all things, there is much we and the modern richer cousins of the desert nomads can learn from their life of austerity and discipline.
One year ago, on 5th June 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, closing land borders, shipping routes and air space, effectively cutting the country off from established supplies of goods and services. Families were split apart, businesses destroyed and the Gulf Co-operation Council (formed in 1981), once a beacon of stability for the region, plunged into crisis.
Despite the fact that Qatar suffered a 40% drop in imports immediately following the blockade, it quickly secured new supplies from countries such as Turkey, Iran and India and new shipping routes via Oman.
In the meantime the country accelerated its drive towards self sufficiency in food production and now satisfies 92% of demand for milk from local suppliers. In addition, according to local Arabic newspaper Arrayah, Qatar now produces 98% of its need for fresh poultry, 80% fish, 80% dates and 24% of its vegetable needs.
I have noticed the change in the contents of the shelves in supermarkets across Qatar over the last year, from the days immediately following the start of the crisis, when we all stood in mutual confusion in the dairy aisle trying to understand what "sut" was (Turkish for milk).....
.......to today being spoiled for a choice of new local produce, proudly displaying their Qatari branding. Brands such as Baladna, Rawa, Dandy and Ghadeer have rapidly stepped up to expand production after the closure of the Saudi land border cut off all supplies of established brand Almarai.
Baladna in particular has come from a little known farm that began life rearing sheep in 2013, to a huge dairy operation 50kms north of Doha (I passed it on my recent cycling trip) spread across 2.6 million square metres with 20,000 heads of cattle producing milk, yoghurt, cheese and meat. It is now also expanding into poultry and egg production.
The operation is open to visitors alongside a park with activities for kids, a small zoo and a restaurant selling the food produced on site. All these efforts have resulted in a 300 percent rise in the sale of Qatari products in the first quarter of 2018 compared to 2017.
A professor of economy at St Mary's college of California, Jack Rasmus, has praised Qatar for its swift adjustment to the crisis, believing that the blockade "wont have much effect on the economy" in the long run. Indeed, in February the ratings agency Fitch said about Qatar "there are signs of broader economic resilience."
The success of the self-sufficiency drive has emboldened Qatar to make an announcement a few days ago that all traders should stop dealing in any products imported from the four countries involved. Some products from these countries had found their way back to the shelves via third party countries but the ban of these products will now be monitored by the Economy Ministry.
In other areas, its not such good news. In April, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-bakr admitted that the airline had made a "substantial" loss over the last financial year due to the crisis, with many of its routes cancelled by the participating countries, and increases on flying times to other destinations due to airspace restrictions.
There have also been numerous claims and counterclaims of airspace violations on all sides, escalating tensions further. To try to claw back the losses, Qatar Airways are continuing to expand into other routes and partnerships, recently acquiring a stake in Italian airline Meridiana which will shortly become Italy's national carrier.
Politically, there seems to be an impasse, with the Bahraini Foreign Minister forecasting no resolution to the crisis in sight. Indeed, the much anticipated US-Gulf summit planned for 3rd April was postponed until September this year. It was also reported that there has been much lobbying behind the scenes by the UAE in particular to convince the US to support the blockade.
This includes a report by the BBC that a businessman with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of defence contracts with the UAE, Elliott Broidy, who also happened to be a Trump fundraiser, tried to persuade the US President to sack Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, because he wasn't supportive of the UAE position.
The World Cup also features heavily in the crisis with the four countries apparently offering to lift the blockade if Qatar gives up its right to host the competition. But its not just the 2022 World Cup at stake. In March this year, the Saudi Sports Authority Chairman appeared to threaten to withdraw support for Morocco's bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, if it continued its 'neutral' stance on the crisis, saying "to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us."
But perhaps the most troubling development in recent days comes from a threat made by King Salman in a letter to Emanuel Macron relating to Qatar's deal to purchase a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system. In the letter, obtained by French newspaper 'Le Monde', the Saudi Kings says "the Kingdom would be ready to take all the necessary measures to eliminate this defence system, including military action".
This comes on the back of statements made by Saudi Foreign Minister in April, that without US backing, Qatar would fall within a week. Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir made the statement following similar comments from President Trump during his Whitehouse meeting with French President Macron, when discussing support from Gulf countries in Syria. Trump said there were some countries in the area.. "some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States, and to a lesser extent France" and they "wouldn't last a week without US protection".
As Qataris enter the third week of Ramadan, many of them very personally affected by the year long crisis, they have mixed feelings about the events of the last year. Sadness at the loss of relations with their gulf brothers and sisters but great pride in their country's enduring strength and resilience to not only survive the last 12 months, but to thrive.
The UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs recently stated that "Qatar is arranging celebrations to mark a year of solitude and confusion". As a resident of Qatar over this last 12 months, that is not a description I recognise.
Having spent some relaxation time on the beach beneath a rather lovely palm tree, it was time to leave when the local youth started ripping up the beach with their beach buggies. I'd cycled that morning from Doha to Al Ruwais - 125km - and I was planning to spend some time in an isolated spot to watch the sunset and stargaze for a while before cycling back to Doha.
So I set off on the road between Al Ruwais and Al Zubara - an old fishing settlement with a Fort which was built in the 1930s to look out for various invaders from the Turks and Omanis to the Bahrainis and the British.
The road ran through the desert and was two-way, single track with no hard shoulder or space for a cyclist, which made me a little nervous, given that drivers here are..... lets just say..... not so careful around cyclists. I was looking for a place to come off the road and head to the sea to sit alone and contemplate.
Id been riding for maybe 10 minutes when I saw a vehicle driving in the opposite lane towards me...... no problem. Then from behind him, a Toyota pick up truck appeared and began an overtaking manoeuvre at some crazy speed - must have been over 120 kmph - heading straight for me on my side of the road...... problem. I had no hard shoulder, no space, no time to think.... so a split second decision caused me to jump off the tarmac and into the dust to avoid him.... with a hair's breadth to spare.
My trusty steed thankfully remained upright and we skidded to a halt a few metres off the road, kicking up the dust. And I melted into tears and sobs of shock. I tried to carry on few a few hundred yards but had to stop. I stood stunned, shaken and indecisive. What to do now? The sun was dropping, light fading and it was a Friday night when crazy drivers become insane.... not a great combination on a single track road with no space for me.
I decided to turn around and cycle back to Al Ruwais and from there I would start the ride home on the highway and find somewhere en-route to watch the stars for a while, passing this sign which reads "In the safety of Allah and his care"!! How appropriate. Still in shock at the close call, I decided to do the only thing an English girl can do in such a situation....... have a nice cup of tea!! I stopped at the 'Tea Time' shop on the edge of Al Ruwais where the best Karak tea is served. It was hot and sweet and perfect for the moment.
Feeling much better and really excited to start the journey back, I set off at 6pm, just as the sun was finally disappearing. I cycled for an hour along the Shamal road until I reached the turn off for Fuwairit, a popular beach destination. Unfortunately, this too was a single track road and by now it was pitch dark so I angled my headlight to try and watch for any potholes. When the drivers came towards me, their lights blinded me, so I didn't go too far before I settled on a place to stop just off the road.
As I wheeled my bike, I almost walked on what seemed to be a grave... a long narrow pile of stones! I apologised to the occupant and moved on. I parked up, made my camp and lit my area with a red light which had a nice glow. Unfortunately, this attracted rather alot of attention from passing Qataris who drove off the road towards me and offered help. "Whats the problem? Have you had an accident? What are you doing here? Why are you doing this? Do you need anything? Surely I can give you something.... water.... food...?"
At least half a dozen cars stopped, before I decided to put out my light and keep as still as possible to find the peace I'd sought and lay back and watch the stars. Sadly, though, attempting to stargaze in Qatar is a fools errand. Qatar is quite small and what country there is has been either industrialised by Gas and Petroleum plants or is being stitched together by a new network of multi-lane highways, metros, under and overpasses - all with bright lights.
Everywhere in Qatar there is an orange glow from somewhere. Scientists have ranked Qatar as the third worst country in the world to star gaze, after Singapore and Kuwait, with 97% of Qatar's residents living with light pollution. (Doha News)
After a couple of hours and starting to feel cold, I decided to get back on the road, stopping briefly at another Woqod petrol station for a hot coffee and a refill of water bottles and a well needed comfort break. Getting back on the bike was becoming an agonising experience, as if sitting on razor blades.... but pressing on was the only option with a 6 hour ride ahead.
It felt good to get going again, despite the fact that I'd now been awake for 18 hours. I calculated that with a 10 minute stop every half an hour to manage my back pain, I was looking at an arrival time of approximately 4am..... perfect to avoid the Friday night crazy driving time between midnight and 3am.
With every 30 minute stretch, I became more and more desperate for the stop, my buttocks screaming in pain and my back and legs tightening, and with each stop, a routine..... check my mileage, location, time, drink laban, eat figs or dates, stretch.
After about 4 hours, the routine had switched to scream as I lifted my buttocks off the saddle, stretch, pray, drink and wonder if I could make it home. I was checking in with a friend who stayed awake in case I got into trouble but I was determined not to give up, whatever the pain.
During one stop, the Police pulled up beside me....."mishkela?".... meaning "problem?".... "La.... kol tamam" I replied.... "No.....everything is OK". They were very reassuring and stuck around until they saw that I could ride safely and get on my way...... at least that's how I interpreted it. The Police were not the only ones to stop.... a guy in a big red pick up pulled over in front of me.... unfortunately he clearly wanted to chat which was absolutely the last thing on my mind at 2.30am, feeling nauseous and my buttocks in shreds. He'd seen me cycling in the morning at around 6am and couldn't believe I was still on the road! He offered to put my bike in the back of his truck and give me a lift. As tempting as it was.......
Passing Doha Festival City Mall and IKEA was a major milestone and a sign that I was close to home.... about an hour or so away. At this point I decided that stopping was no longer an option and I would push for home, negotiating multilayer roundabouts, major junctions and scary overpasses which, during normal daytime hours, are terrifying to negotiate by car, let alone on a bike!! Thankfully the roads were at last relatively quiet and I made my final push.
As I got closer to my hotel, I realised that I needed a plan for how to stop, prise my body from the saddle and dismount without screaming in front of the porter. So a few hundred yards away, I slowly and gently rose onto my feet and lifted my bottom off the razor blades that had become my saddle, wincing quietly as I did so. I attempted a smile but the look of horror on his face as I limped stiffly towards the door, looking shell-shocked said it all. "Are you OK madam?"...... "Yes I'm fine.... I've just cycled from Al Ruwais"..... He paused and said casually..."that's quite a long way".....!!
As I walked into the lobby, I glanced at my watch and realised that I had made it back exactly 24 hours after leaving, after a round trip of 276kms. Battered and bruised but just about in one piece.
Since bringing my bike to Qatar 3.5 years ago, I've had an ambition to one day cycle all the way to the Northern tip of the country, at Al Ruwais. 18 months ago, I got just over half way when I made a trip to Al Khor on the East Coast and spent the night before Eid Al Adha 2016 under the stars.
You would think the endless sunshine in Qatar would make it perfect for long distance cycling. However, the searing heat from May to September, the freezing desert nights during winter and the crazy winds that whip up sudden sand and dust storms at a moment's notice all mean that you need to choose your window of opportunity carefully.
After a few attempts scuppered by some freakish thunder storms, heavy rain and strong winds and a dust storm thrown in, the weekend of 20th April looked perfect for me to try again. Everything was prepared, my paniers packed, my chain oiled and I was up at 3.30am.
Had some strong coffee and porridge (the one time I forgive myself for eating carbs is when I'm cycling), I paused to reflect on whether I really wanted to do this, and set off nervously into the last remnants of darkness, at exactly 4.30am.
The weather was perfect, around 21 degrees and a light breeze and not much traffic to contend with at this stage.
I cycled along the Doha Corniche, past the silky calm waters of the bay, looking across to the city, and then cut behind the Emiri Diwan (Qatar's ceremonial state building) to ride along the "red road'... tarmacked about a year ago to replicate the royal road around Buckingham Palace!
It was wet from its nightly clean, so without mud guards I got a free shower to start the morning! I passed the Grand Mosque not long before sunrise, the end of Fajr, the dawn prayer.
I decided to avoid the Doha Expressway for as long as possible by taking Arab League Street until I reached Doha Festival City Mall where I would cut across to the Expressway and join the Shamal (North) Road. This would carry me all the way to the very northern tip of Qatar. So no map required.
I was feeling good and I was making great progress - averaging around 20kmph and marking my target kms every 30 mins. I kept this up for approximately 4 hours, despite my desperate need for a bathroom break.
Qatar is undergoing a total overhaul of its infrastructure, including its roads, and several times I saw signs for "Services 1km" but there were no services (I guess they put the signs up first and build the services later?), and believe me when I say there is nowhere to hide to take a pee n the desert!! And then the back pain started to creep in so I had to make one or two stops to stretch and get some relief.
Finally at 80km, I saw a Woqod petrol station. Relief at last!........I took a few minutes to stretch my legs, buy some more water and a fruit juice (the one time I forgive myself for drinking fruit juice is when I'm cycling). It was 8.45am when I stopped - Id taken 4 hours 15 mins to travel 80km and I had around 45km to go - maybe another 2.5 hrs. So I would reach Al Ruwais at maybe 11.30. Knowing the sun would get quite severe, I applied suntan lotion to my arms and face and off I went again.
The Shamal Road is a 3 lane highway running from Doha all the way up through the desert to the Northern tip of the country. I was lucky to have a hard shoulder to cycle along because the speed of many of the drivers here is terrifying.
The big trucks are directed to drive only in the "slow" lane beside me, but they too drive at reckless speeds. Initially quite terrifying, this was something which in fact I learned to love, because as they rushed past, I would momentarily get sucked along by their draft and it was a wonderful relief.
However, there was an occasional reminder that these speeds can lead to a loss of control with grave consequences. I saw several wrecks and a few abandoned vehicles along the way.
I felt better for the stop but the wind had now increased, and my progress was slower, and within 30 minutes the back pain had reappeared with a vengeance. I was experiencing back spasms which sent an electrical wave of pain through my whole body, a few times so bad that I was forced to stop peddling and free wheel for a few seconds.
I was terrified that at any time, I'd seize up completely and have to abandon the ride. So I stopped every 20 minutes to stretch and loosen up, under the shade of the nearest bridge, as the temperatures were really rising now to around 36C. I felt the risk of serious injury (having two herniated discs in my spine already, I know the signs) but I couldn't give up. I was close to my destination and although it wouldn't be pretty, I would finish, come what may.
A few kilometres on, I started seeing signs of civilisation. It must be Al Ruwais.... It wasn't. It was Shamal City. I passed a strange building in the style of a Fortress but which is actually a sports stadium! Then a few kilometres and roundabouts later, Al Ruwais! Finally. I needed to get inside an air-conditioned building and spend some time there cooling off. Id seen a shopping centre on the map so I imagined it would be a small mall where I could sit for a while and have coffee.
However, it was only a supermarket with no cafe. I bought some provisions for later and cycled around the town looking for someone to go inside. Unfortunately I'd arrived at around 1230pm, which was Friday noon prayer time, when cafes are usually closed. So instead I headed for Abu Dhalouf Park, where I was sure I could find some shade.
As I cycled towards the park, I passed half a dozen young boys around the age of 10 on beach buggies, driving recklessly on and off pavements and paying little attention to the traffic. They looked like they'd just come from the mosque, dressed smartly in their mini thobes.
I finally found the park around 1pm. Beside it was one of the most beautiful mosques Ive seen in Qatar. Once inside the park, it was very busy with families and children.
As I was pushing my bike around to find a quiet spot, a guard approached me and told me "no bikes allowed"... I asked him how to get down to the beach and eventually found the way. I found a big palm tree with lots of shade and set out my little camp to relax for a while.
It was a lovely spot looking out to the sea, a light breeze and the background sounds of children playing, and a group of Indian guys playing volleyball. After 125km and 7.5 hours in the saddle, finally I had a place to relax, recharge my batteries and rest my back.......
......Until the Qatari kids on their beach buggies arrived to tear up the beach, racing back and forth and driving straight through the volleyball net and ripping it out of the ground. They continued to terrorise the family beach goers and create noise and chaos so I decided to leave and find somewhere to watch the sun go down and see the stars come out.....
Last week I had the opportunity to visit AgriteQ, an International Agriculture Exhibition, at the Doha Exhibition and Conference Centre.
Held in Doha each year, it brings together agricultural specialists from around the world to share expertise, showcase innovation in farming and do business in Qatar, which has a rapidly expanding food production sector, as it seeks to become much more self sustainable and food secure.
Since the blockade by Qatar's neighbours, which started some 10 months ago, this nation found itself cut off from the mainland when Saudi Arabia closed the only land border and the UAE prevented the shipping of goods via Dubai.
These measures and others have given Qatar a real challenge to continue to meet the needs of its 2.5 million population. However, the country's rulers moved quickly to secure assistance from its allies whilst it immediately began fast tracking its plan to become self sustainable, particularly in the areas of dairy, poultry and vegetable production.
But the drive towards food security did not start with the blockade. AgriteQ is now in its 6th year and the interesting thing to note was the number of local Qatari producers already in operation and expanding rapidly.
Some of them, such as Baladna, the largest dairy and meat producer in Qatar, offered an opportunity to taste their products, while others were demonstrating growing techniques such as hydroponics.
This is a technique used to grow vegetables in arid environments, used by local companies such as Agrico, which grows a range of vegetables and fruits sold widely now in Doha's supermarkets and farmers markets.
Also on show at AgriteQ was a range of livestock, including sheep, goats, chickens and other poultry and even a camel or two, which were auctioned to local farmers.
On a smaller scale, there were producers from around the world bringing their goods for sale - olives and figs from Palestine, chocolate from Portugal, pickles and preserves from Morocco,
as well as local nurseries offering ornamental plants, water features and sculptures for residents who like a bit of bling in their back garden!
This effort is already proving fruitful, as the range of products now available in supermarkets is increasing again and the sense of loyalty towards Qatari products can be felt all over town, from the local date and honey sellers in Souq Waqif, and the farmers markets popping up everywhere, to the big supermarkets like Carrefour.
There is a ground swell of support for the local effort being made and it seems Qatar's big and not so neighbourly brothers totally underestimated this little nation's determination and resilience.