In rich Qatar, restau­rant lets poor eat for free


In a dusty cor­ner of Qatar’s boom­ing cap­i­tal, a sign out­side a mod­est restau­rant popular with mi­grant la­bor­ers reads: “If you are hun­gry and have no money, eat for free!!!”

Six­teen kilo­me­ters (10 miles) from the gleam­ing glass tow­ers of Doha, one of the rich­est places on the planet, sits the “Industrial Area” of small-scale work­shops, fac­to­ries and low-cost ac­com­mo­da­tion.

It is only a 40-minute drive south of the cen­ter of the Qatari cap­i­tal and its luxury shops, up­mar­ket brands and ex­pen­sive restau­rants.

But the “Industrial Area,” rarely seen by out­siders, is a dif­fer­ent Qatar — one which pro­vides es­sen­tial la­bor and ma­te­ri­als for the coun­try’s mas­sive and re­lent­less ex­pan­sion.

It is at the mar­gin of Doha life, both ge­o­graph­i­cally and metaphor­i­cally, but home to a restau­rant called Zaiqa do­ing some­thing ap­par­ently unique for the oil-rich Gulf state.

About three weeks ago the In­dian broth­ers who own Zaiqa de­cided to put up a small makeshift sign of­fer­ing free food to cus­tomers who can­not af­ford to pay.

“When I saw the board 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.

“Even now when I talk about it, I get a lump in my throat.”

He said the idea came from his younger brother, Nishab.

‘Peo­ple need free food’

The 16-seater eatery stands on the pro­saically named Street 23, sand­wiched be­tween an­other res- tau­rant and a steel work­shop.

It is a busy area — op­po­site is a mosque and then a road where large trucks hur­tle past.

In­side, on brightly colored table­cloths, “au­then­tic In­dian cui­sine from the heart of Delhi” is served 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A fish curry costs six Qatari riyals (US$1.65), an egg roast is three riyals and a spinach dish of palak pa­neer is 10 riyals — for those who choose to pay.

The need for free food in Qatar is par­tic­u­larly acute among la­bor­ers and those work­ing in heavy in­dus­try.

It is es­ti­mated that there are any­where be­tween 700,000 and one mil­lion mi­grant work­ers in the tiny Gulf king­dom, out of a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 2.3 mil­lion.

Rights groups have crit­i­cized com­pa­nies in Qatar for not pay­ing work­ers on time or, in some cases, not at all.

The Qatari gov­ern­ment, un­der pres­sure to in­tro­duce salary re­form in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, vowed ear­lier this year to force com­pa­nies to pay wages through di­rect bank trans­fers.

Even those who do get paid will be in­tent on send­ing most of their money back home, said one of Zaiqa’s din­ers, Nepalese me­chanic Ghufran Ahmed.

“Many la­bor­ers earn 800-1,000 riyals (US$220-275) per month. They have to send money back to home. It’s ex­pen­sive here so there are peo­ple who need free food,” he said.

Shadab, who is a film­maker as well as a restau­rant owner, said those ask­ing for food are mostly con­struc­tion work­ers from coun­tries

such as In­dia, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Just Bread and Wa­ter

“We re­al­ize a lot of peo­ple out here do not get paid on time and do not have money, not even money to eat,” he said.

“So there were peo­ple who would come here and just buy a packet of bread. And they would eat the bread with wa­ter.

“So, we re­al­ized those peo­ple don’t have money for any­thing else. They just buy a packet of bread, which comes to about one riyal. So, we would try to of­fer them food.” But it is not easy, added Shadab. “Self-re­spect,” he said, means many refuse to take some­thing for noth­ing.

As a re­sult, in the three weeks since the free food ex­per­i­ment started, “the num­ber of peo­ple com­ing here to get free food is like two or three peo­ple a day at the most.”

As if to em­pha­size Shadab’s point, two work­ers en­tered the restau­rant while AFP was there but left in case their com­pli­men­tary lunch should be­come public knowl­edge.

In an­other sign of how peo­ple fu­elling the Qatari boom are strug­gling to live, it was re­cently re­vealed that some Doha mar­ket work­ers were forced to live in their stalls as they can­not af­ford rents.

For Zaiqa too, there is a black cloud on the hori­zon. The restau­rant’s fu­ture is threat­ened by a dis­pute over rent with the prop­erty owner and may have to close down.

Shadab and his brother have a dif­fer­ent plan for their next restau­rant. “We are putting a re­frig­er­a­tor out­side, so this re­frig­er­a­tor won’t have a lock. It will be fac­ing the road and it will have packets of food with dates on them,” he said. “So any­body who wants to take it, he doesn’t have to come in­side.”


Cooks pre­pare food at the Zaiqa restau­rant, which of­fers free food to those who can­not af­ford to pay, in south­ern sub­urbs of the Qatari cap­i­tal Doha on March 31.


Shadab Khan, one of the In­dian own­ers of the Zaiqa restau­rant, poses for a pho­to­graph out­side his restau­rant in south­ern sub­urbs of the Qatari cap­i­tal Doha on March 31.

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