Middle East Meets West

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An in-depth look at the CNA campus in Qatar

Several months ago, I posted some anonymous revelations from employees of the College of the North Atlantic Qatar (CNAQ). Those posts (here and here) touched a nerve with several others, who wrote to thank me for bringing the whole situation to light.

One of the people who contacted me was adamant that I had, up to then, only scratched the surface of the story. This person, a former CNAQ employee, offered to write an in-depth account of living and working for the college in Qatar.

Recently, I received that essay. It is long just over 3,000 words but is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the story, and especially someone who is contemplating taking a position with CNAQ. "I am writing this article to give people my perspective of working for CNAQ and living in Qatar - so they can hopefully make a better informed decision if they are thinking of working there," the author says.

The essay opens by giving some context about the Qatar society, which is revealed as closed, controlled, class-based, and highly censored. On the lowest rung of the social ladder are temporary workers from countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. They work under slave-like and often dangerous conditions. Others turn a blind eye to it. Employees from the west are nowhere near the top of the class-based ladder, and are sometimes fired to be replaced by their Qatari assistants.

When the 10-year deal with Qatar was signed in 2001, it was intended to be a "technical college." Indeed, the CNAQ website describes it as offering "a broad range of technical programs in Engineering Technology, Industrial Trades, Business Studies, Health Sciences and Information Technology." As it turns out, my sources says, the Qataris "are not very interested in IT and not at all interested in Engineering and Health Sciences." Business is what dominates the curriculum.

As well, the Qataris told the CNA that their students had good English skills. But that wasn't true, and "of the approximately 300 instructors now at CNAQ fully one-half 150!! are ESL instructors. As the demand for employees has grown, mainly for ESL instructors, people are being recruited from across Canada and from Canadians working in other countries. The number of employees going non-resident has grown and grown, meaning the NL government is getting diminishing revenues from this source."

New employees of CNAQ who have children are in for a surprise. The schools are full so you have to enroll your child in a temporary school, out of a crowded house with no lab or science facilities, no gym, etc. The housing is inferior, though "senior executive have separate housing in better digs away from other employees."

There's more much more. So pour yourself a cuppa and settle in for a fascinating read.

Disillusioned in the Desert

It sounded great a job in a Technical College managed by Canadians in the Middle East. I would be working for the College of the North Atlantic in their campus in Doha, Qatar. It promised to be challenging and potentially professionally rewarding, working for a "World Class" College located in the tiny country of Qatar. However it ended up to be a disillusioning and very disappointing experience for me.

Qatar had decided it wanted a Canadian managed technical college with, of course, a Canadian curriculum. Representatives from Qatar toured Canada in 2000/2001 and knocked on the doors of such institutions as the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and CNA. In the end CNA got the contract to manage the new college for 10 years. The College of the North Atlantic Qatar opened for classes in September 2002.

To understand the situation at CNAQ one must look at the country they are operating in. Qatar is a very wealthy country, their revenues coming from oil and and large natural gas reserves. It is one of the Arabian Gulf States that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman. The country is very small, with a total population of around 900,000. Only 250,000 inhabitants are Qatari Nationals (citizens). Unlike other countries in the world, Qatar does not grant citizenship to anyone other than offspring of citizens, no matter how long you live and work in the country. The Qataris flaunt their wealth at every opportunity. They are building hundreds of high-rise buildings in Doha, giant edifices costing huge sums of money for the main purpose of showcasing their wealth. Qatar is trying to play catch up with Dubai in the U.A.E. which has a giant head start in the building of very high rise buildings, artificial islands off the coast for housing, gigantic shopping malls and fantasy attractions.

The main mode of transportation for Qataris is the Toyota Landcruiser; at times it seems that is all that is on the road. The Landcruiser is a common status symbol for them. But in addition most drive BMW's, Mercedes, Cadillacs and other expensive vehicles. Most of the Qatari students at CNAQ drive these luxury vehicles, distaining the Toyota Echos and Honda Citys the instructors drive. A common practice for Qataris is to stop outside shops grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants etc and honk their horns the shop owners then come running out to serve them. And the Qataris driving habits are reckless they drive without any regard for the safety of others, frequently putting others in extreme danger. It was a very stressful experience driving there, always wondering if you were going to be their next victim. In such a small country they have one of the highest accident rates per capita in the world. In one 12 month period over the last two years there were 75,000 accidents in Qatar around 200 a day!!

96% of Qatari citizens work for the government private industry does not appeal to them because they get unmatchable benefits working for the government good salaries, lots of time off, and full pensions after working for 20 years. The remainder of the population around 650,000 basically keeps the country operating. Many work in the oil and gas industry, some in education, government and business, but most work in as labourers in the construction industry and as security guards. The ex-pats working in the oil and gas, education, and business sectors are generally people from the Western world Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand. There is a class system of ex-pats in Qatar. The Western ex-pats belong to the highest class after the Qataris and they are paid the highest salaries. The next "class" is people from other Middle Eastern countries. After that is people from India and the Philippines who work for government and business in professional capacities such as accountants and IT personnel. The Indians have been in Qatar for many years. The bottom class of expats is the people working as labourers in the construction industry and as security guards. The people working in the construction industry and as security guards are actually called "low-paid" expats by the locals. They are from countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. They work under slave-like conditions, usually working under two year contracts. They are not allowed to have any family with them; they work 12-hour days, seven days a week, with no time off. At construction sites, they are forced to work in extreme heat at times with the temperature often in the 40's. They are provided with housing, but usually they are slums with little or no fresh water and often no sewers.

There is an official government "rule" that workers cannot work in temperatures over 50 degrees centigrade the old adage in Qatar is that the temperature never "officially" gets over 50, it is never higher than 49 degrees. The western ex-pats generally turn a blind eye to the treatment of the workers (I did while I was there I have no excuses). The Qataris do not value their non-Qatari employees just ask any Western ex-pat who has worked for them directly. For example when I started work in Qatar I knew several Western ex-pats that worked for the Qatar Foundation in Senior Managerial positions a State Organization that oversees Education City where several American University campuses are located. After about two years all had been fired and replaced with their Qatari assistants. One person a Canadian who had worked for them for 4 years as a Manager was fired by email one Sunday morning (the beginning of the work week there).

Such is the power of money, there is a lot of money to be made in Qatar, that is the main reason everyone is there.

Qatar is a controlled society the Internet and media are censored. No one is allowed to leave the country without permission from your "sponsor" (employer). Without this permission you cannot leave the "sponsor" law has been sited internationally as a violation of basic human rights. In addition, employees need written permission from their "sponsor" (employer) to join things like gyms and clubs and to acquire services like telephone and Internet. They also need permission to open bank accounts and credit services.

The College of the North Atlantic-Qatar operates in this atmosphere. The College buildings are an example of the edifices the Qataris are building. It is a 22 building campus, designed to hold 3000 students, It is state of the art no money was spared it is impressive a real showpiece.

80% of the students who attend the College of the North Atlantic-Qatar are Qataris a minimum 80% is mandated by the State. It is a co-ed institution the first in Qatar, which was a major milestone. About 40% of the Qatari students are female. The remainder of the students are people from other Middle Eastern countries whose parents are working and living in Qatar. Most of the Qatari students are employees of State organizations and are paid a salary to attend the college. Generally the non-Qatari students paid their own tuition.

CNAQ offers diploma courses in Business, IT, Engineering and Health Sciences. They also have a Security Academy on site where they train Security Guards. The "project" as CNA likes to call CNAQ, has been plagued by poor planning right from the beginning. A good example is when CNA and the government of NL were negotiating with the Qataris, the Qataris told them that they speak English very well (the language of instruction). So when CNA came over in 2002 they brought two ESL instructors. They soon discovered after testing potential students that Qataris do not speak English very well. The result is that of the approximately 300 instructors now at CNAQ fully one-half 150!! are ESL instructors. (One result is that they have run out of instructor office space because the building was planned way back in 2001- and had to convert many classrooms to cubicle type offices much to the chagrin of the latest arrivals). Enrollment in the various faculties has been problematic for CNAQ. The largest enrollment is in the business faculty. The Qataris are not very interested in IT and not at all interested in Engineering and Health Sciences. The latter two faculties have struggled to attract Qataris. So, the bottom line is that this "World Class" Technical College is essentially an ESL and Business school for the Qatari students. The diploma programs, which are generally two year programs at CNA in Canada often take students three or four years (or more) to complete, because of language problems. This is much to the chagrin of the employers who send them there and pay their salary while they are going!! The College initially labeled the diploma programs as two-year programs in their calendar, but had to remove the reference.

The "project" was first celebrated in 2001 as a source of new jobs for Newfoundlanders and a source of tax revenue for the NL government supposedly it was going to generate 500 million dollars over the 10 year agreement. (Wonder if that target will be reached?) At first the plan was to second only CNA employees for a couple of years, and they would have to pay Canadian income tax. However, as the demand for employees has grown, mainly for ESL instructors, people are being recruited from across Canada and from Canadians working in other countries. The number of employees going non-resident has grown and grown, meaning the NL government is getting diminishing revenues from this source. And to add insult to injury the percentage of CNA and Newfoundland employees has been decreasing.

CNAQ has always had difficulty recruiting instructors, especially in the Engineering and Health Sciences faculties. They just cannot compete with the high paid positions in Canada. Their recent initiative (advertised on the CNA website) to give employees and organizations "finder fees" indicates that they might be getting desperate. They have even offered to pay organizations 10% of the "borrowed" employees base salary, which is the only revenue the college gets from the Qataris (the management fee is 10% of each Canadian hired employees base salary). This was another example of poor planning CNAQ has approximately 100 employees who are hired locally CNA gets no management fee from the State for these employees.

Schooling is an issue if you are thinking of bringing your children. The schools in Doha are full, so the only alternative is to enroll your child in the Qatar Canadian School which is technically run by the State. Be warned though even though the quality of instruction is good, the school is in a house (called villas in Qatar) that has no facilities such as computer labs, science labs, a gym and it is crowded. They are promising a new facility, but they are not sure when this will happen. The school is K-9 so if your child is in Grade 10-12, it will be difficult to gain a place in a school in Doha.

The housing is inferior probably one of the worst quality of housing that is offered to Western ex-pats in Qatar. One of the apartment buildings has been plagued by mould problems since it opened two years ago it would probably have been shut down in Canada. But the housing as CNA touts is free! and many others will remind you of that. So if it's free don't expect much! The senior executive though has separate housing in better digs away from other employees.

CNAQ has been burdened with poor leadership. This is not surprising after reading a recent article in the this blog indicating that the leadership at the "mother ship" the College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland is also very poor, maybe worse. An employee survey conducted at the College of the North Atlantic Qatar in May 2007 showed that there was a toxic work atmosphere present at the college, one that was apparently being fostered by the executive of the college. Employee' comments were shocking, with many examples given of verbal and psychological abuse. The college's solution was to fire a Dean at the end of May, leaving those in power who had allowed the situation to deteriorate to that point.

The good things about working at CNAQ? If you can ignore the working atmosphere and bad management? Well..

very small class sizes for instructors .The retired High School teachers teaching prep courses like Math, Chemistry, Biology and Physics think they have died and gone to teaching heaven. The ESL instructors feel the same way they would be hard pressed to make that much money with such small class sizes anywhere else in the world (except maybe other Gulf countries)

for all employees -good money, especially if you are a non-resident of Canada (no taxes and Qatar has no taxes whatsoever), lots of time off (instructors get 54 days a year plus stats and support staff get 35-45 days off according to seniority) and plenty of opportunity for travel. Some employees dread going back to Canada and other parts of the world to go back to a "real job".

In general, working with a wonderful group of peers

Some might ask if things are so bad, why don't people just leave? Well for one thing people have moved halfway around the world and in some cases, brought their family with them, perhaps they have quit a job in Canada or elsewhere they have made a huge commitment and it is very tough to leave. They have also signed a three-year (typically) contract and most people feel obligated, of course, to honour the contract.

In the 2006-2007 Academic year, when there were so many problems at CNAQ, many employees turned to therapy to help them with the stress of living in Qatar and working at CNAQ. I talked to a therapist working with employees through the Employee Assistance Program at the College and she said she had many employees of the College of the North Atlantic Qatar, as clients and she felt very worried about the mental health of many of them. They all felt trapped by their situation there. Her main advice to them was to formulate an exit strategy to give them some hope of ending their situation.

A CBC story came out on radio and TV in Newfoundland at the end of October, 2007 giving some examples of the comments by employees from the survey. After the report the College did not deny any of the content. In fact here is part of a letter sent to employees by H. Jorch President of CNAQ commenting on the CBC story about problems at the College (CBC Radio initially broadcast the story on October 31, 2007) substantiating the allegations:

From: Jorch, Hal

Sent: Thu 11/1/2007 2:21 PM

To: Employees


Good Afternoon,

As many of you are aware there have been stories on radio and television in Newfoundland & Labrador concerning the working environment at our campus and this story is now becoming widespread across the province and in Qatar as well.

This kind of story is obviously upsetting to all of us, but we know these concerns are not new. We are proud of the high response rate to last May's Employee Opinion Survey which revealed these concerns and others. The issues are very real and important, and steps have already been taken to address many of them.

For those who think that the issues at CNAQ are old news please read the comment below. This comment also points out that although the College is being technically managed by CNA they really have no power to get things done, because of the control exercised by the Qataris. This is a comment I copied from a blog on the Qatar Living website (www.qatarliving.com) dated November, 2007 apparently written by a current employee of CNAQ.

From Qatar Living Blog November 20, 2007

I asked some CNA-Q instructors from various departments (these are people I respect, they are articulate, reasoned, passionate about their teaching and self-reflective) if "poisonous" and "harassing" were adequate descriptions of their working conditions. About 2/3rds said "Yes." So the story is still alive and real. What might be surprising is that it didn't break sooner.

What is surprising is how unprepared the senior administration is for its role. In his town hall meeting in June 2007, Hal Jorch spoke of how he gets the Qataris to pay attention to the needs of the college; he said, "We beg them for things and if they don't give it to us, we keep begging."

This is a culture that values relationship and negotiation. CNA-Q could use president/vice-presidents with these skills. It's not rocket science to realize that the college may have professional instructors (for the most part) but amateur administrators (for the most part). The administration does manage in a reactive, arbitrary and non-strategic fashion and without the use of management best practices (such as those found in major companies located--among other places--on Yonge Street.) When you're managing an organization of the size of CNA-Q, you owe it to 600 employees--whose livelihoods depend on good management--to offer them good management.

One thing I noticed when I was at CNAQ was how much the provincial government is involved with the daily operation of the College of the North Atlantic - I think it must be unprecedented when you look at other colleges across Canada. For example the acting president of the College for almost two years was Rebecca Roome - the Deputy Minister of Education.

I do worry that the above article may be too negative. I have tried to be fair, and mentioned some positive things about working at CNAQ.

However I do want to inform people that are thinking of working for CNAQ and living in Qatar what some of the realities are. Things that CAN obviously do not tell people - like the schooling - which has a profound impact on families when they arrive there. Also I hope that the College of the North Atlantic really does take a close look at the leadership at the campus in Qatar - the way they treat employees and hopefully make some changes for the better.

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Recent comments

  • Dave
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I have read the comments and yes I agree there are issues with the CNA in Qatar, but I would like to comment on some of the things that is mentioned in the article.
    The issues with the management at the CNA seems to be familiar with comments and concerns I have heard from employees who work at other post secondary institutes in the province, so I think the issue is more to do with how these are managed provincially and not just isolated to Qatar. So I am sorry just because you are working half way around the world doesn't mean that the instructors are getting treated any worse than the ones in the province.
    As for the concerns of living in Qatar itself, the importing of labour from poor countries and the status of living in that country, I would just like to say welcome to world outside Newfoundland, it is time for you to open your eyes. Class societies are very evident in many parts of the world and although they are not fair, they do exist and to lesser extent they exist even in Newfoundland. For those of you that want to argue, someone please explain this to the little child that wants to play an afterschool sport such as minor hockey, but can't because his parents can't afford the fees, and the cost all the hockey equipment. With regards to the people that they import from poor countries and the conditions in which they live, I have been exposed first hand to this type of situation and all I would say is ask these people about where they come from, and the situations they live like in their home countries and how many people during those two years away that this one person will support in their home country. Then decide where they are better off, or wait let them choose.
    With regards to the schools and living conditions, although I agree that a building that has mould is not safe to live in, but please open your eyes once again, to the rest of the world. I have friends working in Malaysia, who could not get their teenage kids in to either international school for 18 months. That is almost two years of either home school or basically no school at all. As for accommodation when are people going to learn that when you leave home that the conditions are going to be different. For anyone that has ever taken a vacation and stayed at a hotel in a foreign country besides the USA you will know that what classes as a 5 star hotel in these countries can be very different than what it would be in Canada. So yes the housing will not be to the same standard and yes the senior management may live better but doesn't the president of Mun live in a better house than most of the instructors and prof's with less than 5 years of seniority.
    So at the end of the day, I believe that if anyone takes a job in Qatar is expecting to find the same conditions and life style as you would get in Newfoundland, and have a perfect job, than I think that person should stop living in a dream land and get their head out of the clouds and do some research on the culture and the world outside Newfoundland. I think we should be proud that a country such as Qatar saw something in the CNA that made it want to use them and what they had to offer to make their country a better place.

    • John Higgins
      October 15, 2010 - 17:08

      The comment on the article from Dave has no merit. The problems with management from CNAQ are completely different from those in Newfoundland or the rest of Canada. There is no union in Qatar as it is against the law. Management has seized on this and acts irresponsibly and treats professional employees and faculty without respect or consideration. There is no dialog or discourse with faculty. Decisions are arbitrary and frequently not implemented as there is deep resentment and the poorest morale I have ever seen in and outside public employment. The benefit of a union is that there is a grievance process. The government has tried to implement a respectful workplace program but it is an utter failure. There has been no difference in management. With respect to mold I also have to disagree with Dave. There is no excuse for putting employees in a building that is unsafe and unhealthy. If the answer is that Qatar does not care then certainly CNA must. The premier of Newfoundland should meet the Emir of Qatar and make it clear that CNAQ cannot continue as a college if its employees cannot live in decent accommodations. CNAQ assured employees they will have safe comfortable living accommodations and this has not taken place. The fact is CNAQ promised decent living conditions and it does not matter how the rest of the world lives as CNAQ has not made promises to the rest of the world. CNAQ does not operate in Malaysia either. Dave's arguments are ludicrous. Hockey has little to do with the class society in Qatar. The lowest class here are made promises and then taken advantage of and used as slaves. They cannot leave the country as there is a process where only employers can allow them to leave - it is called an exit visa. It is against human rights as amnesty international and other organizations have declared. Dave ignores these facts and himself has his head somewhere else - I would rather not say where... At the end I predict CNAQ will disappear from Qatar and their will be no trace of it in this country and there will be no thanks either. CNAQ is being used just as the lower classes. The American colleges will take over and being American colleges they will do a much better job. Newfoundland is a laughing stock again.