Qatar Impact: Too much of a bad thing - Eating Healthy

While in search of a healthy lunch option, Kamahl Santamaria considers Qatar’s obesity and diabetes epidemic, and asks what business can do to help.

My intention this month was to write a column about Qatar, its malls and businesses, and the effect they are having on the country’s obesity and diabetes problem – particularly over the long summer months.

But as we settle into July and August, I am still reminded of the terrible events of May at the Villaggio Mall which I am sure are strong in other people’s minds too. The fire and loss of life seems to be changing the entire business and social landscape in this city. Other malls have been closed for safety inspections. People are talking and questioning more. At the very least, the fire made us think about the victims and their families, and then about our own safety and that of our children as we go about our daily lives.

But therein lies a reality. Daily life, for those of us who stay in Qatar over the summer, means frequent trips to the malls. Which brings me back to my original topic – the issue of obesity and diabetes, and the role business can play in both fuelling and rectifying it. Qatar has some quite astonishing statistics on these topics. According to the website – set up by journalism students at Northwestern University – 75 percent of Qataris are overweight, as is 71 percent of the entire population. Even more alarmingly, 16.7 percent of Qatari adults have diabetes (20.2 percent for all adults) when the worldwide average is just 8.5 percent.

And this is something the government can only be too aware of, as its own National Health Strategy 2011-2016 published those statistics. So when confronted with such numbers, the first question must be ‘why’?

Clearly the nature of the country is a factor – lots of driving, not enough walking, and again those long hot summer months, which lead to increased inactivity and inevitable trips to the malls or hotels. But the way businesses choose to conduct themselves – particularly those in the food/beverage and hospitality sectors – has an impact too. I had never lived anywhere where the major fast-food businesses offered free delivery all over town. Or where a honk of your horn outside one of their outlets would send staff scurrying to take and then deliver your order. This level of convenience only makes it easier for people to consume fast food with little regard for burning it off.

There is also a clear culture of excess. Think of the famous ‘Friday brunch’ at any of the major hotels, which offers a volume of food most of us have never seen and a variety that tempts even the smaller eaters. It is a recipe for overindulgence, and I will admit to doing it myself a few times.

Plus there is an extension of that – the hotels and other businesses, which offer catering services. In some cases, catering and hospitality can provide more business for a hotel than tourism or room occupancy. So what to do about all of this? How can business help the situation when, in the end, everyone is just doing their job? Fast-food outlets will always exist, hotels will always be asked to cater, and so a lot of responsibility falls to the individual to exercise good judgement – and to just exercise, period. There needs to be more social responsibility from businesses. More healthy food options, a smaller amount of better-quality food, and a move away from general excess.

Penalties could be another option. In May, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) health ministers proposed a 50 percent tax on soft drinks. But perhaps an awareness too of the more unique issues in the region. Obese or diabetic women need to be given extra consideration, according to professor Christina Paschyn, the editor of and a lecturer at Northwestern University. She told TheEDGE: “I think the biggest thing is going to be for women…if they’re not providing the centres or the resources for women to actually do something about it without feeling like they’re exposing themselves to wandering eyes. One of the big things we found is that there’s a big lack of female-only gym facilities…that’s a big problem because many Qatari women don’t want to exercise in public.”

So there is onus on both government and business to increase people’s awareness about what they are eating, especially young people – so the habits of one generation can be refined for the next.

Kamahl Santamaria is a Doha-based news anchor with Al Jazeera English and host of the channel’s business and economics programme Counting the Cost.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.7/8, July/August 2012.


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