Qatar’s vast oil wealth and desire to maintain its tribal traditions has led to sky-rocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, especially amongst young children. While the discovery of oil has radically changed the fortunes of most Qataris for the better, they have also found there is a dark side to this fortune.
With only 250,000 native Qataris, nearly all have benefitted from its oil wealth, but at a detriment to their collective health. Like most people in the Arab Gulf, they were traditionally desert-dwelling and therefore much more physically active. Now, cars have replaced camels and fast food and home deliveries take the place of home cooking. Even housework and child rearing is left to maids and nannies.
This has led to a shocking amount of obesity amongst Qataris with studies showing that 45% of adults are obese and up to 40% of school children are obese as well. Worrying as those statistics are, what is even more worrying is the attitude towards obesity. As noted by a Qatari dietitian Nelda Nader, “For the majority,” she said, “it is really quite normal to be obese.” It’s easy to see why, given the projections that in the next five years, 73% of Qatari women and 69% of men will be obese. Coupled with the high rates of obesity are the high rates of diabetes, often triggered by excess weight. Some 15.4% of adults have diabetes, with rates in children below the age of 5 at 28.8%.
In addition to fighting against a radical lifestyle change and social acceptance of obesity, traditional marriage practices and cultural values are also adding to the rising rates of obesity and diabetes. One of the main culprits is cousin marriage and hereditary diabetes, with studies showing that most diabetes patients carry hereditary diabetes genes. No matter what the health risks this practice might carry, it is a highly taboo subject and therefore nearly impossible to tackle. There has been a push for more genetic testing prior to marriage and more debate about the issue; it is unlikely to end anytime soon. Another nearly changeless cultural practice is that of overwhelming hospitality. In addition to a high calorie diet of rich traditional foods and fast food, any visit to friends or relatives requires more eating. To not accept this is considered shameful and the common practice of sharing a communal meal leads to overeating in an attempt to not offend.
Luckily, Qatar is attempting to find solutions with a drive to increase public awareness of the need to exercise, a hard sell in a hot and humid climate, as well as children’s camps to educate diabetes patients about their diet and how to control their condition. However, there are also plans to offer weight loss surgery for the children instead of education, a far too radical solution that won’t actually fix the root causes. Until they can change attitudes and lifestyles, Qatar’s waistlines will swell along with their bank balances.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons