My Bakery life in Doha Qatar

It was about July 1981 when I was at work in the UK and visiting one of the many in-store bakeries under my control when I was told there was a phone call for me, well you could have knocked me down with a feather when the caller said that he was the general manager of the department store in “Doha Qatar” and that in principal I had been successful in getting the job as bakery manager but first wanted me to fly out to Qatar for the weekend as he put it to see if we like you and for me to see if I could work in the environment and liked them.

 

I considered myself incredibly lucky at this point, as when I went for the initial interviews in London for the job I was told that there had been over 300 applications for the position of which only 10 were selected to go for the second interview and practical test.

 

Next thing I knew I was on the plane on an early Saturday morning and arriving in Qatar about 8pm. As I walked of the plane in my best suite and down the steps to the tarmac it was like walking into a brick wall, the heat it must have been around 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity stifling as you felt as though you could not breathe.

 

I was meet at the airport by the GM and was whisked off in his very plush air conditioned BMW and taken straight to the department store. I remember walking in and thinking “OMG” as it was an incredibly big department store and at that time the biggest of its type in the Gulf. I was given a tour through each department and introduced to all the other British expatriate managers, the store sold just about everything you could think of from clothes, shoes, jewellery, sportswear electrical goods, books and magazines, furniture, a very big food hall with all imported products and the in store bakery, it was like a “Middle East Mini Harrods” selling all the top brands of merchandise. 

After meeting the bakery staff who were manly Indians, Kahleel (the bakery supervisor) Mohon Dass, Jacob John, Umerkutty, Gopinathan, Rangin, Exzavier, Ali, and the Thai’s, Gesa, Tara, and Bunchit. I was then given the bakery accounts and asked what can you do to improve the whole bakery operation and to make it profitable and to bring it up to a UK supermarket standard (if given an almost open cheque- book to renovate and refurbish it) and told give me your report and suggestions the next day ‘Sunday’ by midday.

 

I spent all night going through the books, the product range, hygiene controls, and made a quick draft layout plan of how I visualized the renovated bakery could look and made a plan of action ready for my meeting with the GM giving my findings and recommendations. He seemed imprested and immediately handed me a employment contract saying read this on the way home in the plane, if you agree sign it and send it back to me by the end of the week and then finally told me the salary would be twice what I was earning at home and was tax free. But it wasn’t just the money that enticed me it was the overall job that seemed such an immense challenge, and the chance to live and work with so many people of different nationalities and cultures.

 

On getting home I gave the whole family the rundown of the job and we all discussed the what’s and if’s as this had to be a family decision and not mine alone as there were so many aspects to consider, the children’s education, should we rent out the house, and what if it doesn’t work out, but it was a unanimous decision from them all for me to take the job otherwise I might regret it later in life.

 

Next day the contract signed and was on its way back to Qatar and I was writing out my resignation from my supermarket job giving the required one months notice and to my surprise when handing in my resignation was told that if the new job doesn’t work out your old job and position will still be here for you. 

One month later in September I was on my way back to Doha Qatar “alone” as my wife and two of the children would join me in five months time, and it was decided that our eldest son should go to a boarding school close to the grandparent’s house and that we would rent out the house.

 

Arriving back in Doha Qatar I soon got stuck into the job of changing the bakery, ordering new equipment, counters, making layout plans, putting in place hygiene controls and started staff training on new product lines. The total renovation of the bakery had to be finished and ready for the expatriate Christmas trading giving me only three months to get it all done. But then after just one month the GM said I should go on a business trip to the UK and Paris to meet suppliers and make sure all the equipment was on schedule, this was good as it meant I could also see my family all be it for only the weekend.

 

One of the early things I needed to do in Doha was to get mobile as there was no public transport and it was far too hot to walk anywhere even first thing in the morning temperatures where 30 degrees Celsius or more, but I soon managed to get a four wheel drive being the best form of transport in a desert country, but the problem was getting a driving license even though I had a clean UK license and had been driving for 21 years you still had to have a test, so it was off to the police compound at 5am for the test, first thing was the eye test, cover one eye and say what way the arrows where pointing, up, down, to the left or to the right! Then the road signs no problem, then on to the test track reversing round a letter “S” marked out by bollards and into a parking spot, then reversing up a manmade hill and holding the car on the clutch, this always baffled everyone as Qatar has no hills being perfectly flat, then out on the road test accompanied by three Sudanese police man, I took the test 3 times and kept failing until the stores  Sudanese security officer who always accompanied you on the test advised that 3 bottles of “Scottish nectar” would do the trick ( and then I passed without a road test)

 

My first encounter with the true Qatari Arab was when the local health officer arrived at the bakery one morning, he was a short man and all dressed in his white robes and head gear, he spoke excellent English as he had been educated in England, we first toured the bakery and he made a few suggestions about the hygiene conditions but I assured him that all matters like that were in hand and that a entire renovation of the bakery was in hand which made him very happy.

 

Then we sat in my office drinking Arabic coffee, discussing all the changes to be made in the bakery and all the places he had been to in England and seemed pleased with what we indented to do, but I found it a bit off-putting as he sat picking the dirty sand out from between his toes and flicking on the floor, I thought to myself “and this is the health officer” but he was a very nice , polite man, and would often come to see me just to sit and talk about England and drink coffee...

 

Over a period of time we made many Arabic friends but I always found it a little bit awkward (at first) when they insisted kissing me on both cheeks which is a traditional greeting among friends, I think the other expats thought I’d gone mad or turned ethnic but as they say “when in Rome”

 

Although a Muslim country it was more far liberal in the fact that expats could buy alcohol c/o a company know as cable and wireless, you had a license to buy and could spend a set sum once a month, on your designated day you went to the cable and wireless compound and into a room like a off-licence with all the drinks and beers on display round the room with the prices marked on them, you then selected what you wanted, but you had to get it right to the exact Qatar Riyal, then once you paid you collected your drinks and beer loaded them into your car and went straight home as you where “supposedly” only allowed to drink in your own home, or a friend’s home. But needless to say there was always a barbeque or a party going on by one of the 12 or more expats to which you always took a bottle or a case of beer, (strange how you can soon find excuses to have a party) but the bond between all the expats was strong all being in the same boat so to speak.

 

Finally all my new equipment arrived and on time after having been sent overland, we set the day of changing all the major equipment starting on a Friday night about 7 pm and worked all through the night with all the bakery staff myself and the store engineers, every one worked like trogons and by the time the shop opened at 9am it was all finished to the amazement of the customers and rest of the staff alike, we had installed new ovens, bread plant, counters, clothing everything was new and it looked just like a UK supermarket in store bakery only one thing different and that was a (humidified counter) for the imported Belgian chocolates, but one thing was very clear and that was, that without all the hard work by all the bakery staff and engineers we would never of got it done in time, Our friendly health officer was well impressed and we never had any Bakery hygiene problems with him, mind you a free cake at birthdays or the end of Ramadan (Eid) always helped...

 

Christmas was approaching and we had Christmas products on display in our new counters then the Christmas chocolates arrived by airfreight, and as I normally did I opened a few of the selection boxes just to make sure we were getting what we ordered, but “Boy, Oh, Boy” on this occasion did I get a surprise, as in the selection boxes I discovered it contained a chocolate variation that was a Cherry Brandy Liquor! If these had gone on sale I could of ended up in jail, I took a few boxes up to the GM and said to him these are good try one! After testing them he nearly fell of his seat, there was only one thing we could do and that was to open every selection box of some (1000 boxes) and replace the offending chocolate with another variation, what happened to the cherry brandy liquors? Let’s just say that I don’t think any of the expats or there wife’s ever liked cherry liquors again, well we had to destroy the offensive evidence.

 

Although it was Christmas the store still opened being a Muslim country but the expat managers got the day off (well that is all but one of them) who had to look after the store for half a day and I drew the short straw but all I had to do was stroll around the store just to let people know that a expat manger was on duty, it wasn’t so bad as the store was empty and incredibly quiet so gave me time to phone my wife and children at home in England as they would not arrive in Doha until mid January, then once the store was closed at 11am it was round to a friend’s house for Christmas lunch with all the other expats, everyone had chipped in for the food and with plenty of drinks it turned out to be a great Christmas day and did not finish until 6am the next morning, how we all got into work I don’t know (but we did) this had been the first time I had not been with my wife and children for Christmas and although it was a great party I missed them very much...

Soon mid January arrived and I was at Doha airport to meet my wife and children, I must admit I felt like someone going on their first date as I had never been away from my family for so long before.

 

They soon got into the Doha routine, children off to school at 6am and then the wife’s went off to the nearby hotel to lay round the pool all day or until the children got home at 12 o’clock, if they were lucky they might even find a job but there was always something for them to do. Often on a Friday we would all jump into our four wheel drives and head of to the beach, you could spend all day there and not see another person all day, these trips where always good during Ramadan as the store closed at 11am and did not open again until 7pm so you had 8 hours of leisure time.

 

One Friday my family and two friends decided we would venture further afield driving over the salt flats to a beach we had heard about, we had a great day and again the beach was utterly deserted we was the only ones there, but when the sun was setting we decided to make our way back home and my friend suggested to take a short cut and not follow the track that we had driven in by, although I wasn’t so sure ‘but’ agreed to his suggestion (BIG MISTAKE) we had only gone a few yards when before we knew it the car was up to its wheel arches in thick sandy mud a real quagmire and now way was the four by four going to get out of this as it was well and truly stuck. Fortunately as we had driven there first thing in the morning we had noticed a large villa right on the sea front and did not realize it belonged to the Sheikh I worked for and was the home of one of his wife’s, we all jumped out of the four by four as it slipped further into the muddy sand and decided all we could do was to walk along the beach to the villa and try and get some help, it was about one mile away, lucky for us there were people there and could not of been more helpful taking our wife’s and children into the villa and giving them cold drinks and where trying to talk with each other amongst hoots of laughter at our predicament. The Arab men jumped onto 4 wheeler motor bikes and took my friend and I back to the car a few minutes later a large water tanker came slowly along the beach, how they drove such a big tanker there I will never know but then the Arabs have the ability to read the sand and terrain which was why the tanker was going from the left to the right, they hitched a long chain to the back of my car and slowly with a loud slurp the car came out of the mud and towed us back to the villa where some of the Indian servants tried to clean as much of the mud  from the wheels as they could to make the car drivable again, they could not of been more helpful and one thing we learnt from this which is a rule of the desert (never to go on a beach journey alone and in only one car)

 

During my time working and living in Doha we had three Royal visitors, the first being the Duke of Wellington and then Princess Ann to whom my two young children had the honour of presenting her with flowers, both the Duke of Wellington and Princess Ann visited the store and I was honoured to be introduced to them and make special cakes to mark the occasion of there visits, then we had the visit of his Royal Highness Prince Charles and Lady Diana although they did not visit the store I was again extremely honoured to make a very special cake to mark the visit as at that same time it was Prince Charles’s Birthday and after viewing the cake which was on display at the Shakes hotel that the Prince visited the cake was then given to the British school to be eaten by the children. Also at this time to celebrate Prince Charles visit I was filmed and interviewed in the store by the local Qatar TV doing a cake decoration session which was then aired on the TV channel over two days.   

 

The Sheikh I worked for had many different businesses one as I just mentioned was the Big hotel on the edge of Doha bay, my friend worked there as financial manager and one day gave us a tour of the hotel, it really was impressive especially the (Penthouse Royal Suite) with its massive panoramic views overlooking Doha bay, but the opulence of the rooms was unbelievable, like in the bathroom all the bathroom fittings where made of pure solid gold and chairs covered in the finest silk.

 

Anouther memorable time was when a British war ship arrived in Doha harbour during its Gulf tour, each expat manager was delegated to look after and entertain some of the crews officers and needless to say I got the cook/baker who arrived at our villa fully laden with goodies and in particular a nice piece of “HAM” in the evening all the expats and the crew officers all got together for a barbecue and drinks and we made sure that all the officers went back to the ship (two sheets to the wind) the next day we were all invited to the ship for a guided tour and with real fish and chips served up in English newspapers and real English beer!

 

The following day they departed and as the ship eased away from the key side with all the crew standing to attention on the deck, over the ships loud speakers they played the “Queens” music with Freddie Mercury singing “We are Sailing, and We are the Champions” I think at that time it made us all fell incredibly patriotic and whenever I hear this music now I always think of Doha the staff I had, the many memories and good friends... 

 

Yes it was a good life and even better when we got paid as salary’s where always 2-3 months behind as the Sheikh who owned the store would often send one of his staff into the store to empty the tills needing the money for one of his other business ventures or a trip to Europe, but such a situation is hard to explain to the mortgage company at home, and then when I was headhunted by an international company to be the regional bakery adviser to all of the Middle East ,Cypress and Malta I decided it was time to move on and in August 1987 we said farewell to Doha, Qatar and many dear friends...  But it was a career move that was about to bring far more challenge and diversity into my baking life.