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Life, Hotel Parties, and Death in Qatar's Expat Bubble

The aftermath of the murder of a 24-year-old British woman captures the uneasy mix of conservatism and behind-closed-doors hedonism in the Persian Gulf state.

For much of the last few hours of her life, Lauren Patterson was at Club 7 in Doha's La Cigale Hotel. It's a rotten place to have spent your final night on Earth—it looks how a 90s teen sitcom might have imagined a nightclub, with futuristic pod chairs clustered around white lacquered tables and watchful men in dark poplin going-out shirts leering at the action on a sunken dance floor. It was the night of October 11, 2013, and the 24-year-old Patterson had just returned to Qatar from the UK, where she'd attended her grandmother's funeral.

She met up with friends that night at the hotel because that's where you go if you live in Doha—to one five-star hotel or another, to drink and to pretend for a few hours that you're not in the middle of a Potemkin village in the gullet of the Persian Gulf.

Patterson was a member of the Facebook group "the Doha Clubbing Authority" and in her pictures, she always seems to be with friends, looking a bit like a tanner version of Snow White. She had jet-black hair and rimmed her green eyes with dark liner so they'd pop. The thought that she might have carefully lined them that way the night she died reminds me of a picture of myself, also at 24, in the middle of a crowd at that same hotel, wearing liquid-liner-flicked cat eyes and red lipstick and drinking a vodka-something. In the snap, the backlit cityscape is blurred like the Northern Lights and no one is really looking at the camera, except for one startled girl whose name I barely remember, cigarette in hand, flimsy Union Jack sweater on her back.

That's how I remember nights in Doha. Inconsequential, British, and boozy.

Sometime around 3:30 AM on October 12, Patterson got a ride, along with a girlfriend, from two male Qatari acquaintances, Badr Hashim Khamis Abdallah al Jabar and Muhammad Abdullah Hassan Abdul Aziz. The friend was dropped off, but Patterson never made it home. Her burned remains were discovered in the desert a little over a day later by a falconer, not far from the Saudi Arabian border. Prosecutors later claimed that al Jabar had "conquered her body" in a house he kept in Doha. Patterson was stabbed twice before being lit on fire, a knife still lodged in her ribcage when she was found.

The idea for Westerners is, if you have to endure desert heat and the oddities of the Gulf, then your standard of living had better be something akin to Celine Dion's tenure in Las Vegas.

To those who've spent time in Doha, the Patterson case is compelling not just for its lurid details but because it highlights the curious culture—and troubling undercurrents—of the city. The influx of Westerners into Qatar, a Wahhabi state, over the past decade, has meant a sometimes uneasy mix of conservatism and the kind of behind-closed-doors hedonism that's born whenever desires for freedom chafe against rigid societal constraints. And as the country's population continues to grow thanks to a pre–2022 World Cup building boom, the contrasts have only been thrown into sharper relief.

Ninety percent of the Qatar's population is expatriate, many of them Westerners convinced of their inherent safety in the country. Perhaps that's why Doha News, the English-language website that serves as the preferred source for Western expats in Qatar, has followed the twist and turns in the Patterson case with fidelity—something that cannot be said of the local print newspapers, whose coverage has been paltry in comparison. Al Jabar was convicted last March for Patterson's murder and sentenced to death, while Abdul Aziz was given three years in prison for helping dispose of the body. Late last month, a court upheld al Jabar's death sentence on appeal, and once again local news outlets and the British tabloid press replayed the crime. Next week, a verdict is expected in the case of the 2012 rape and murder of American teacher Jennifer Brown, which has also garnered significant attention from Qatar's English-language online press.

The murders have come as a shock to the Western expat ecosystem. Part of Qatar's allure to this demographic is its tranquility—a center of calm in a region where, so often, the center does not hold. Many of the jobs necessary to grow a rentier state into one of the wealthiest per capita countries in the world require degrees of education and skill that, until recently, were not easily sourced from the Qatari population. Westerners who came in to operate natural-gas-processing plants, advise wealth funds, and manage construction projects also brought with them their own ways of unwinding at the end of a workday that didn't stop at smoking shisha and drinking tea. The bar scene grew exponentially, even though alcohol can only be served in hotels, or in the private homes of non-Muslim residents who have obtained a license to buy it. Hotels have become social Switzerlands where outside rules don't always apply.

As if to indicate the threshold to this liminal space, Doha hotel lobbies are uniformly overwrought, with marble, mahogany, and hydrangea globes or calla lilies arched back and wound into glass bowls like nature's little Romanian gymnasts. Luxury is Qatar's lingua franca; the promise of it is what lures mercenary Americans and Europeans, and the aspirational desire for it is what keeps the more desperate expatriate elements streaming in. The idea for Westerners is, if you have to endure desert heat and the oddities of the Gulf, then your standard of living had better be something akin to Celine Dion's tenure in Las Vegas.

In this way, Patterson appears to have been your average young Western expat. A kindergarten teacher at a private elementary school, she would have earned a good wage, likely better than what she'd have gotten back home in Chislehurst, a suburb of London, England. Her Facebook page boasts pictures of exuberant midair jumping shots on sunny beaches and excursions to Paris. She was enjoying the fact that middle-class girls could act like rootless cosmopolitans in this odd little place.

Another young British woman who was acquainted with the social circle of men that included the two accused of killing Patterson (she has stayed over in the house where the murder took place) recalled their nights.

"Each weekend we would all go out to the club and drink the most expensive vodka or champagne and then stay in hotel suites," she wrote me in an email.

The thing about Qatar, though, is that it's not actually cosmopolitan. The trappings of the city are that of a gleaming new global capital, but centuries-old mores still govern, and double standards abound. This hit home in the Patterson case as the months dragged on. Defense attorneys for the accused tastelessly alluded that her drinking habits were troublesome and that her moral fiber was lacking, pointing to the fact that Patterson's Qatari ex-boyfriend sometimes spent nights at her apartment. The implication is that Western women are courting trouble with their nights on the town, never mind that Qatari men—so long as they aren't in traditional national dress, a long white robe known as a thobe and a ghutra headscarf—are a common sight at bars. Many Qatari women, on the other hand, find their public movements constrained to those establishments that have "family sections."

The hierarchies of race and class in Qatar are every bit as fraught as ours in America—some lives literally do matter more there.

Perhaps the most insidious insinuation surrounding the case has taken place outside the courtroom. Some in Qatar have held onto the idea that Patterson's death is an aberration—a tragedy, to be sure, but not something that usually happens in the country. In the days following her death, local messageboards buzzed. "I have been here for seven years and have not ever feared for my safety. It is a terrible thing that has happened but it is not something that happens often," one commenter wrote on the Facebook page of Qatar Living. As in America, the death and likely rape of a white woman proved to be a sensation, but violence of that sort is not a complete anomaly. Filipinas and South Asian women, for example, anecdotally experience a high incidence of sexual assault in the country—they often come to Qatar without their families and are seen as easy prey. There are no official statistics available to confirm this, but it's enough of a problem that, in 2014, the Philippines' ambassador to Qatar said he was "a little bit alarmed" about the incidence of sexual assault in the country. Abuse is so common that the Filipino embassy has a safe room for runaways and rape victims.

The hierarchies of race and class in Qatar are every bit as fraught as ours in America—some lives literally do matter more there. The "blood money" payout in the caused death of a Filipina maid or an Indian taxi driver, for example, is likely to be far less than that for a Muslim man or woman, much less a Qatari. While Qatar has few official statistics on domestic violence, a 2008 study by the Supreme Council of Family Affairs revealed that 28 percent of the married women surveyed had reported they were on the receiving end of some form of violence at home.

The question of women's violent deaths is a murkier one—the code of omertà that so often surrounds domestic violence is bolstered by a culture where the privacy of the domestic sphere is sacrosanct. Few outsiders ever actually see a Qatari home, and family business is held close to the chest.

When I first arrived in Doha in 2009, I went with friends to a standalone bar at the Ritz-Carlton called the Admiral's Club. It had just reopened after a period of being shuttered and everyone was excited to sip gin and tonics on the deck outside. Why had it been closed, I wondered. Renovations? The reason, my friend who had lived in the country for a few years told me, was that an honor killing had taken place in the parking lot—a Qatari woman whose family found out she went to bars.

I googled the incident later, but nothing came up. Rumors and whispers are a way of life in Doha, but so much goes unsaid officially, that it's hard to sort out truth from lies.

For the British expat who brushed shoulders with Patterson's social circle, the unflinching fact of her death was enough to curdle life in Doha. The woman now lives in Australia, the desert playground elements of the city having lost their allure.

"For me Qatar is a mysterious paradise that I loved to hate," she wrote. "I miss it every day, but it is not a reality."

Clare Malone is a freelance writer and an editorial staffer at the New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter.