Transforming Qatar into a Cultural Instigator


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Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is the Art World’s most powerful woman, who at 34 years old oversees the Qatar Museums Authority. Founded by her father, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, QMA was established in 2005 to connect the world to Doha and Doha to the world, all a part of transforming Qatar from a oil and gas economy to a knowledge economy. Since returning from post-grad studies at Columbia University, Sheikha Mayassa’s job is to turn the QMA into a “cultural instigator, a catalyst of arts projects worldwide.”

QMA sponsored Damien Hirst’s 2012 Tate Modern show in London (and subsequent installation in Qatar “The Miraculous Journey”), manages Al Zubarah, a historical Qatari coastal town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and runs an extravagant artist residency program for young local artists in Doha. The Royal Family also spent at least $1 billion on Western art, including $250 million for Cezanne’s “The Card Players”.

I visited the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha a few weeks ago where I shot this photo. The building itself, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is a work of art influenced by ancient Islamic architecture. It houses Islamic art created over the last 1,400 years across three continents, many pieces collected over the past 50 years by the Qatari Royal Family. It is considered to be one of the best museums in the world, and I agree, making it a point to visit whenever I have a long layover in Qatar. Sheikha Mayassa works on the top floor, and according to an Economist article on her, “she wears hardly any jewellery other than a childlike bracelet made of coloured thread with a single gold charm, a tiny Arabic coffeepot or dallah. It retails for $82 in the museum shop.”

Slaving Away Under Kafala


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“All men are tempted. There is no man that lives that can’t be broken down, provided it is the right temptation, put in the right spot.” – Henry Ward Beecher

Low-income migrant workers from South Asia and East Asia help turn Arabian Gulf States with the largest oil and gas reserves in the world into paradises full of architectural marvels, world-class airlines, and playgrounds for the rich. 

Take construction workers, for example. They go through a long and expensive recruitment process, paying recruiters nearly USD3000 to secure a job. This needs to be paid back in full before they can save money for their ageing parents or kids who need money for school. The new employers keep their passports for “safekeeping”, which the new employees cannot protest.
They live in hostels (located far away from the slick skylines) with several bunks per room and a handful of toilets to be shared with hundreds of others. Early in the morning they are shuttled by bus from the hostels to construction sites. They are promised 8-hour days and USD300 a month, but instead working 12-hour days in 50-degree heat and being paid USD150 a month. But they can’t just quit and leave, because they need to pay back the USD3000 debt. Oh, and they can’t switch employers without their current employer’s permission.
Let’s say they’re brave enough to go to their local embassy for protection. The embassy would encourage them to negotiate with the employer and will not provide legal support in employer-employee disputes. Employers often retaliate to complaints by reporting them to the authorities as absconders running away. They’re then considered “illegal” and can be detained indefinitely before they’re deported. If detained, they’ll have to wait until an embassy intervenes, or somehow work irregularly until they can pay off their debts, expired visa fees, and flight tickets back home.
This is the Kafala system, which puts an obscene amount of control in employers’ hands, turning basic human rights into a lottery, the prize being a good ‘Kafeel’ or employer. Some countries, including Qatar where this picture was taken, have claimed to abolish or reform the Kafala, but the system’s most critical issues still remain. 
I spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, where I lived in a few beautifully maintained gated communities known as compounds. I didn’t realise until much later that my family, my friends and their families, and anyone else who wasn’t Saudi lived there under the Kafala System. But we were lucky, because we were ‘expats’. Kafala’s most degrading features apply to ‘migrant workers’ – the construction workers, gardeners, drivers, housemaids, and customer service employees at restaurants and theme parks and hotels and shops – who made our tax-free lives so luxurious and enviable.
Check out to find out if you can overcome the common problems faced by migrants through their interactive infographic journey.

Knowledge is Power?

Image taken from ICIJ website.
The Paradise Papers have been flooding news cycles around the world, but I don’t think many of us really get why.
Bono uses them to funnel his wealth into investments in shopping malls while fighting for human rights and ending poverty. Lewis Hamilton uses them to save millions in import taxes on his private jet. And then you have war criminals and corrupt politicians using them. Republics and Democrats in the US have been linked to sending their money to tax havens. The companies that help set up and manage offshore activity do not discriminate between a war criminal, corrupt public official, trust fund kid or celebrity. It’s all so incredibly opaque that the only time we get a glimpse of all of this is when a whistleblower leaks information to investigative journalists.
Why is this important, besides being juicy reading?
“Assuming conservatively that global offshore financial wealth of $21 trillion earns a total return of just 3 percent a year, and would have faced an average marginal tax rate of 30 percent in the home country, the unrecorded wealth might have generated tax revenues of $189 billion per year – more than twice the $86 billion that OECD countries as a whole are now spending on all overseas development assistance.” – TIME
That’s $189 billion that could have been used to improve schools and healthcare and jobs, help reduce taxes on the people who really do need the tax cuts, and send some of this money towards research and development to tackle climate change or superbugs.
It might seem like the ultra-wealthy live by a completely different set of rules than the rest of us. They do. But by having organisations like the ICIJ and journalists like Frederik Obermaier work with the material brave whistleblowers send them (risking their lives along the way), we can become aware of these rules and use our votes and voices to pressure governments to make changes. Big changes (such as the Pakistani PM resigning thanks to the revelations that came out of the Panama Papers last year).
Sometimes, knowledge is power.

A Life Less Ordinary: Conversations with Asia’s Extraordinary Individuals

I can’t believe it, but the day has finally arrived after 9 months of planning, researching, flying, recording, producing, and editing!

‘A Life Less Ordinary’ is the podcast about Asia’s extraordinary individuals. If you listen to TED Talks, Tim Ferriss, This American Life, How I Built This, or even RuPaul’s podcast, I think you’ll really enjoy this one!

My co-host Tanya Warnakulasuriya and I went to Sri Lanka to record the first nine episodes of the podcast in June, and for the next couple of months you’ll get to hear our conversations with some of the most interesting and adventurous souls on the island. We talk about climbing Everest, living with HIV, writing novels, building companies, challenging the patriarchy, and so much more…

Enjoy the first episode, and please leave a review on iTunes so that we have a sliver of a chance of getting “featured” on their “new and noteworthy” podcast list!

My Grandmother Seela De Silva: Rebel, Adventurer, Feminist

This is my visual tribute to Archchi ?
This is my visual tribute to Archchi ?

My Grandmother’s children scattered her ashes from a boat on Kalutara River in #SriLanka yesterday afternoon. The grand Kalutara Temple Stupa sits in the background.

My grandmother Seela De Silva had so many wonderful dimensions but to me she was a rebel, adventurer, feminist, and artist. She was one of the only female car drivers in her town when my dad and his siblings were young kids, was the first in our family and her entire village to fly abroad in 1960 on a Boeing 747 to Canada on a scholarship to study nursing, could freestyle beautiful Sinhala poetry, “kavi”, and never wore makeup because she was comfortable and confident in her own natural beauty. She raised 5 kids while building and running orphanages, hospitals, homes for crippled children and nursing schools all over Sri Lanka.

My personal favourite story of hers? She was kicked out of school as an early teen for making political speeches. Her dad was not upset, and she asked to move to an English-medium school instead. That changed the trajectory of the next two generations of our family, now scattered across 4 continents consisting of lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists and CEOs.

Her ultimate dream was world peace, and today I’ve got cousins who are Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim. She taught us to be humble, love unconditionally, to question the status quo, and develop our spiritual side.


Time to Begin, Again.



Comfort is the first symptom, followed by restlessness, frustration, despondence and if you refuse to acknowledge the swell of symptoms, an indifference swallows you like a falsely soothing wave of post-op morphine.

At least that’s what happens to me if I ignore the telltale signs it’s time to move on to the next adventure, chapter, era of my life. Thankfully push rarely comes to shove, and I peer through the blinds of my wonderful, comfortable day to day before the despondency kicks in. And I remember, “the reason I’m so comfortable in the first place is because I took a leap to create a major change in my life, against all reason and advice of friends and family. It’s time to move on to the next thing.” And I jump.

It’s time to begin, again.