Before the discovery of oil in 1940, the economy of Qatar was almost entirely dependent on fishing and pearl hunting. The discovery of oil completely transformed the nation’s economy. Qatar is now a high-income economy with the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves and a per capita GDP of $124,927. It is one of the world’s leading exporters of liquefied natural gas and oil. In 2017 Qatar became the world’s richest nation, surpassing Luxembourg, Singapore and US. With the massive flow of surpluses from oil and natural gas exports, the Qatari government has made heavy investments in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific.
The United Nations Development Programme ranks Qatar as the most advanced state in the Arab region in respect of human development. The literacy rate is 97% for men and 96% for women, highest in the Arab region.
The present population of Qatar is 2.6 million. Of this, 313,000 are native Qataris and 2.3 million are expatriates. Migrant workers constitute 86% of the population and 94% of the workforce. There is no income tax and the unemployment rate is a negligible 0.1%.
Affluence has brought about a radical change in people’s lifestyle and food habits within the span of two generations. The simple and hardy tribal lifestyle that characterised the Qatar society about half a century ago has given way to a sedentary and opulent lifestyle. Most Qataris live in airconditioned villas or large apartments, do little or no exercise, travel in luxury cars, love fast food and are served by an army of servants. This lifestyle has brought about adverse consequences for people’s health.
In 1980 Qatar was the fourth most obese nation in the world. Now it has been named as the world’s fattest nation. More than 70% of the population is overweight and nearly half is obese, twice the global average. Nearly 17% of the population suffer from diabetes.
According to the Qatar Biobank report for 2016, more than 45% of the population regularly consume fast food more than three times a week. The report found that 83% of the population do little or no physical exercise. About 39% of men and 4% of women smoke. 86% of the population suffer from vitamin D deficiency.
An inevitable result of a high-cholesterol diet, processed and junk food, smoking, drinking and lack of physical activity is obesity. There is a positive correlation between the consumption of fast food, such as burgers, chips and colas, and various kinds of illnesses. Obesity has major adverse effects on health. Morbidly obese individuals have as much as a twelve-fold increase in mortality. Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes, and nearly 80 percent of patients with Type-2 diabetes are obese. In the U.S., an estimated 65 million adults are overweight or obese, leading to 300,000 deaths annually and more than $ 100 million in annual health costs. Obesity has a positive bearing on reproductive disorders, pulmonary disease, joint and connectivity tissue disorders, asthma and allergies, and menstrual abnormalities. It is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease (including coronary heart disease, strokes and congestive heart failure) and cancer in men and women. In the US, over 30 per cent of children are overweight and tens of thousands of them are suffering from diseases related to obesity, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and acid reflex.
Qataris are developing diabetes at a much younger age than the global average. Rates of illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, diseases of joints and partial paralysis, which are closely related to obesity, have gone up dramatically during the past few years.
Another factor that contributes to the escalation in morbidity in Qatar is the age-old custom of consanguineous marriage. Cross cousin and parallel cousin marriages have given rise to birth defects and genetic disorders.
Marriage with close biological relatives over several generations has adverse health consequences, including albinism, increased levels of morbidity and mortality, high infant mortality, enzyme deficiency, haemophilia, high infant mortality, physical deformities and greater risks of hereditary diseases like thalassemia and certain types of cardiac diseases. One in 1,400 people in Tanzania are affected by albinism, compared with one in 20,000 in Western countries. The unusually high rate of albinism in Tanzania is thought to be linked to inbreeding. One Japanese city had an under-8 year child mortality rate of 116 per 1,000 among the offspring of first cousins, compared to 55 in the rest of the population. Saudi Arabia, where the custom of marriage between cousins is widespread, has a high incidence of hereditary diseases such as thalassemia, Type 2 diabetes (which affects some 32 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s adult population) and sickle-cell anemia. Dr Muhsin al-Hazmy, head of the Cooperative Centre of World Health Organization, says that 20 percent people in Saudi Arabia are suffering from hereditary diseases which are linked to consanguineous marriages.
It is reported that British Pakistanis are 13 times more likely to have children with genetic disorders than the general population. British Pakistanis account for 3.4% of all births in the country but have 30% of all children in Britain with recessive disorders. The high incidence of genetic disorders among British Pakistanis is attributed to the widely prevalent practice of cousin marriages. About 55% of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins. In the general population, the likelihood of a couple having recessive genes --which cause recessive genetic disorders -- is one in a hundred. In cousin marriages, the likelihood is one in eight. One in ten of all children born to first-cousin marriages in Birmingham’s large Pakistani community either dies in infancy or goes on to suffer serious disability as a result of recessive genetic disorders.
Faced with morbid obesity, a growing number of Qataris are now opting for bariatric surgery for weight loss. Qatar ranks third or fourth internationally for the number of bariatric surgeries carried out in a year.
The Qatari government has launched a campaign aimed at educating and urging people to switch over to a healthy diet and lifestyle. In view of the alarming rise in the rates of diabetes in the country, the government has decided to screen every adult Qatari for diabetes. School children are being encouraged to participate in sports such as handball, tennis and cycling.
While Islam allows the enjoyment of God’s bounties, which have been created for the benefit of mankind, it emphasizes moderation and discourages wasteful consumption (Quran 7:31-32). The Prophet used to pray: “O Allah! Give subsistence to the family of Muhammad which just suffices its needs.” He is reported to have said that two persons’ food actually suffices for three and three persons’ food suffices for four. He advised people to leave the table before one is fully satiated. He is reported to have said: “A believer eats in one intestine while an unbeliever eats in seven intestines.” Once, someone belched with a loud sound in the presence of the Prophet. The Prophet expressed his displeasure and told him: “Keep your belch under check, for the most hungry person on the Day of Judgement will be the one whose stomach is filled with food in this world.”
Caliph Umar is reported to have said: “Refrain from filling your stomachs, for the food (that is over-eaten) is a burden in this world and a foul-smelling thing after death.” Imam Shafi’i is reported to have said: “One who desires God’s mercy and learning should seek solitude, eat less and avoid the company of fools and of scholars who are devoid of a sense of justice and etiquette.” In the Sufi tradition, the most effective means of taming and gaining control over one’s base self (nafs) is reduced eating and fasting. The Sufis prescribe three “reductions” for the purpose of cleansing one’s heart and mind of undesirable qualities: reduced food, reduced sleep and reduced conversation. The eminent Sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi asks: Could the reedflute sing if its stomach were filled? Annemarie Schimmel, in her celebrated work Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975), has remarked that “it would be worth investigating to what extent this restriction to extremely small quantities of food contributed to the longevity of the Sufis. It is astonishing how many of them lived to be so old” (p. 116). Several studies on the dynamics of longevity have identified calorie reduction as one of the key factors in extending the lifespan.
Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) made a notable contribution to social epidemiology by classifying diseases in respect of their distribution in urban and desert-dwelling, nomadic populations. He also suggested links between the urban lifestyle, especially a rich diet, and disease. To quote him:
(The Muqaddimah, translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton University Press. Vol. III, pp. 376-77)
The inhabitants of cities lack exercise….Exercise has no part in their (life) and has no influence upon them. Thus, the incidence of illness is great in towns and cities, and the inhabitants’ need for medicines is correspondingly great. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the desert, as a rule, eat little. Hunger prevails among them, because they have little grain. (Hunger) eventually becomes a custom of theirs…..The preparation of food boiled with spices and fruits is caused by the luxury of sedentary culture with which they have nothing to do…..Too, they take exercise, and there is a lot of movement when they race horses, or go hunting, or search for things they need, or occupy themselves with their needs. For all these reasons, their digestion is very good….As a result their need for medicine is small. Therefore, physicians are nowhere to be found in the desert.