The developed world is getting fatter, but Western Hemisphere countries are facing a serious challenger when it comes to their status as global pound-packing champions.
Sporting a GDP of $181.7 billion and a population of close to two million, Qatar, in terms of per capita income*, is the richest nation in the world. It also has the third-largest reserves of natural gas. However, with its booming economy and privileged lifestyle, Qatar is also becoming the world’s fattest country.
According to Qatar’s 2011-2016 National Health Strategy, 71 percent of Qataris, including the country’s expatriate population, are overweight and 32 percent are obese or morbidly obese. The country also has the highest rate of obesity among boys in the Middle East and North African region. The United States, in comparison, has one third of its adult population classified as obese, while an additional 17 percent of American children fit that description.
“We’re talking serious obesity,” said Dr. Justin Grantham, a specialist at a Qatari orthopedic and sports medicine hospital in a New York Times article. “The long-term health consequences will be significant.”
As the numbers rise, other serious health issues are not too far behind, with nearly 20 percent of the Qatari population suffering from diabetes as well, compared to a national rate of about eight percent in the U.S. Qatar also ranks fifth globally in terms of the percentage of people aged 20 to 79 with diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
Dealing with traditions
Traditional Qatari practices – such as marrying between family members and cousins – which have been maintained to protect cultural identity are giving rise not only to birth defects and genetic disorders, but also passing the obesity or diabetes gene from one generation to the next.
The Atlantic’s Haley Sweetland Edwards writes that those Qataris not born with diabetes are getting the disease a decade earlier than the average age of onset resulting in an increase in related illnesses and complications from hypertension to heart disease.
She also points out that Qatar’s energy-rich neighbors are no strangers to serious health issues.
In the United Arab Emirates, 18 percent of its native population is obese, compared to 8 percent of its expatriates. Forty-five percent of Emirati boys are obese or overweight. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain also experience high rates of obesity and diabetes.
Lack of ‘natural’ exercise
In scorching hot and humid temperatures of up to 40 degree Celsius, regular ‘natural’ exercise such as walking is not a favorite pastime with Qataris embracing an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. In recent years, fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut have also become increasingly prevalent, especially in the country’s popular air-conditioned malls.
The New York Times’ Michael Slackman writes that Qatari traditions and eating habits also contribute to this epidemic.
“People here said that all of their social occasions were defined by eating. Traditional meals usually include rice, clarified butter and lamb. Because people often share large community platters, there is almost no way to keep track of portion size,” writes Slackman.
He also interviewed local Qataris who say the typical Qatari student usually skips breakfast, has lunch at school, a second heavy lunch at home often followed by cake and tea, and ends the day with fast food at night.
Addressing a national epidemic
Qataris do, however, recognize the problem and are trying to address it head-on through initiatives encouraging exercise and healthy eating.
The Qatar Diabetes Association, for instance, hosts Al Bawasil Camp to offer special services and support to children with diabetes from Qatar and the MENA region.
A group of Northwestern University in Qatar journalism students also aims to tackle the rising obesity and diabetes rates in Qatar through awareness and prevention.
The Qatari government, too, has taken on various initiatives to “tip the scale” toward lower numbers.
Going under the knife
Increasingly popular among Qataris, however, is yet another approach to curb the epidemic – going under the knife is seen by many as a quick solution.
Gulf News’ Habib Toumi writes that Hamad Medical Corporation in Qatar has started performing weight loss surgery even on teenagers aged 14-18 and might extend services to children as young as eight.
A sleeve gastrectomy, a procedure that reduces the size of the stomach, was done at HMC on a 16-year old weighing 200 kg.
At the same time, the Qatar Olympic Committee has launched various school initiatives to encourage sports education and participation.
“Sports is a part of Qatar’s 2030 national vision, a vision to promote interactivity and understanding through action and education that will lead to a better life, better health and better well-being,” said Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Secretary General of the Qatar Olympic Committee in a speech earlier this year.
With many thriving economies, the obesity epidemic is quickly spreading through the MENA region, but government health and sports initiatives may be able to put just a dent into the effort of dealing with the problem of ever expanding waistlines as a whole.
In a New York Times article, Qataris were quoted saying it is an insult to turn down food when visiting friends and relatives. Another obstacle seems to be perception. As one Qatari remarked, “for the majority, it is really quite normal to be obese.”
*the original version of the story failed to indicate “per capita”
Hyacinth Mascarenhas is a junior reporter and intern at VOA. She is a rising senior at the George Washington University majoring in Journalism with a concentration on digital media, fine art and art history. Having grown up in Kuwait, she works with the Middle East Voices team on audience engagement and outreach initiatives through social media.