With reporting from Riham Sheble and Shabina S. Khatri
Local telecom provider Vodafone-Qatar has announced that it is no longer supporting an ongoing charity excursion that it initiated, after fielding harsh criticism from members of the community.
However, the Amazon adventure is expected to continue as planned.
This month, seven young Qataris – three men and four women – have been trekking their way through Brazil to arrive at a remote village and help rebuild a school there that recently burned down.
Through hunting for meals, making their own fires and shelters and climbing a mountain, the volunteers have been putting their survival skills into play for the past 11 days.
Part of the adventure involved sharing the journey through photos, videos and tweets.
But a YouTube video post last week sparked ire in the Qatari community after some of the female participants were shown not wearing abayas or headscarves.
Criticism of the mixed-gender trip, which some said violated Qatar’s conservative Islamic principles, has steadily grown since then, developing into a debate about Qatari identity amid a push for modernization.
And yesterday evening, Vodafone-Qatar’s board chairman announced that it was no longer backing the initiative. In a statement, the company said:
“This decision to completely withdraw from this project and cease all kinds of support to it reflects our Chairman H.E Sheikh Dr. Khalid Bin Thani Al Thani’s commitment to seeing Vodafone Qatar providing the best services and initiatives that are suitable to the norms and values of the Qatari culture.
We will have no responsibility of this initiative from here on in. This initiative will now be the sole responsibility of the production company overseeing the project.”
The announcement sparked a host of mixed reactions last night on social media.
Under the hashtag #فودافون_تسيء_لأهل_قطر (Vodafone insults the people of Qatar), many locals expressed support for the company’s decision:
Translation: May God bless you, Sheikh Khalid al-Thani for this decision. May God reward you for it. A brave decision from a brave man.
Translation: The majority made their opinion clear and the company responded. Isn’t this the freedom that you want? Then why are some people upset?
Others were angry about the move:
In response to questions about how the program will proceed from here, a Vodafone spokesperson told Doha News that all responsibility has been put in the hands of a local production company that is filming the journey.
The spokesperson said the company is equipped to ensure the security of the adventurers. She added, “Our full financial obligations towards this project are already met and fulfilled.”
Speaking to Doha News, the company – Mediadante – said that “Vodafone is going to pay the full financial obligation of our contract. It was never in question.”
However, because the telecom provider has withdrawn its name from the initiative and taken its website about the journey offline, it is understood that Mediadante will no longer produce a live online documentary about the adventure, as originally planned.
But the seven Qataris are continuing their trek to the village of Ararinha. In a statement to Doha News, Rosie Garthwaite, executive producer of the project and Mediadante founder, said:
“Inspired by other Qataris, who have set a philanthropic example before them, these young people are proud of the difference they hope to make to the education and therefore opportunity of the people they have met in this remote region. We look forward to seeing a joyful outcome to the project. And a successful future for these individuals and those they are working with in the jungle.”
The participants currently have limited phone connectivity and have conveyed that they do not wish to comment on Vodafone’s withdrawal of support until after finishing their task of rebuilding the school. They are due back in Doha after Aug. 28.
Online, some residents have begun to question what will happen after that:
Translation: Qatar is a democracy that guarantees personal freedom. The girls have the legal right to sue anyone who participated in defaming them.
Translation: To those applauding the decision of ending support, what exactly have you gained now? The trip is still on, but won’t be broadcasted. Was the solution that Vodafone pull out only?
Vodafone’s decision to capitulate to critics is not so unusual in Qatar, where other companies have also back-pedaled on initiatives after sparking negative reactions from the local community.
In 2012, Ooredoo (then Qtel) quietly removed a YouTube clip of a flash mob it organized at Landmark Mall that was criticized for showing some nationals and expats engaging in a sort of “dance-off.”
The same year, the talent show Arab Idol canceled auditions in Doha after criticism from the Qatari community, despite support from many residents.
More recently, local criticism was thought to play a role in the removal of the “head-butt” statue on the Corniche, which is now undergoing restoration at the Museum of Modern Arab Art (Mathaf).
However, Vodafone’s response did come as a bit of a surprise to some, as just days ago, the company showed no signs of pulling out of the excursion.
Last week, when asked for its response to ongoing criticism, the company told Doha News:
“We fully respect our local culture and the seven Qatari youths, who we refer to as Adventurers, have been selected from a number of nominations.
They have travelled to Brazil with full parental consent and they are accompanied by senior expert trainers as they volunteered to be part of this journey. These senior experts are there to give all the necessary guidance to the group and ensure their full safety. They are challenging themselves to achieve something they never thought would be possible.”