Complaints about local banks ‘shortchanging’ their Qatari Riyals    By Sandun Jayawardana Fowzil Ameer (40) is excited to be home and reunited with his wife and three children after his return from Qatar. He is eager to make the most of his two-and-a-half month vacation from his job and spend quality time with his family [...]


It’s business as usual in Qatar, say Lankan returnees


Complaints about local banks ‘shortchanging’ their Qatari Riyals   

By Sandun Jayawardana

Returnees from Qatar: People are continuing with their routine lives

Fowzil Ameer (40) is excited to be home and reunited with his wife and three children after his return from Qatar. He is eager to make the most of his two-and-a-half month vacation from his job and spend quality time with his family during the final weeks of Ramadan. However, he is unfazed by the prospect of returning to Qatar, even if the current diplomatic crisis engulfing the country drags on for months.

“It really isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be,” he insisted, when he spoke to the Sunday Times at the airport on Thursday (15) morning. Mr. Ameer, who is a driver in Qatar, was among a number of Sri Lankan workers who returned from Doha. According to the returnees, the flight takes slightly longer to reach Colombo than normal, as Arab countries which broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, have closed their airspace to Qatari flights, forcing pilots to re-route through Iran.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt cut ties with the country on June 5, claiming Qatar supports ‘terrorist’ groups, a charge which it strongly denies. The move precipitated what is regarded as the biggest diplomatic crisis to hit the Gulf in years, now in its third week.

People we spoke to stressed that, despite the closure of airspace and KSA closing its sole land border with Qatar, ordinary people, including foreign workers, were still largely unaffected.

Mr. Ameer said he joined many of his fellow Sri Lankan Muslims for an Iftar event, a few days before flying back, and there was no sense of panic among those present.

“There is no shortage of food or water. Life continues as usual,” he said, opining that a blockade imposed by several of Qatar’s neighbours, was not having a major effect thus far.

“I live near the Sri Lanka Embassy in Qatar and they have told us to come to them at anytime, should the need arise. I feel quite safe.”

Mr. Ameer said he definitely intends to return to his job, once his vacation is over.

He, however, expressed frustration that he could not exchange most of his Qatari Riyals. “They were only accepting 250 Riyals,” he said. Another surprise for him was that the value of the currency had fallen considerably. “When I checked with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) earlier, the rate was just over Rs 41 but, at the airport, they are exchanging at Rs 34.”
He said, rather than exchange the rest of his money for a lower rate, he would take it back to Qatar.

Fowzil Ameer

The issue faced by Mr. Ameer is a problem for any Sri Lankan worker coming from Qatar, who wants to exchange Qatari Riyals. Many banks continue to, either impose strict limits on the amount of Qatari Riyals they are exchanging or, are refusing outright to accept them. This is despite the CBSL denying reports last week that it had told banks not to accept Qatari Riyals. Money exchange agencies are also refusing to accept Qatari Riyals.

Ranush Chamalka (21) from Galle, returned at the end of his contract as an A/C Technician, and observed, while there was were no major shortages, prices of certain goods such as rice and vegetables had risen in Qatar since the blockade was imposed. “We can still afford them, though a bit more expensive.”
Mr Chamalka said he lived in a large camp with many foreign workers including Sri Lankans. “They all continue to go about their jobs as usual,” he said.

For Ali Majid (42) from Kantale, the confusion surrounding the Qatari Riyals had come as a surprise. “I wasn’t aware of that,” he admitted when asked. He had only exchanged a small amount of Qatari Riyals at the airport, with the intention of exchanging them later at bank branches or, at a money changer. Mr Majid, who is employed as a driver, was unsure if he can get the rest of his savings exchanged.

Jahir Mohammad

Jahir Mohammad (29) from Batticaloa said, given the situation regarding the currency, he opted not to exchange his money, but route it to a bank account in Sri Lanka prior to leaving. He too said prices of goods had gone up slightly.

“The blockade was having some impact on Qataris, as countries imposing the blockade have barred them from entering their countries and expelled Qataris, but foreign workers haven’t been imposed such restrictions,” he told us.

Mr Mohammad works as an IT Technician and said he has no second thoughts about returning to Qatar in 20 days, at the end of his vacation.

Having worked as a driver in Qatar for two years now, A.M. Vannan (31) from Trincomalee said, he too was going back after one month. Mr Vannan was about to leave for home with gifts for his two children, when the Sunday Times spoke to him. While the value of the Qatari Riyals has gone down since the crisis began, Mr Vannan expressed hope it would be resolved soon and the rate would appreciate.

The Sunday Times also contacted Ishan Madhushanka (25) from Galle, who is still in Qatar. Mr Madhushanka, who is a Heating, Ventilation & Air-Conditioning (HVAC) Supervisor said, day-to-day lives of Sri Lankans or others in Qatar had not been affected. “Prices of a few items such as vegetables have increased a little, while there were no goods from KSA, such as dairy products, in the markets. But these have been replaced by products mainly from Turkey and Iran,” he revealed.

Mr Madhushanka said there were also reports of a shortage of construction material.

Nevertheless, he said it seemed the country was actually more united and strengthened by the crisis.

Mr Madhushanka too expressed anger over restrictions imposed by local banks regarding Qatari Riyals. Nevertheless, he said the move was only affecting those who were bringing Qatari Riyals to Sri Lanka. “I think, when we deposit from Qatar, to an account in Sri Lanka, it works as normal.”

Returnees expressed frustration that they could not exchange most of their Qatari Riyals. Pix by Amila Gamage

According to Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Qatar, A.S.P. Liyanage, people in Sri Lanka are becoming more worried about their loved ones in Qatar, due to negative media coverage. “TV channels in the country still keep showing images of empty supermarket shelves from the first days of the crisis, so you can’t really blame people for panicking,” he told the Sunday Times. Mr Liyanage insisted there were no food shortages as food is coming through other countries.

He also dismissed concerns expressed by some that workers may end up not being paid on time or, not paid at all, if the crisis drags on. “This country has strict laws. You can’t escape by not paying people,” he claimed.

He expressed confidence that the issue between Qatar and other Gulf States will be settled soon, but added, the Govt was also prepared to take necessary measures to ensure the safety of Sri Lankans, should the crisis escalate. These include processing emergency travel documents and organising charter flights to evacuate Sri Lankans, he revealed.

A.M. Vannan

Ranush Chamalka

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