How I escaped my Qatari nightmare

November 15, 2011, 9:20 PM UTC
Fortune



On October 10 Nasser Beydoun, 47, was permitted to leave Qatar, where he had been detained for almost two years following a dispute with business partners. Beydoun, a prominent Arab-American businessman from Dearborn, Michigan in 2007 accepted an assignment from a Qatari group to open a chain of restaurants across the Middle East. The venture collapsed amid economic turmoil following the global financial crisis. The U.S. State Department and Michigan politicians had sought permission for his exit from the country after his Qatari partners made criminal accusations and filed a civil suit against him. He spoke to Fortune’s Doron Levin on November 11 from Dearborn, Michigan.

Q: With the benefit of hindsight, what precautions do you wish you had taken before accepting the assignment from Wataniya Restaurants to open eating establishments across the Middle East?
A: The first thing I should have done was study the local labor laws to understand the legal system before accepting any overseas assignment or signing a contract. I would have made sure my contract contained an arbitration clause that could have been exercised outside the country to settle any dispute. I should have done a lot more research on the persons who were to be my partners and the sponsors of my activities inside the country.

Q: Is there a larger lesson for American business executives intending to do business in Qatar or, perhaps, anywhere in the Persian Gulf?
A: The sponsorship system used across the Persian Gulf, which gives the local sponsor almost total control over the foreign worker, is morally and ethically wrong. It puts the foreign worker, when the system is abused, in the position of a modern-day slave.

Q: Why did the Qatari government insist on holding you so long, in your opinion, when, as you have said, there was so little hard evidence of any wrongdoing and lots of evidence that you had comported yourself honestly and ethically?
A: It wasn’t the government, it was a minister that abused his power and used the system to hold me. The Qatari legal system eventually worked in my favor.

Q: You have been prominent in Arab-American organizations that promote stronger business ties between the U.S. and the Middle East. Given your experience, how have your views changed, if at all? Are you going to remain active and, if so, what might your new focus be?
A: I will remain active. My views have changed. In the past we used to tolerate corrupt governments in the Middle East that denied their citizens and foreign workers basic human and legal rights. Henceforth, we should be at the forefront of advancing freedom and democracy in the Arab Middle East, and support movements that are sweeping corruption and tyranny away.

Q: As a U.S. citizen and Arab American, what are your views about U.S.’s foreign policy and defense initiatives in the Middle East?
A: Our defense posture in the Middle East has historically been to protect dictators and regimes that advanced American interests and to neglect local populations. Democracy was something that we preached to our foes but turned a blind eye on to our friends. In the end we paid for it because the U.S. now has very little moral standing in the region.

Q: Do you see yourself with any recourse to Qatar’s actions in holding you without charges for almost two years?
A: I will leave no stone unturned in making sure that my experience gains broad awareness and therefore serves as a warning to anyone who might find themselves in the position I was in. I am exploring legal recourse and hope it someday can serve as a precedent to anyone who would deprive people of their rights in the Persian Gulf.