The Richest, Fattest Nation on Earth (It's Not the United States)

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With maids, nannies, and cooks, many Qataris sit in their air-conditioned villas all day getting fatter and ignoring serious health problems

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Qatar is a tiny country with a big problem.

This Connecticut-sized nation, sticking out like a loose tooth in the Persian Gulf, is one of the most obese nations in the world, with residents fatter, on average, than even those of the United States, which often takes the cake in such competitions.

According to recent studies, roughly half of adults and a third of children in Qatar are obese, and almost 17 percent of the native population suffers from diabetes. By comparison, about a third of Americans are obese, and eight percent are diabetic. Qatar also has very high rates of birth defects and genetic disorders -- problems that, along with the prevalence of obesity (PDF) and diabetes, have worsened in recent decades, according to local and international health experts.

So what's going wrong in little Qatar?

Qatar also has very high rates of birth defects and genetic disorders -- problems that have worsened in recent decades.

To misappropriate a well-worn phrase: It's the economy, stupid. In September, Qatar officially became the richest nation in the world, as measured by per capita gross domestic product. It also recently became the world's biggest exporter of natural gas, and earned the title of fastest growing economy in the world. By international development standards, all this growth has happened virtually overnight, making Qataris' lifestyles much more unhealthy, and at the same time leading many to hang on resolutely to what's left of their fleeting tribal traditions -- practices that include inter-marriage between close family members and cousins.

"They're concentrating the gene pool, and at the same time, they're facing rapid affluence," said Sharoud Al-Jundi Matthis, the program manager at the Qatar Diabetes Association, a government funded health center in Doha, the capital. As a result of these factors, Qataris are becoming obese, passing on genetic disorders at an alarming rate, and getting diabetes much more often than others around the world. They're also getting diabetes a decade younger than the average age of onset, which is pushing up rates of related illnesses and complications, like hypertension, blindness, partial paralysis, heart disease, and loss of productivity. "It's a very, very serious problem facing the future of Qatar," Matthis said.

Over the course of two generations, most native Qataris, who number only 250,000 in a nation of 1.7 million, and enjoy the benefits of a robust welfare state, went from living modest, tribal lifestyles in the Arabian desert, to living in air-conditioned villas with maids, nannies, gardeners, and cooks. Doha has mushroomed from a mere blip of beige buildings on a scorched spit of sand in the mid '90s, to a glistening glass metropolis populated by luxury hotels, fleets of shiny new Land Rovers, and fast food joints, where the young people huddle after school, sheltered from the famous Arabian heat, with temperatures hovering above 105 from late spring to late fall.

"Everybody in Qatar knows about diabetes, but the problem is, it's talking only. No one is taking care of it," said Adel Al-Sharshani, 39, who was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago. His father and several of his friends also have diabetes. "I ignored all the advice until it was too late, and that is what other people are doing too. It's dangerous." Because like many Qataris he got diabetes as a young man, Al-Sharshani knows he faces higher risk of complications, like blindness and paralysis. "I am afraid of losing my eyes, my foot. I am afraid of losing my life," he said.

Qatar is not alone in facing serious health problems. Its neighboring energy-rich states, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which also have conservative social traditions and have developed rapidly over the last five decades, face similar challenges with inter-familial marriage. High rates of obesity, diabetes, and genetic illnesses abound in the region.

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Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist who covers Central Asia and the Middle East and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant.

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