In recent years, the Qatari government has implemented dozens of public awareness campaigns intended to educate Qatari adults and school children about healthy eating, exercise, fitness, and sports. More delicate cultural issues -- like coaxing tribal leaders to abandon familial inter-marriage -- are being addressed by "higher-ups in society," Matthis said. "Community leaders, sheikhs, people like that, are talking about those issues more and more."
The government has also implemented free and voluntary pre-marriage blood tests, which don't test for genetic links, but do warn potential spouses of genetic risks in their offspring. Most Qataris have a genetic predisposition for Type II diabetes, which increases the probability that their children will get the disease.
"Our main focus is encouraging people to be active, getting them to lead healthy lifestyles -- that's our vision," said Maher Safi, the marketing director at the Qatar Olympic Committee, the governmental entity that oversees nationwide fitness and sports programs in Qatar. In the past few years, the committee has launched public programs administering free body-mass indexes and sugar level tests, disseminated material about healthy eating, and introduced initiatives to schools to help children learn about new sports, like handball, tennis, and bicycling.
In cooperation with government-run health centers, the government of Doha has begun building parks, sidewalks, and pedestrian crossings in the city and residential neighborhoods, where at the moment it's virtually impossible to walk even between buildings without braving the sweltering, traffic-packed streets. Earlier this year, the government installed outdoor exercise equipment and automated bicycle rental kiosks on Doha's central boardwalk, which have gotten mixed reviews locally.
"You're not going to see Qatari ladies riding bikes," said Honey Stinnett, who was exercising on Doha's central boardwalk one night late September. She was raised in Malaysia, and says Qataris, most of whom follow the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, are not culturally disposed to exercising outside. Most Qatari women wear floor-length black abayas, and many veil their faces. "Do you think you could exercise in that?" Stinnett said. "It's the culture that Qatari ladies are kept inside, where they are getting fatter and fatter."
A few paces away, a crowd of teenagers and young twenty-something men took turns on the bright yellow and red exercise equipment installed by the government in January. None of them were native Qataris, but they guessed why I was there.
"Because Qataris are fat!" said Hassan Tiaz, 19, laughing. He is Pakistani, but was born and raised in Qatar. He gestured to his own round belly. "It's because in Qatar, we just sit, smoke, and eat junk food. There's not too much work. Everything you have is automatic, and most of us just sit in air-conditioned offices and cars. Everything is done for us."
Tiaz's friend, Abdullah Rashid, 20, who wore a long white thobe to work out, blamed the culture of wealth. "Qataris are spoiled rich kids. Anytime they want to go out, they just get inside their car and go to the place," he said. Most Qataris think of those who sweat outside, like gardeners or construction workers, as lower-class people who must be hired and brought in from the outside.
"Also," Tiaz said, grinning. "Qataris just love to eat."
Image: Qatar Diabetes Association.