CANDID: I consider myself lucky to have first seen and worked in an analogue world and then being part of the digital world growing around us, says the ambassador. Photo: Najeer Feroke
By Anand Holla
On a blistering sunny morning, Guido De Sanctis glances out the window of his first storey office and attempts at summarising a long story. “The first Italians came to Qatar, from what I understand, in the late Seventies. It was a limited trend.”
Having moved to Doha as the Ambassador of Italy a little over two years ago, De Sanctis himself appears to have gotten used to the place as much as he has to his office at the new, three-month-old Italian Embassy, near Qatar University.
“Those were very few units,” he shares, “Most were good architects summoned by a few Qataris to help them do something different and more international with their homes. A couple of the oldest Italians living here have been here for 35 years. This means that they created a family here and changed their lives completely.”
Unlike the trickle of Italian expats to Qatar right until the end of noughties, De Sanctis has witnessed a dramatic surge in numbers in his time at the embassy thus far. “There was a moment in history when Italians stopped emigrating and started bringing people in. But ever since the Economic Crisis started around six years ago, a lot of Italians left Italy, and the flow of Italians to Qatar is only growing,” he says.
While the figures aren’t the least bit staggering, it’s quite a phenomenon for Italy. The big wave of Italians moving to Qatar came with the spectacular rise of Qatar Airways — the flight crews are now the bulk of Italian expats here.
“Today, we have 1,500 Italians in Qatar, which I learn is one Italian per 1,600 residents. For us, that’s a lot,” De Sanctis says, chuckling, “Since we go to various hotels here, every now and then, I am pleasantly surprised to find ‘new Italians’ working at cafés or as chefs. Moreover, many top infrastructure projects are being awarded to Italian companies. Italians are also trying to get into the thick of World Cup preparations. So, this trend will only grow.”
It’s interesting to regard De Sanctis’ perspective on the Italian expat dynamics in Qatar given his well-rounded experience as a diplomat — he has served six embassies in five countries throughout his more than two decades of office.
“Half these years I spent in post-Soviet countries and half in Arab countries,” De Sanctis says, before clarifying, “Actually, when we say Arab countries, it has no real meaning. One Arab country is very different from the other.”
Having been in Libya in two different periods, De Sanctis would know. “My second posting in Libya was from 2011 to 2013. Although the decision of my posting in Qatar was made, we were forced to close our consulate in Benghazi before I came here in February 2013. That’s the time when things in Libya, after a year of great collective enthusiasm and optimism in helping rebuilding the country, didn’t look good. I felt sad. Libyans are hospitable and friendly, and I just can’t find an explanation for what’s going on there,” he says.
Born in 1961 Rome, De Sanctis discovered his love for foreign languages and cultures as he grew up learning English, and later German and Russian, too. “My parents were very encouraging. By the end of school, I realised that I had a keen interest in history and international relations,” De Sanctis recalls.
After clearing what De Sanctis assures was an extremely difficult test, when he was commissioned as a fresh diplomat to open the embassy in Kiev in 1992, his knowledge of Russian made a significant difference. “Back then, English wasn’t known in Ukraine,” he says.
“I consider myself lucky to have first seen and worked in an analog world and then being part of the digital world growing around us. Technology has obviously helped diplomacy tremendously,” De Sanctis says, “But there are some advantages of analogous thinking which I hope we will never lose.”
He returns to what Italians are famous for in Qatar, or for that matter across the Gulf — not food, well that too; but architecture. “Technology can help an architect, but the ideas are born in his mind,” he points out.
As for the architecture of the new embassy, it’s simple yet elegant and spacious. De Sanctis shares the prime reason behind the embassy checking into the new location: “About two years ago, our government opened Italian Trading Agency that is meant to assist small and medium enterprises, which are the strongest facets of our economy. Their arrival here is why we had to move our embassy to this larger space, this February.”
“We have now reached a level of representation in Qatar that allows us to do more things,” he continues, “Italy is a trusted partner of Qatar and vice versa. This makes us proud and pushes us to find new ways to present ourselves.”
De Sanctis acknowledges the arduous challenges Qatar has overcome. “What progress Qatar could achieve in such a short time is astonishing, especially while keeping the balance in society. It’s not an easy task. Sometimes, the traditional and the modern come into conflict, but Qatar has done very well,” he says.
At the perennially busy Italian embassy, an excessive amount of work gets done and one visit should be enough to ascertain that. “We have to represent a complex country of 60 million with a small-medium embassy. Sometimes you have to choose what you can do. But nevertheless you have to give answers to everybody, which is a bit stressful,” says De Sanctis, before adding, “That said, I love my job.”
Although his office receives requests from several Italian artistes — from musicians to magicians — raring to perform in Qatar, De Sanctis finds it hard to arrange. “While some manage to hold shows here through private channels, the problem is to find financial and organisational resources,” De Sanctis points out, “Since there aren’t many big Italian companies here, securing sponsorship is tough.”
Having spent most of his diplomat life with his ex-wife and two children Claudio and Tancredi, De Sanctis feels that the nature of the job makes the personal and the professional inseparable. “A diplomat’s life is interesting and exciting, but it isn’t his life alone,” De Sanctis explains, “His partner, too, has to adapt to this life as this is one job that most of all is connected with personal life.”
As a diplomat, the best privilege you can afford your family is perhaps a core sense of worldly wisdom, feels De Sanctis. “The fact that we lived together in Ukraine as we did in Libya, I think, opened my children’s minds a lot. They are now ready to swim anywhere in the world,” he says. “Also, they speak English with a British accent, not like mine,” he says, smiling, referring to his affable Italian accent.
Living out of Italy for 13 years has only made De Sanctis miss home more. “Every time I go there, I find something new. Walking in a city is what I like doing most — something that I can’t do here,” he says.
That doesn’t take away much from the wide range of activities that Mr Ambassador indulges in, here in Qatar. “I love going to the desert. If you have enough water and all the things you need, you can have a great time,” he says.
What walking denies, driving fulfils. That’s why De Sanctis likes to head out to Zikreet on weekends. “It has beautiful rocks, film city, mystery village, and of course, Richard Serra’s stunning East-West/West-East installation. Zikreet is my favourite corner of Qatar,” he says.
De Sanctis is also partial to the North-West coast. “I sometimes join my Italian friend who goes to a house at the far end of that coast over weekends and I love how completely isolated it is,” he says.
If mood permits, De Sanctis snaps a few shots with his DSLR during his weekend getaways. “I also love going to Al Zubarah, the inland sea, and old abandoned villages like Al Arish. Some off-road driving is always present after spending your week on the D-Ring,” he says, chuckling.
It’s quite impossible to talk at length to an Italian and not make a mention of Italian food. “One thing we need to remember,” De Sanctis says, “is that Italian cuisine is simple cuisine. Sometimes, we go to the wrong Italian restaurant where they will prepare food in a complex way. You can have spicy or flavourful versions based on regions or styles, but at its heart, Italian food is based on simplicity and just two or three flavours.”
And what about Qatari food? De Sanctis’ face lights up. “Eating Qatari food — in the desert, sitting down, with your hands — gives you a very familial feeling,” he says, “It feels like you are part of their family. What other feeling can be better?”
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