“Can I have your passport please,” the man asked me.
The bearded man in his 30s was wearing a white thowb (one-piece Arabian robe) and a white turban. Since he was not in uniform I got the impression that he was a senior airport official.
I was at the back of a long line of a group of young, athletic British men and women.
The cropped hair of the men and their body language made me suspect that they were off-duty military personnel.
We had all come on the same Qatari Airways flight from London and we were waiting to go through passport control to enter Doha.
I handed over my passport to the official and he ushered me to follow him. As I walked I noticed the eyes of the servicemen and women on me.
I was thinking that perhaps I was going to be taken into a room to be questioned. It was the late 1990s and being stopped at airports was not as common as it is now.
I followed the official to the passport control booth at the front of the line.
Before the next serviceman stepped forward to the booth, the official raised his palm as if to signal the serviceman to stop.
The official then gave my passport to the passport control clerk and asked him to stamp my passport.
The clerk obeyed this order without question and within a minute he returned my passport to me.
“Do you have any luggage?” the official asked me. I told him yes so he walked with me to the baggage collection area. He brought a trolley for me and waited for my suitcase to arrive.
OK, he is a customs guy and he wants to check my suitcase, I thought to myself.
While we were waiting for my luggage to arrive he asked me if this was my first visit to Qatar. Yes. Whether I had a comfortable flight. Yes. Whether I needed anything. No.
Whether someone was coming to pick me up at the airport. Yes. A friend. Whether I had a place to stay in Doha. Yes. He was talking to me not as an official investigating a traveller, but as a host welcoming a guest.
My suitcase came and he went to lift it from the carousel. I tried to stop him but he insisted. He lifted the suitcase onto my trolley and then we walked through customs.
Unsurprisingly, no one at customs even looked towards us, let alone stop us.
After we cleared customs, the official again asked me if I was sure that I had a ride and a place to stay. If not, he could arrange one for me.
I politely thanked him for his offer and reassured him that my friend would be waiting for me.
As I greeted the official and left to walk towards the exit, he smiled and said to me, “Welcome to Qatar.”
This story happened some 20 years ago. The official never told me his name and he didn’t give me his contact details, but he left me with a positive impression of Qatar and Qataris on my first visit to their country.
My two week stay in Qatar reinforced to me that the people of this land are good people with honorable values.
In the 20 years since this incident happened, I have told this story to people I have met in different countries around the world.
I have told it prisoners from China, Latin America, Africa and Europe.
The fact that I still remember and share it is proof in itself of the positive impact that it had on me.
Whenever anyone asks me about one of the most welcoming countries in the world that I have visited, I tell them this story.
By way of contrast, hundreds of thousands of foreigners visit Britain each year. More often that not they meet grumpy officials at the airport who are suspicious of why this “bloody foreigner” has come to Britain.
What is even stranger that the many of these grumpy officials forget that they too were bloody foreigners themselves not too long ago.
Unsurprisingly, these bloody foreigners will not be recommending Britain to their friends and family as a place to visit and spend their money. Who will lose out? Yes, you guessed, it. Ordinary Britons lose out.
In the years after 9/11 I saw an influx of undergraduate and postgraduate students arrive from the wealthy Arabian Gulf countries to study at the university in London where I used to work before I was imprisoned.
These guys lived in expensive apartments in central London and drove sports cars. They spent lots of money every week that benefited the British economy.
There was a large group of these students from one particular Gulf country. I asked one of the postgraduates where he and his friends had studied their bachelors (first) degree. He replied, “America.”
I then asked him why they had come to London to study for their PhD. Were the universities in Britain better than those in America?
“Not in a million years,” he laughed.
So why on earth did they come to Britain for their PhDs and not stay in America?
“Because of what happened to Abdul-Aziz,” he said.
Abdul-Aziz was a friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin, from their country, who was studying for his PhD in America.
Months after 9/11 and weeks before he completed his PhD, Abdul-Aziz’s home was raided and ransacked in California. He was arrested and detained in an immigration facility on suspicion of being a terrorist.
He was then deported back to his country, along with his wife and young children.
“We don’t want to happen to us what happened to Abdul-Aziz,” the student told me. “That’s why we have come here to study and have stopped going to America.”
So that one incident with Abdul-Aziz cost the US economy perhaps millions of dollars in lost income that students from one particular city in the Arabian Gulf might have spent had they studied their PhDs in America.
We only get one chance to give a first impression of ourselves and whatever or whoever we represent, whether it is our religion, race, gender, country, profession or business.
Just like a negative first impression far outlasts our own memory, a positive first impression also far outlasts our own memory.
Read some more anecdotes of experiences that foreign visitors to the UK have every day at visadreams.com, an exciting new blog launched this week by an immigration solicitor based in London whom I know very well.
Read my own story and why I blog here.
Enter your email address in the mailing list below to receive my blog posts by email.