28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Three, the Nerd and her Iguana

In which Willard encounters a fiscally prudent herpetologist.

So, for my third date, I was theoretically back in the realms of "normal" dating. I could steer away from the completely ridiculous niche sites that I'm doing for your benefit, dear readers, and concentrate on actually trying to find someone who I might be able to fall in love with. Yeah, maybe I am being unrealistic - but that's why I'm actually doing this.

Of course, it's me, so it never ends up that way - here's the Facebook chat to a mate this particular foray out into the wastelands of the internet produced:

Don't worry, we'll get on to exactly how a reptile of the family iguanidae got involved in a date. To be fair, it was probably my own fault for going on a website called "Geek2Geek".

Now, it was my desire to meet someone I might actually have something in common with to choose this particular dating site for a "normal" date - I am pretty unashamedly a bit of geek myself. I'm also not the kind of "soft" geek who is like "oh, yeah, I saw Lord of the Rings once, you know, erm, hobbits are cool". Not the kind of person who owns two "ironic" Star Wars T-shirts. I'm the real deal. World of Warcraft account; weekly 2000AD reader; I used to blog about model soldiers, for goodness sake. I occasionally write bitter reviews of how I feel "let down" by notable sci-fi writers.

I've never been lucky enough to date a girl who did anything more than really tolerate my hobbies - indeed, my longest term girlfriend once turned round to me in bed (we were living together at the time) and said "If I asked you to choose between loving me and toy soldiers, what would you choose?" I of course, replied "If you really love me, you wouldn't ask me to choose". Which obviously meant "FUCK YOU, MODEL SOLDIERS".

Not really. If she'd asked me, I'd have very reluctantly boxed them up and sold them, but I'm honest enough to admit it would have really hurt. I'll admit to a certain jealousy of friends who have lovely wives they can sit down and play X-box with, or curl up under a duvet and watch Aliens for the 200th time. I suspect Geek2Geek may not fit everyone's definition of a normal, mainstream, dating site of the Match/Soulmates variety - or does it? My own gut feeling is this sort of person, of whatever gender, is pretty common these days. I recently discovered one of my most stunningly attractive female friends is an avid roleplayer, for example (tragically, she's not attracted to men).

So I figured I could meet someone in that bracket. Now, I wasn't looking for someone with identical likes to me, just someone who might not react with abject horror if I said "so how about we go to that Alien movie marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema". Geek2Geek's community is pretty enormous, and although it's clearly bigger in the US than the UK, there were plenty of people in and around London. Within a week of trying, I'd arranged a date.

So, after work, I popped to a local pub and sat waiting for the person I was due to meet. She was 28, worked in "digital engagement", and in her profile picture, looked lovely, smiling, and obviously enjoying the great outdoors with flowers looped into her hair. Thus, I was a little surprised when someone who looked nothing like the picture tapped me on the shoulder and said "Hello, are you Willard?" Now, I understand in this online dating game, it's common to lie on your profile, but using a flattering photo from 8-10 years ago probably does you no favours. Yes, the person may meet you, but when they meet you, their initial reaction is always going to be "you don't look like your picture".

Indeed, where she'd had the picture taken (I thought it might have been at a music festival), she talked about how much she'd "had" to photoshop it. So, yeah. Digitally manipulated photograph. At least she was definitely on the level about her computer skills... So, we got to talking, over a couple of drinks. She talked about:

  • Water Filters - she does social media for a well-known brand of water filter, so, to be fair, this was in response to "so, what do you do for a living?". But her enthusiasm for them was, erm, palpable.
  • Social Media Jargon - She did at one point say, "I really love how you've diversified your personal brand", non-ironically.
  • Pensions - She LOVED personal finance. Loved it. I learned a great deal about retirement planning, the NEST scheme, SERPS and tax relief. It's fair to say, as a freelance journalist I didn't have much to add to this, but the look on her face when I told her I didn't have a pension at all at 32 was pretty priceless. It was the sort of look people reserve for those who say things like "So I said to the doctor, psychotic episodes be damned, I'm coming off those pills!".
  • Her beloved pet Iguana, Jolyon. Now, I have nothing against exotic pets, but I just find reptiles a bit repulsive. Well, I'll be honest, totally repulsive. She had photos of it (sorry, him) curled up on her duvet, with her in the bed, which to her was super cute, but to me were like some 21st century Hieronymus Bosch nightmare vision of hellish torture.

So, after about an hour, I explained I had a really important article to write the following day, made my excuses, and left, but not before saying "We should totally do this again, as friends." Pretty sure it was mutual; neither of us walked away from that date thinking "OMG that was the ONE". Probably for the best; even writing this, the idea of being woken up by a giant lizard crawling over me is making me shiver.

Now, I'm sure there's a fiscally prudent herpetologist for her out there somewhere on Geek2Geek; it's fair to say, that is not me.  So, back into the wilderness, it seems...

This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's disastrous dates so far over the next week.

This is exactly what Willard's date looked like. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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